The 2013 take on the hobbits of Flores

tumblr_lkg5geJMhG1qagynuo1_500When the first “hobbit” or Homo floresiensis skeleton was found in 2003 in a cave on the island of Flores, it made headlines around the world. But it didn’t take long for the arguing to begin. Did this small skeleton represent a whole new kind of hominin? A petite species that was still around as recently as 12,000 YBP, long after the Neandertals had disappeared? Or was it just the remains of some poor soul with a severe pathology? Scientists tossed around all sorts of ideas about which disorders could result in a person growing to only about a meter tall, with a tiny skull and a curious resemblance to Homo erectus. An Indonesian paleoanthropologist named Teuku Jacob was one of the first scientists who suggested the skeleton could belong to someone suffering from microcephaly. Soon after the remains were discovered, he “borrowed” them, taking them from the center where they were kept and bringing them to his own laboratory. This caused an uproar. Eventually, he returned the hobbit remains to the researchers who found them, but they had been severely damaged. Among other things, the pelvis was smashed and several important bones were missing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2005, Indonesia forbade researchers access to the cave where the hobbit was found. It wasn’t until Jacob’s death a couple of years later that research there was allowed to resume. And the colorful history of the hobbit finds doesn’t end there. Maciej Henneberg, Robert Eckhardt, and John Schofield self-published a book called The Hobbit Trap, in which they called into question the status of the hobbit as a new species. One of their objections was that the teeth showed signs of modern dental work, a claim Peter Brown (one of the hobbit’s discoverers) understandably called “complete lunacy.” Nevertheless, this claim enjoyed a lot of attention from the media. Some people have even speculated that species like H. floresiensis may still be hidden away in remote corners of the world–apparently, rumors of tiny people abound in Indonesia, and in particular, on Flores. I wish we lived in a world where finding another hominin tucked away somewhere seemed like a real possibility!

When the Flores remains were found, the hypothesis that they could have resulted from microcephaly or cretinism was reasonable. After all, when the first Neandertal remains found, people thought maybe they belonged to a Cossack soldier with rickets. In the case of  the hobbit, as in the case of that first Neandertal, there was just the one skeleton–and it’s hard to be sure about a new species designation from a single set of bones. But in-depth study of the skull recovered from the cave demonstrated that its features resembled those of archaic humans. And comparisons to skulls of people suffering from the proposed disorders showed that there wasn’t a good match. Eventually nine tiny sets of remains spanning 3,000 years were discovered in the cave, providing pretty strong evidence that the original find didn’t belong to an isolated individual suffering from a disease. And, early this year, a team of researchers showed that two different Homo floresiensis specimens had wrist bones distinct enough from ours to warrant a separate species designation.

homo-floresiensis-stegodon-florensis-insularisWhat else do we know about the hobbits? Researchers think their short stature may have resulted from “island dwarfism,” a tendency of species to shrink over many generations once they have arrived on an island. A study published this April in Proceedings of the Royal Society by Yousuke Kaifu and colleagues suggests that this idea is reasonable and that the process could have resulted in the hobbit’s body plan. We don’t know much about what life was like for the hobbits, but it may not have been so different from what Homo sapiens were doing around the same time. Possible evidence of stone tools and cooking has been found in their cave. Some scientists believe that a volcanic eruption on Flores may have wiped out both the hobbits and the island’s Stegodon, a species of dwarf, elephant-like creatures that the hobbits liked to hunt. Although Svante Paabo has worked magic in the past, teasing the Neandertal and Denisova genomes out of ancient remains, no one has been able to coax usable DNA from the hobbit remains yet. I am hopeful that the future will reveal additional Hobbit specimens, though, and that one of them may yield DNA suitable for sequencing. Maybe we will find that, like the Denisovans and the Neandertals, hobbit genes live on in us. Wouldn’t THAT be exciting?

