A guide to fantasy science

5 minute read

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Mike Morwood's new book, The Discovery of the Hobbit, and I'll be posting a review when I'm through. Generally, I have a positive opinion of the book so far.

Henry Gee has reviewed the book in this week's issue of Nature. I wanted to point out my generally positive attitude about the book, so that you'll know that my miserable opinion of Gee's review has little to do with the book's merits.

Consider how Gee starts his review:

The unicorn, wrote Jorge Luis Borges (in Kafka and His Precursors), is universally regarded as a supernatural being of good omen. But there's a problem: despite its folkloric familiarity, we wouldn't know how to recognize a unicorn if we met one in real life. It "does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification," Borges continues. "It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was."

Is Gee smoking crack? What kind of blather is this?

First of all, I know I'm being terribly literal, but a unicorn is a horse with a horn. One horn. Not so hard to recognize! Maybe my 3-year-old daughters could help edit at Nature.

Let's see, where have I seen one of those that Gee might recognize? Oh, yeah:

UK Pound coins with unicorn prominently visible

Photo credit: Simon Stratford (via stock.xchng)

There it is, sound as a pound.

Next, Gee spends several paragraphs expositing on his own role in the publication of the Homo floresiensis announcement. We learn some interesting little facts, like how the authors wanted to name the species "Sundanthropus floresianus" until a reviewer pointed out that future students would confuse the name with a flowery butt.

I kid you not. Nature has a layer of reviewers to take tushie references out of taxonomy. Somehow they can't tell a left femur from a right, but they're on the watch for sphincter-species!

The review is entirely self-serving -- there are only three paragraphs that include any reference to the book! In the midst of this babbling about unicorns and hobbits, Gee tells us that skepticism at new hominid discoveries should be dismissed as the predictable result of "mindsets" of the skeptics:

Such reaction is common in the wake of new hominid discoveries, which are routinely dismissed either as pathological humans (Homo neanderthalensis) or apes (Australopithecus africanus and Sahelanthropus tchadensis). Such reactions say less about the facts than the mindsets of commentators, who might be unwilling to have their comfortable views of the world so forcibly changed. Confronted with what might be a genuine unicorn, many would prefer to see a pantomime horse with a spike glued to its head.

Ooooh! Since I'm one who has been notably skeptical of Sahelanthropus and have approached H. floresiensis skeptically, I'm obviously a prime target for this paragraph. It is so comfortable to stay in my view of the world where hominids interbreed with each other. Clearly, a bestiary that includes small-brained island bipeds must shake me out of my comfort zone.

How could I have been so wrong! When every species ever proposed has faced the same resistance? Sure, Tim White says that Kenyanthropus is a glued-together matrix-filled A. afarensis, but that's just his mindset. Or how about Eoanthropus? Sure, Franz Weidenreich thought that it was just a concoction by "English authors," but couldn't he tell that it was more than just a pantomime skull with an orangutan jaw? Why couldn't I see that these petty minds were just holding back the important work of taxonomy!

No, no, no. You see, if we approach things skeptically, we won't dare to dream about the unicorns:

The unicorn remains as it always did, frustratingly elusive. This year, the researchers will return to Liang Bua to see if they can discover more. But stories such as this demand a mythological beast altogether less serene. It is as if the researchers had set out to discover some new form of fossil mouse, only to find that they had grabbed a dragon by the tail instead. And as any devotee of Harry Potter will remind you: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

The theme of the review is perhaps to be expected from Gee, otherwise known as the author of The Science of Middle-Earth. But I find his mixture of fantasy and science to be especially malaprop in the context of the Flores fossils, since with every fantasy word he detracts from the credibility of the journal's review process!

Some of you will have seen the episode of The Simpsons, titled "Lisa the Skeptic," where Lisa excavates an "angel" from the ground. Here's part of the synopsis from Wikipedia:

As Homer attempts to get a motor boat, a new shopping mall in Springfield is being built on an area where a large number of fossils were found. Lisa condemns and protests the building of the mall. Thanks to her protest, it prompts the school to conduct an archaeological dig. When Lisa is digging, it reveals a human skeleton with wings. Springfield's residents are convinced it is an angel, and Homer cashes in by moving the skeleton into the family's garage; however, Lisa is skeptical, believing it may not actually be an angel, and even has Stephen Jay Gould test a sample of the skeleton. The next day, Dr Gould runs to the Simpson house and said the tests came out inconclusive and after Lisa on television compares belief in angels to belief in unicorns and leprechauns, Springfield's religious zealots riot and destroy all of the scientific institutions.

Later, we find out that the "angel" is a publicity stunt for the new mall; Guest voice Gould confesses that he never really performed any tests on the "angel". This is one of my favorite episodes: it's a rare one where Lisa's preachy skepticism is entirely justified, and the "expert" doesn't care enough to do anything at all.

Now I know, that the episode was missing a scientific editor to encourage Lisa to forget about her doubts, and just to accept the "angel" for what it is. After all, every new discovery has its skeptics.

Well, there is a lesson to take away from all the unicorn talk. If you are in Cardiff and find the skeleton of a giant, be sure to send your report to Nature, where you'll find a receptive editor. Despite what they may say, there's not one of those born every minute.

UPDATE (4/26/2007): A reader e-mails, "Remember that Borges was blind." True. Perhaps we can extend this analogy further?

Another reader: "Well, at least we can expect a fair set of reviews on the Sahelanthropus postcrania...D'oh!"


Gee H. 2007. In a hole in the ground.... Nature 446:979-980. doi:10.1038/446979a