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Thread: Paleoanthropology and overinterpretation

  1. #1 Paleoanthropology and overinterpretation 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    I was kicked into posing this question by an article in New Scientist, 1 March page 34 about human evolution.

    The suggestion in that article was that the brain development needed to make complex stone tools was the agent that led to the development of language. More complex stone tools was a need that drove brain evolution into a more complex brain, which led to having the brain ability to develop language.

    Now, I see this as kinda silly. It is vaguely possible that something of the sort may have happened, but the evolution of language could have occurred in many different ways. The evidence for the idea appears to be the arrival of complex stone tools at roughly the same time as language appeared. Not that we really know when language appeared.

    Paleoanthropology appears to be a science over prone to overinterpretation. I have seen, so many times, a little bit of evidence spun out into a "major new find". I say, what the hell? This is not really terribly scientific. A tooth or a vertebra becomes a new genus of pre-human.

    So, are those paleoanthropologists jumping the gun? Producing new 'findings' prematurely from too little evidence. Should we be waiting until there is more, and more convincing evidence before publishing interpretations that are very likely wrong?


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    I have almost no formal training in the area but I've read some -- not enough of course. But sometimes, and this is just a gut feel, I think that the discovery of a few small bones, or a few tools, results in an extrapolation up to a whole culture. Like I said, this is just a gut feel and I am completely wrong and the interpretations are indeed correct.


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    Now, I see this as kinda silly.
    I see that kind of extrapolation as being on the verge of daft. Watched a re-run of David Attenborough's doco on meerkats last week. They have specific communications about which particular kind of predator everyone should run from as well as other communications about group activities like seeing off stranger meerkats or taking on a cobra and seeing it off the premises. I'm pretty sure any early human would have had a bigger language repertoire than that, just for the you go there, I'll go this way communications for hunting or foraging as well as for other cooperative activities like defending against or attacking other groups or outsider individuals.

    I have seen, so many times, a little bit of evidence spun out into a "major new find". I say, what the hell? This is not really terribly scientific. A tooth or a vertebra becomes a new genus of pre-human.
    otoh, I'm quite impressed with this sort of thing. We've got skeletons of most currently living things as well as heaps and heaps of now extinct creatures. Knowing how muscles connect to bones and what effects this has on whole structures is pretty well established science. I assume that sometimes errors are made just as they are in other disciplines, but I'd say most of this stuff is well evidenced.
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    Adelady

    I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding on the language thing. I was objecting to the linking of developing advanced stone tools to the evolution of language. We don't really even know when language developed, so that seemed to me a step too far.
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    I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding on the language thing. I was objecting to the linking of developing advanced stone tools to the evolution of language.
    I still think the more likely daft than not position stands. When you look at the tool using, tool selecting, tool making propensities of our relatives (along with other species) who aren't even in the hominid lineage, I'm still convinced that the argument is pretty poor.
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    There is, I'm sure, a lot of speculation in paleoanthropology; it sometimes seem more like detective work than other types of experimental science. But the connection between tools and language has some support from neuroscience. Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran theorizes that an area in the inferior parietal lobe (responsible for imitation and execution of complex skills) became duplicated in evolution (through gene duplication) and the duplicated area was co-opted for language syntax and eventually became Broca's area. There does seem to be a tempting resemblance between the sequential and embedded tasks in crafting a tool, and the structure of grammar.

    There are other areas of the brain involved in language besides Broca's. Wernicke's area is more important in language comprehension or the meaning of words and their associations. (People with damage to Wernicke's area, but not Broca's, can generate oddly grammatically correct sentences, but they make no sense.) So I don't think the tool use theory claims it is the sole cause of language development, but possibly important in the evolution of our ability constructing complex grammatical sentences.
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    If a tooth is discovered that doesn't match modern human morphology, what else do you expect to occur? lol..

    Fossil science can never be exact, and more often than not "small finds of teeth" have turned out to be new species?
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    If a tooth is discovered that doesn't match modern human morphology, what else do you expect to occur?
    Teeth are very useful. Even one single tooth can tell you that the animal in question was or wasn't a carnivore or a herbivore. Finding several teeth in a jaw can tell you even more - especially for omnivores like us.
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    True. But then the OP suggested that paleoanthropology is false because of "misguided" findings or what have you. But then as it's an inherently inexact science, it lends to that. And it's common sense, since if a bone is discovered that doesn't match any known modern form, then what else are they supposed to think or reason of it? It's like that tooth they discovered in Israel which is supposedly modern human in form. It very well could be, but then it's natural to speculate.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Adelady

    I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding on the language thing. I was objecting to the linking of developing advanced stone tools to the evolution of language. We don't really even know when language developed, so that seemed to me a step too far.
    \

    There is speculation in all fossil science. Do we know what colour T-Rex was? Or if Smilodon for sure was social like modern lions? A fossil can only tell you so much about an organism.

    Why do you think it should be an exact science? How many sciences are truly exact?
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    If by the "beginning" of language, one means only having simple words for objects and actions, it could go back as far as when we had the mechanical ability to speak, since other primates can understand names for objects and even put a noun and a verb together.
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    One thing I reckon is that our language abilities became more complex as our technology/lifestyle evolved.

    So we needed better language to simply explain stuff in our environment.
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    There is no suggestion that paleoanthropology is an 'exact' science. It is not, and it does not need to be. However, honesty is a vital attribute for the competent scientist, of whatever discipline. If a clue that is unearthed carries several interpretations, that should be made very clear. Yet I have seen, not just new species, but new genera come and go over the years, because minor clues have been over-interpreted.
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    i guess. it's not always dishonesty IMO, as even in exact sciences findings are interpreted and re-interpreted all the time.
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  16. #15  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    There is no suggestion that paleoanthropology is an 'exact' science. It is not, and it does not need to be. However, honesty is a vital attribute for the competent scientist, of whatever discipline. If a clue that is unearthed carries several interpretations, that should be made very clear. Yet I have seen, not just new species, but new genera come and go over the years, because minor clues have been over-interpreted.
    Lewis Binford actually had quite a bit to say about the exact point you are making.
    I am sorry I don't have any good links to his work.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    I was kicked into posing this question by an article in New Scientist, 1 March page 34 about human evolution.

    The suggestion in that article was that the brain development needed to make complex stone tools was the agent that led to the development of language. More complex stone tools was a need that drove brain evolution into a more complex brain, which led to having the brain ability to develop language.
    ?
    This reminds me of the prologue of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    "The first true men had tools and weapons only a little better than those of their ancestors a million years earlier, but they could use them with far greater skill.
    And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most
    essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and
    so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be
    handed on to the next, so that each age could profit from those that had gone before.
    Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning
    to grope toward a future."
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  18. #17  
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    Let me pose a further idea.

    In the past, there are three great steps in human progress.

    1. Learning to use simple tools and weapons.
    2. Learning language.
    3. Learning to record language. Writing and the printing press, which enabled knowledge to be passed down without error.

    What is the next big step? The internet? Electronic communication in general? We appear to be riding a wave of innovation at a speed never before seen in human history.
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    Studies into early human and proto human animals is forced by the scarcity of fossil materials to make much from little. When we study dinosaurs we look at a hundred million years worth of rock andwe can pick and choise our specimens. But when we look at humans the whole history of our race is less than a million years old. There is very little fossil evidence to go on.
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