Margie Profet, Lost then Found

01aaa-margieprofetWhen I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology, I read all of Margie Profet’s articles. Basically, she looked at some of the things that make being female unpleasant (menstruating, morning sickness, etc.) and asked if they might have some adaptive function. She hypothesized that menstruating could be a female’s way of shedding sperm-borne pathogens and that morning sickness could be a warning system to keep pregnant women away from foods that might be dangerous to the babies they are carrying. If you have spent any time in evolutionary biology, you know that proposing adaptive features for medical issues/non-ideal biological states is like holding a lightning rod up in a storm. Other scientists will start quoting the Spandrels of San Marcos, and everyone will get excited about poking holes in your theories. Especially if they get a ton of media attention, as Profet’s ideas did, and you give dramatic advice that flouts convention (like telling women to avoid vegetables in early pregnancy). Picking apart hypotheses is just the nature of who we are and what we do. And often times, Panglossian theories about adaptive silver linings do turn out to be wrong. So it’s no surprise that Profet’s hypotheses were controversial or that fellow researchers began to refute some of her arguments with their own data.

Following these articles and the spirited responses they evoked was fun. It wasn’t until years later that I found out Profet was pretty fascinating in her own right. I hadn’t heard anything about her for a while, and I wondered what she was up to and started googling. First, I found out she was awarded a MacArthur genius grant for her work in evolutionary biology. That’s a pretty big achievement in and of itself. What’s even more amazing, though, is she published all these articles and won this award without an advanced degree in Biology. Instead, these ideas started incubating when she was working in Bruce Ame’s lab. I remember reading that post-MacArthur award, she had moved to the University of Washington and was studying math (after becoming frustrated with the reception she got in Evolutionary Biology was my guess). And after that it was like she fell off the map. I couldn’t find out anything about her current work.

Well it turns out she really did disappear. This summer I remembered the Margie Profet mystery and tried googling her again. And I came across an article by Mike Martin in Psychology Today: The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Genius. She had last been seen taking math courses at Harvard. The last electronic traces of Profet stopped in 2002, when she cut ties with her family. The last sightings of her were in 2004–2005. After that, radio silence. It was a disheartening article–the quotes from her friends and family were very sad. But maybe getting the story out into the world was important, because in May of 2012, Martin published an update on his website. After learning that her loved ones were seeking her, Profet reached out to her family and they reunited. It sounds like those missing years were very difficult ones for everyone involved.

I haven’t really kept up on the status of her major hypotheses, but Martin says that her ideas about allergies as a defense against cancer have gotten support from some recent studies by other investigators. I hope that now she is back, she’s gratified to hear about these new findings. More than that, of course, I hope she finds love, support, and comfort among the people who love her. Maybe all of her work in science seems like another lifetime. Welcome back, Margie Profet. You were missed.

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes

imagesI started grad school around the same time that Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney came out. In this book, Tierney accused a famous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, of doing some terrible things during his fieldwork among the Yanamamo, a group living in the Venezuelan Amazon. My graduate advisor was in the Anthropology department, and the scandal was a big deal in the field. It was impossible not to be fascinated by the whole thing. As a naive 22 year old, the wild accusations that Tierney made somehow seemed reasonable to me–even the ones of genocide. In grad school we all spent a lot of time thinking about the responsibilities of researchers to the people they study, and the accusations Tierney made against Chagnon seemed to fit into a long history of people from high-income places using and abusing people from low-income places. Frankly, I feel pretty guilty about giving this book the time of day.

