Flores interviews on NOVA scienceNOW

11 minute read

I hadn't run across it before, but PBS ran a segment on the Liang Bua fossils in April. There is a webpage where you can watch the TV segment. You can also "compare the brains" (warning: requires QuickTime).

Whose opinion do we want?

The PBS site has a question-and-answer session between viewers who submitted questions and Bert Roberts, one of the discovery team. The segment also has clips of interviews with Ralph Holloway and Teuku Jacob, for which PBS does not provide full text. </p>

And, guess who else they brought in to talk about the discovery?

Jared Diamond.

Now, if you're a regular reader you may think I'm a Diamond-hater, but it's not true. I really like Jared Diamond. I used to think he was the best science writer, and this was back when I got Discover as a kid. So I grew up with Jared Diamond. It's just lately -- when he started writing about social anthropology and archaeology -- that I started having some doubts (here, here, and here).

Consider this quote from the transcript of the scienceNOW segment:

JARED DIAMOND: My bet is we did not have sex with them. And here's my reasoning. I would have predicted that they would have been really nasty, just like any humans would be really nasty.


I honestly don't know what to make of that. From the context, it would appear that Diamond actually thinks they would have been hostile toward each other, but even that doesn't make any sense in the context of human history: being nasty has rarely stopped anyone from "doing the nasty".

Anybody can make wacky assumptions based on their own perception of reality about what early hominids were like. We all "know" about people, after all. But few of us actually stop to think about the difference between "human nature" and the "nature" of people we know. Diamond is one of those who (it seems) ought to know better.

Interestingly, the host Robert Krulwich, is really good at catching Diamond in contradictions. Like this one:

Krulwich: ... What do [Komodo dragons] weigh?
Diamond: Up to 500 pounds. But it's worse than that because while the modern Komodo dragons weigh up to 500 pounds, the archeological excavations that produced the dwarves also produced evidence of a super-size Komodo dragon.
Krulwich: Oh, so these dragons are getting smaller, too, over time?
Diamond: No, the dragons are different. Warm-blooded animals shrink on islands. Cold-blooded animals often expand on islands, to fill the niche left by lions and tigers that could not get out there. Cold-blooded animals have lower food requirements, and so a cold-blooded animal requires as much food as a warm-blooded animal one-seventh of its size.
Krulwich: Oh! So while the mammals are going down, the reptiles could be going up?
Diamond: It happened there on Flores. Flores has the Komodo dragon, the world's biggest lizard today. But in the past apparently it had a super Komodo dragon.

So, you're saying the dragons did get smaller over time? Now, of course there were bigger lizards on Flores in the past, and they might be gone because humans are now there. No problem, although they apparently lived alongside some hominids for 800,000 years without too many problems. I'm just not sure this is the best example to use for your "cold-blooded giant, warm-blooded dwarf" theory.

Could it be that you're trying to shoehorn all these species into a universal rule that they don't -- in this particular case -- fit very well? You could see why someone would be confused.

Travellers' tales

Has anybody else noticed the problem with the artist's conception? You know, the one with a grizzled-looking hobbit with the giant rat slung over his shoulder?

Flores artist's conception, alongside scienceNOW host Robert Krulwich and a pygmy (from PBS website)

Yes, you guessed it -- the fossil skeleton LB1 is a woman, but the reconstruction is clearly not a woman. If the shrunken and tactfully figleafed version above doesn't convince you, you can see a bigger version here.

Now, this wouldn't be such a bad thing by itself; I mean, if this really was an ancient human species, then there must have been men.

But we have no reason to think that the men were necessarily the same size as the women, so presenting a female skeleton in a male reconstruction is clearly misleading about the biology of this "species". And why not show a woman? Because they wouldn't have carried a spear with a giant rodent slung over their shoulder? What does that say about our assumptions about this "radically different" hominid species?

The answer is clear: presenting a very tiny man instead of a woman exaggerates the differences between them and us.

It's not just the artist's conception, or the 500-pound super-Komodos: everything about the presentation of this discovery has been tilted to emphasize how strange and nonhuman (perhaps even subhuman) it is.

Remember medieval travellers' tales? They featured things like the "barnacle goose", which was supposed to hatch from barnacles in trees. And people with no heads and faces on their chests. And furry ape-men.

Now some of these things turned out to have been based -- however distantly -- on fact, like giraffes and chimpanzees. But the myth and the reality were hopelessly tangled up.

That is already happening with these "hobbits." Of course, there are the obvious mythological elements -- such as the ebu gogo myth. But there are plenty of other exaggerations: in the transcript of the NOVA scienceNOW segment, every fantasy aspect is emphasized and exaggerated, from the very introduction:

ROBERT KRULWICH: You're not going to believe this, and I wouldn't blame you, 'cause if I told you this story that..."once upon a time, on a little island, somewhere way off in the sea, there lived a race of teeny people not known to science. They lived with elephants the size of ponies. They hunted dragons that spat poisonous saliva laced with botulism and anthrax..."
You'd say, "Come on."

Yes, in fact I would. Especially when we hear things like this:

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if that's true, brain scientists would have a whole new model for human intelligence, and that's huge.


