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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Homo naledi "scandal"

Six weeks ago this blog mentioned the discovery of Homo naledi, the most exciting recent development in the human fossil record:

Evidently, a month ago certain South Africans complained that digging up these bones was all part of a racist plot to make Africans seem subhuman.

From the Agence France-Presse article:

"No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon. Sorry," said Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of the powerful trade union group Cosatu, a faithful ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

"I am no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon."

His comments were backed by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which was historically involved in the fight against apartheid…

"To my brother Vavi, I would say that he is spot on," SACC president Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa said in response to the former Cosatu leader's comments.

The discovery of the new ancestor supports the West's "story that we are subhumans," said ANC member of parliament and former chief whip Mathole Motshekga. "That is why today no African is respected anywhere in the world because of this type of theory," he said in an interview with television network ENCA…

But the South African backlash has perplexed people around the world at a time when Darwin's theory of evolution is widely accepted as fact. It "breathes new life into paranoia," said prominent British biologist Richard Dawkins on his Twitter account this week. "Whole point is we're all African apes."

Lee Berger, an American working at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand and overseeing the Homo naledi dig, tried to keep his distance from the charged debate, though he did specifically clarify that man doesn't descend from baboons.

The funny thing is, no one connected to the project said or even implied anything remotely along racial lines. It's fairly obvious that if Homo naledi is an ancestor to humans, then it is an ancestor to all humans, and not just sub-Saharans. All races descended from a common ancestor we share with the chimpanzee.

The fact that Zwelinzima Vavi, Ziphozihle Siwa, and Mathole Motshega see themselves as being more closely related to naledi and don't want the bones dug up to provide proof of this is, in its own way, quite revealing. 


High Arka said...

These kinds of arguments seem to gain favor with the media as a way of obscuring the fact that so little research, comparatively speaking, is devoted to indigenous European populations.

Aside from that, the Africans' objections to the studies are similar to the "Native American" objections to studies that would show Caucasoid admixtures in prehistoric North American populations. The political implications in either case are obvious.

John Craig said...

High Arka --
Agreed about the Africans' objections being similar to the Indians', in terms of wanting to keep unwanted facts buried, literally.

I honestly don't think that the lack of research into the evolution of Europeans is by design. I think most biological anthropologists are just more interested in looking for the proverbial missing link, i.e., our earliest ancestors, and those bones are more likely to be in Africa than elsewhere. They consider that the Holy Grail, and everything else of minor interest.

BTW, I said hello to your old neighborhood for you as I drove through on Saturday.

Quartermain said...

Looks like the ANC in South Africa is having a black hole Hallmark moment.

John Craig said...

Allan --
I didn't get your reference at first, had to look that one up. Pretty funny. I guess eternal vigilance is the price of a racism-free society.

Steven said...

I guess they see that they look more similar than non-Africans to the African hominid species that were the ancestors of all modern humans.

They therefore see the risk that they could be seen as more primitive than non-Africans with the notion that humans left Africa and evolved further.

However, they are bound to look more like African human ancestors because they are African and so have the same adaptations to climate. Their brains got significantly larger but their features and skin didn't need to change. At least a big part of the story is that humans left Africa and came to look very different as their skin and facial structure adapted to the colder climates outside the tropics.

Did the intelligence of non-African populations evolve further or at a faster rate than Africans, who have been undergoing that development themselves? Well, its possible but it is not proven by their superficial similarity to homo erectus. The brain is what matters.

I know what you'll say now of course because I'm familiar with all this stuff but I'm just making the point that a big part of the similarity of modern Africans to homo erectus is the fact they have the same facial and skin adaptations to a tropical climate, so lets not get carried away. Africans with IQs of 150 also look more like the tropical homo erectus than Europeans do.

Here is a question. Do you think black men are more psychologically similar to white men or to black women?

John Craig said...

Steven --
Since you know what I'm going to say, I won't respond the first part of your comment.

And I'm afraid I'm going to give a similarly unsatisfying answer to your question: it's way too open-ended for me to give any satisfactory response. All I can say is, in what way? In terms of the ways that guys respond to women, obviously they're more similar to white guys. In terms of their racial views, I'm sure they're far more similar to black women. In terms of everything else….you'd really have to narrow the scope of the question.

High Arka said...

Yeah--Steven, that question is kind of like, "Are black firefighters more like white firefighters than they are like black college professors?"

If you take an African embryo and inject it with testosterone and turn on the whole "male" thing, you can make it more like European embryos injected with testosterone. But, just like adding firefighting gear, the resulting similarity says nothing about the underlying difference (if any).

Steven said...

High Arka, that's a decent analogy. I suppose you could think about it physically. There are underlying similarities that black men and women have- their skin colour, their facial features and at some point the embryo is the same for both. There are also big differences, although these differences are not as superficial as clothes. The differences are in the structure of the brain, as well as the body.

Anyway, its hard to make the question more specific....or answer it when its so general. Black men and women will be the same in some ways but black men will also be a lot more like white men in others, just as physically. There is a male nature of course, mentally and physically. As hbd recognises natural racial and gender differences, I was just wondering which is more important and which makes a bigger difference. My vague general feeling is that its fairly equal, that both your race and your gender make you who you are to significant degrees.