Chagnon wasn’t the only one Tierney accused of doing terrible things to the Yanomamo in the name of science. James Neel was a famous geneticist with whom Chagnon worked, and Tierney leveled many of the same claims against him. In particular, Tierney accused Chagnon and Neel of setting loose a measles virus among the Yanomamo in order to document its effect in an immunologically naive population. It’s pretty instructive  to compare the way that the genetics community responded to the accusations against Neel and the way that anthropologists responded to the accusations against Chagnon. Both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) launched investigations into Tierney’s claims. By January of 2002, the ASHG had published their findings, which amounted to a spirited defense of Neel. They stated “The ASHG inquiry finds these allegations to be gross mispresentations and basically false. This commentary represents the response of the ASHG to the various charges against a major, widely honored figure…” They also had choice words for anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Spondel, who had widely circulated Tierney’s claims as truth even before his book’s publication, as well as the media coverage that ensued: “These two individuals showed a lack of judgment in propagating these allegations without some effort to ascertain their truth. We deplore their lack of objectivity in accepting as fact statements that, on investigation, can be shown to be false, resulting in severe damage to the reputation of a leading and highly respected human geneticist who was unable to defend himself. We also condemn the actions of certain newspapers and magazines, particularly The New Yorker (usually known for meticulous fact checking), The Guardian, and The Guardian Weekly, that repeated these allegations, now shown to be false, and thus ensured their widest circulation.” By contrast, the AAA didn’t exonerate Chagnon until 2005– and only after they had aided in ruining the poor guy’s life. Alice Dreger, a historian, studied the AAA’s handling of the Darkness in El Dorado scandal and concluded: “While the [AAA’s] Peacock and the Task Force Reports contain some critiques of Tierney, both explicitly took Tierney’s book as the roadmap to follow for further inquiries. Both even essentially thanked Tierney on behalf of anthropologists. The Peacock Commission concluded this: “Patrick Tierney’s provocative book, Darkness in El Dorado, has contributed a valuable service to our discipline” (Peacock et al. 2001). The Task Force later concluded this: “Darkness in El Dorado has served anthropology well” (AAA 2002a:9). No other scholarly organization treated Tierney’s house of cards as constituting a valuable service to their discipline.”

It’s also interesting to delve a little into Tierney’s background. In order for such dramatic accusations to be taken so seriously, this guy must have serious reporting chops, right? An impressive history of investigative reporting? Nope. Prior to Darkness in El Dorado, he’d written a single book, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice, which is now out of print. And Dreger reports that although Tierney provided copious notes in Darkness in El Dorado, “many of Tierney’s hundreds of citations lead nowhere. Others essentially say the opposite of what is claimed.” The fact that this book was taken seriously by a number of prominent anthropologists, reported on widely in the media, and even named a finalist for the National Book Award is pretty scary.

Now, in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes, Chagnon finally gets the chance to tell his story. And not surprisingly, he is pretty pissed off. The book deals with both his work among the Yanamomo and his trials and tribulations at the hands of his colleagues in Anthropology. There have been a lot of high profile, well written reviews of Noble Savages by Charles Mann, Douglas William Hume, Rachel Newcomb, Greg Laden, and others. And if you missed the fabulous profile piece on Chagnon in the New York Times magazine by Emily Eakin, timed to coincide with the book’s release, check it out. I thought Noble Savages made for really interesting reading. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Darkness in El Dorado, I’d never really learned much about Chagnon’s findings, and this was a great introduction to his work.images-1

The controversy, of course, isn’t over. Marshall Sahlins recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest over Chagnon’s induction. And the response of many anthropologists to Noble Savages has been far from positive. I was surprised that some critics, like Elizabeth Povinelli, felt the way that he portrayed the Yanomamo was very negative, irresponsibly so. In her opinion, Chagnon  depicted a “hideous society” composed of “deceitful, stubborn and murderous people.”  I finished the book with a completely different assessment. I felt Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomamo was nuanced and pretty evenhanded. Some of the people he met in Venezuala were kind, and some were cruel, and that was true of both the Yanomamo and the non-Yanomamo with whom he interacted. Chagnon certainly didn’t sugarcoat things, but he was quick to point out all of the acts of kindness he witnessed. It seems as though some of his detractors in anthropology believe that vulnerable study subjects should only be portrayed in a flattering light. While I can understand that no one wants to write something negative about a group of people that might provide a reason for other groups to treat them badly, sacrificing honesty to avoid writing something that could be construed negatively doesn’t seem very respectful to the people with whom you’re working. No self-respecting reporter covering a story in the United States, for example, would decide to depict his or her subjects in a wholly positive light prior to even beginning their investigation. If we treat the people we study differently than we expect to be treated ourselves, it seems as though we are automatically turning them into “others.” Whether anthropologists are studying workers at the World Bank or people living in some remote region of the Amazon, their research involves the study of other human beings. And humans deserve to be treated as individuals. Portraying whole groups of people as uniformly “good” or uniformly “bad” plays into stereotypes–which isn’t helpful to anyone involved and certainly isn’t scientific.

