New Year's predictions, 2008 edition

5 minute read

It's that time of year again -- the time when those boring ``Year in Review'' magazines are on newsstands, and when pundits make fools of themselves predicting what will happen in the next year.

Well, I'm not too proud to join the fools, as I've shown the last two years. In 2006, I got five predictions right out of ten. Not bad for my first outing, but you'll see that last year's predictions fared even better:

  • 10. Sahelanthropus postcrania will be published. I'm frankly shocked that this didn't happen. I don't doubt the rumors, but I'm starting to wonder whether this story is more interesting than it looks....
  • 9. Two words: Holocene evolution. OK, this was a little unfair, considering that my work was an important part of making this prediction come true. Still, Discover made ``recent human evolution'' one of its top 100 science stories of the year, even before our December paper came out -- mainly on the strength of the paper by Scott Williamson and colleagues from earlier this year. And "Human genetic variation" was Science's "Breakthrough of the Year" -- most of that variation representing recent evolution.
  • 8. Despite (or because of) the success of the Neandertal genome project, there will be no genetics of any kind published on early modern skeletal material. Puzzling, isn't it? But then, considering the trouble with Neandertal contamination reported in August, maybe we're better off leaving the early Upper Paleolithic alone for a while.
  • 7. The mitochondrial history of human dispersals will become more and more detailed, but no paper will test against other loci. D'oh! Reading this one a year later, it's pretty obvious that I should have included Y chromosome in this one, since those two get compared all the time! Proofread, Hawks!
  • 6. Another (yes, another) paper about the chimpanzee-human divergence will peg it between 5 and 7 million years ago. Will they never tire of these? Hobolth et al. (2007, PLoS Genet 3:e7) pegged the divergence at 4.1 million years. That's too recent to fit my prediction. Instead, I have to turn to Ebersberger et al. (2007, Mol Biol Evol 24:2276), who placed the divergence at 5.7 million years ago. Both estimates are too recent for Sahelanthropus, which the geneticists have started to figure out....
  • 5. Three papers with new Ethiopian fossils. The last few years, one annual Ethiopian find seemed to be predictable enough. So I figured, why not three? We got a not-nearly-noted-enough paper this summer by Gen Suwa and colleagues descringing the Konso Homo erectus remains. Then, Suwa brought us Chororapithecus -- hey, I didn't say "hominid!" That's two. But despite the long-ago announcement of the Woranso-Mille skeleton, its appearance in a meetings abstract and a mid-summer press release about further Mille fossils, all we got from the peer review system is a lousy faunal list. Well, the faunal list does include the hominids. Should it count as a "paper with new Ethiopian fossils?" I'll say yes -- hey, unlike Aramis, at least the Mille fossils are new!
  • 4. Another early Upper Paleolithic specimen will emerge from a museum collection. The only bizarre thing about this one was the location: South Africa. Hoffmeyr may not be that convincing as a European early Upper Paleolithic skull, but it was sure sold that way. Weird.
  • 3. A big year for Miocene apes, which will look increasingly important in the story of human brain evolution. No brains, but it sure was a big year for Miocene apes, with two significant East African discoveries claiming to push back the timeline of African ape divergence.
  • 2. Maturation rate in early Homo becomes a dead issue, because of the variation in dental and skeletal maturation in living people. Wishful thinking. Still, did Tanya Smith (2007) breathe new life into perikymata? Let's just say that unresolved questions remain.
  • 1. The year will end without a single new hominid species having been named. This one was like dodging a bullet, since new species riffle out of paleoanthropologists' minds all the time. From 2001 to 2006, there were six (six!). In 2007, none.
  • BONUS: A dramatic development in the problem of pre-2.0-million-year-old Homo. Rats.

OK, that's seven out of ten. It's beyond belief that I did better in the top five than the bottom five -- I picked those because they were far out there. I mean, really -- a new Upper Paleolithic specimen from a museum collection? After Muierii, that's like calling lightning to strike twice. But there it is, and in January, no less.

I'm clearly going to have to pick stranger predictions this year. And I'll have to be careful about that "dramatic development" line -- I mean, it's appropriately Delphic, but what is it supposed to mean, really? I wonder whether "operatic development" might be better.

And do I dare call down my non-lightning strike for a third year? It's ruining my percentage! It's starting to reek of desperation -- I mean, it starts to look like the stopped watch effect even if it happens.

Oh, well. I mean, those are just the risks of predictions, right? Suppose in the preseason I had picked Kansas to win the Orange Bowl!

  • 10. A dramatic development in the Sahelanthropus story.
  • 9. Both major-party candidates for the 2008 U.S. Presidential election will accept evolution.
  • 8. This year's featured piece of anatomy: the femur.
  • 7. No new hobbits, at least, not from Flores.
  • 6. An incisive example of introgression in East Asia.
  • 5. A viral insertion in the human genome will tell us about a disease of the australopithecines.
  • 4. Another language gene joins FoxP2. No word on whether Neandertals have the human version.
  • 3. Homo habilis: an endangered species?
  • 2. This year, something new from three A's: A. afarensis. A. africanus. Atapuerca.
  • 1. Oh, and one more A. Ardipithecus.
  • BONUS: A big, big year for Neandertals. I mean, besides the election.

There you have it. I'm not sure which of these is the riskiest, but I'm sure they're more out on a limb than last year!