KIRA WESTAWAY: The fact that it came out at 18,000 was pretty much a shock to everybody.
ROBERT KRULWICH: A shock because that means that these little people were alive during, well, modern times.
MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: We know that modern humans have been in that area for at least 50,000 years.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So, if you do the math, little people and big people shared this island for over 30,000 years!


JARED DIAMOND: It's spit that contains botulism bacteria and anthrax and other things you wouldn't want to get infected by, really nasty bacteria.


Please don't misunderstand my sarcasm. If the "hobbits" are really a new species, then they really are very unusual. If they actually had an advanced stone tool technology, and actually hunted down stegodon and Komodo dragons, that is pretty neat.

But we're a ways from actually deciding that these things are true.

For one thing, all these "stunning" facts are self-contradictory. If modern humans and "hobbits" shared Flores for 30,000 years, then isn't it parsimonious to assume that modern humans made the "advanced" tools and hunted down the stegodons? Evidence of these "advanced" tools at 80,000 years ago (which we don't, by the way, have) wouldn't even disprove this proposition, since there could easily have been modern humans on Flores that early.

I give credit to Diamond for figuring this contradiction out:

But on top of that, people talk about possible coexistence between the micropygmies and modern sapiens for 40,000 years. I don't believe it. My guess is that within 100 years of modern sapiens arriving on the island, the dwarves would have been exterminated.

But that creates a different problem: how did humans make it to New Ireland and Bougainville by 30,000 years ago, and Australia by 50,000 years ago, without managing to step on Flores on their way?

For another, all the speculation about the size and organization of the brain assumes that all hobbit brains were the same. Perhaps it's true, but assuming it is clearly building a big story on an insufficiency of data.

And this isn't even considering the possibility that the specimen is pathological. As you'll remember, my view of the bones persuaded me that they aren't normal. Now, I'm not working on the skeleton myself and I am quite willing to admit that I could be wrong. But there's a lot of hand-waving in these stories.

The million-dollar question

Aside from the clip from Teuku Jacob, the segment doesn't really address the question of pathology. There is some reason to think this is by design.

Consider: the interview with Diamond says this:

Krulwich: Which leaves us with this other question of, when scientists have now begun looking at endocasts of these brains, they say--well, at least this fellow Ralph [Holloway, an anthropologist at Columbia University] who we talked to -- he says, well, they don't look the same as human brains. There could be two reasons for that. They could be sick human brains, in which case they would look like sick human brains, or they could be something different.

This would make it look like they asked Holloway about pathology, and he said it might be or it might not be, which I think was his view in April when this aired. But the televised segment does not feature any actual quotes from Holloway about whether there might be pathology.

Then, there is the "Ask the Expert" section with Bert Roberts. Out of 22 questions, not a single one relates to pathology in any way.

The most about pathology they allowed to slip into the public domain is this quote from Jared Diamond's interview:

Diamond: Well, I would bet $10, or 10 to one odds, that they were a separate species and not some deformed, microcephalic [that is, having an abnormally small head] modern humans.
Krulwich: Why? Because you want it? Because it's a great tale? Or because there's just something in you that says, yeah, the data will deliver?
Diamond: The data already out there -- well, the skull does not resemble that of known microcephalics. They've got eight different specimens, or fragments of eight different specimens. The recent information on the brain indicates a very distinctive form of brain. The whole form of the skull is erectus-like, and it's not pathological-sapiens-like. So everything says yes erectus and no, not a weird sapiens.

The thing that concerns me most about the segment is that they clearly had a choice. They could have reported on the controversy over the pathology. I can understand why they might not do that: the people who think that the specimen is pathological haven't yet published their results; their claims haven't been evaluated by other scientists, etc.

But what they chose to do, instead of giving Jacob (or someone else, like Maciej Henneberg) a chance to present their view of the discovery, they chose to interview a prominent American science writer to contextualize it.

That's a reasonable choice for their likely viewers, but it has two unfortunate side effects. First, it removes everything from the evidence, because Diamond hasn't seen it, and would be unqualified to comment on it if he had seen it (hence, the silly comments about the brain).

Second, it raises the issue of exactly what PBS wants here: do they want to discuss the science, or to sensationalize it?

Because among all the people interviewed for the segment, Jacob is the only biologist who has actually seen the bones! He might be completely wrong, but at least we can presume he knows more about this than Jared Diamond does! Yet this is the full extent of Jacob's remarks presented in the segment:

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Wait a second," said this well-respected Indonesian anthropologist. Teuko Jacob says, "I think she's one of us, our species, but with a rare disease."
TEUKO JACOB (Gadjah Mada University): Therefore there's a small brain, microencephaly.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Microencephaly can severely retard growth in modern people. So she's one of us with a growth disease?
TEUKO JACOB: I'm sure about it.
ROBERT KRULWICH: "Well, you're wrong," said the Australian team.

Oh, well then. Sorry for asking.

Now, I don't expect anyone to believe what I say or anyone else says about these fossils; you should read the science yourself, and read everything skeptically, no matter what the source. I'm not out there saying why I think the bones might be pathology; it's not my research.

But it seems to me that these fossils are being interpreted in a way that enhances a narrative instead of in a skeptical light. And that doesn't seem right to me; I don't think it advances our understanding of anything. Especially since following the narrative generates internal contradictions.

We're impoverished in the U.S. for televised science programming, and PBS is about as serious as it gets (which isn't saying much). So seeing this makes me concerned.