I guess if anything positive has come out of this decade-long saga, it is that it has thrown into relief some of the schisms inside Anthropology. Perhaps bringing these different approaches to ethnography into the light will lead to some fruitful debates. I haven’t seen much evidence of that so far, though. Chagnon’s book has also led to some interesting considerations of his actual work. After gathering data for decades, he has drawn some fascinating and controversial conclusions about the motivation for violence in human societies, and engaging with his hypotheses in a scientific way is important. I can’t imagine this mess has improved anyone’s perception of Anthropology, though, and I doubt many anthropologists feel they can count on support from the AAA if they find themselves unfairly accused of something. And that’s a shame.

Retraction Ruckus at Rutgers

51xmqlhnzxL._SY380_If you have ever studied evolutionary biology, you probably know who Robert Trivers is. His groundbreaking articles on reciprocal altruism, the evolution of sex ratios, and parent-offspring conflicts are staples in every Evolutionary Biology course. They make great reading, and his theories pop up all the time in all sorts of disciplines. I’m sure his work has inspired many budding scientists.

Currently, Trivers is a professor at Rutgers. In 2005, he co-authored an article on body symmetry and dance that made the cover of Nature. A couple years later, he and his colleagues started to suspect that the first author on the paper may have fabricated data. In 2008, they contacted Nature about their suspicions and tried to retract the article. According to Trivers, because at least one co-author anonymously disagreed with the decision to publish a retraction, Nature didn’t publish one, although this month they did publish a great piece by Eugenie Samuel Reich about the saga in which Trivers has become embroiled. Frustrated that he couldn’t get the word out about the faked data, in 2009 he and two other scientists self-published a short book called The Anatomy of a Fraud, detailing evidence that the data in the paper had been forged. After the book came out, Rutgers was forced to investigate the matter, and in 2012 they issued their conclusions. In the Research Advisory Board’s report, which Trivers posted on his website, they agreed that it was pretty clear that the first author of the paper had manipulated the data in order to make a good story. The fall out from this episode has been major. A glance at his website shows how aggrieved Trivers is about the failure of so many institutions (Nature, Rutgers) to take the accusations of fraud seriously. And in 2012, Trivers was banned from campus for months after an unpleasant exchange with a collaborator who is also on faculty at Rutgers.

While there has been a lot of chatter about the aftermath of these accusations (he said, she said type-stuff about the way the co-authors have interacted with one another), it seems like the real issue at stake is how hard it is to blow the whistle on scientific fraud. No one looks forward to admitting that they co-authored a doctored study–especially when that study appeared in a high profile journal like Nature. It takes integrity to investigate whether fraud was committed in your own lab and, after finding it was, to promptly try to retract the affected work. Since scientific progress is cumulative,  with current studies building on past findings, this kind of self-policing is exactly the type of behavior all of us want to encourage. Trivers and colleagues published their book outlining the problems with the symmetry and dance study in 2009, but that didn’t stop the citations. According to Google Scholar, the article has been cited 128 times, many of the citations occurring as late as 2013. It’s well-known that articles continue to be cited even after they are retracted, but certainly a retraction in Nature would have helped in this example–the odds that someone doing a literature search would link this article to a little known, self-published book are extremely low. While the problem of retractions (their growing frequency, their inability to effectively remove false findings from the literature once the original articles have been published) is attracting increasing attention, especially with help from blogs like Retraction Watch, retracting a fatally flawed article is certainly better than not retracting it. Unfortunately, retractions are an unpleasant business for all of the important players involved: the journal, the academic institution, and the co-authors. If a very prominent scientist has this much trouble trying to reveal a case of academic fraud in his own research group, what hope is there for everyone else? Hopefully all of the attention this case has received will put the pressure on Nature to rectify this situation, but I’m afraid events like this may dissuade junior scientists from coming forward with unpleasant but important information.