Liang Bua 1′s asymmetrical skull
In 2004, scientists announced the discovery of a new species of small hominid which lived on the island of Flores (Indonesia), which they dubbed Homo floresiensis. The media, ever the bastions of scientific truth and accuracy, immediately popularized the discovery by calling H. floresiensis hobbits.
Recently however, a debate has flared up on what H. floresiensis really is. In particular, one of the specimens has a very asymmetrical skull which some scientists are now claiming is the result of disease. Other features of the skull, which were originally reported to be distinct from modern day humans, are now being challenged as falling within the range of modern day and prehistoric humans from that region of the world.
I don’t have anything to add to that discussion. Anthropology and human evolution are hardly my area of specialty. For a quick read about the situation though, MSNBC has the details. For a thorough but technical account, John Hawks’ anthropology blog provides (as always) a great deal of information on the controversy.
Here’s what I find so terribly interesting about the whole thing. It’s a beautiful example of how science works! Some scientists find some data, put the pieces together, go through the process of peer review, and publish a claim — “hobbits” on Flores! Some other scientists review their data, find that they may be a better explanation than “hobbits on Flores” and publish a rebuttal. A skirmish begins. People take sides and scientists take their best shots at each other in trying to explain these finds. Egos are perhaps bruised and battered along the way, but in the end, what we learn about these fossils is far more robust because of the scrutiny they receive.
In short, this is a beautiful example of science at work. This controversy and debate is not a sign that there’s something terribly wrong with science or the original researchers, but rather it’s exactly what healthy science is supposed to do.
Yet, I would bet everything I own on the predictable creationist rejection of this find. Whatever the consensus comes to be, creationists will use this debate, this robust discussion, to say to their followers, isn’t science sick. Science is damned if they get it wrong — that the fossils turn out not be a new species, H. floresiensis — because creationists will forever use it as an example of incompetence. But even worse, if science decides that H. floresiensis really is deserving of classification as a unique species, creationists will point to the controversy as proof that we’re wrong.
Does anyone doubt this? When creationists commonly go back 80 and 100 years to point to controversies or hoaxes (piltdown man, Nebraska man, etc) that existed in the past, and completely ignore that science has long ago fixed its mistakes, I have no doubt they’ll do exactly the same with H. floresiensis.
It’s really sad to me. At it’s highest levels, it’s incredibly dishonest — which is something that creationist leaders should know better than. For the most part though, it’s simply a matter of ignorance. Many people don’t understand how science works. They don’t understand that the controversy is a good thing, not a bad thing.
This debate on how exactly to classify H. floresiensis is a great teaching moment for those willing to learn. We should all sit back and be content to see what happens. Whatever direction it takes, the answers, as well as the process, will lead us closer to the truth.