Archive | February, 2014

“There is no in between…”

6 Feb

There’s always an in between.

The thing I like most about teaching anthropology: it makes a positive difference in the world. The thing I like least about teaching anthropology: feeling like I have to tiptoe through one of the least controversial facts in all of science – humans evolved.

Like many other teachers, I would like to spend more time sharing my passion for the wonders of evolution and less time convincing people that evolution is real; less time rehashing 19th Century arguments in a 21st Century world.

This is one reason I chose not to watch the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Evolution-Creation debate this week. Why are we “debating” this in the year 2014? It’s like debating who won Super Bowl XLVIII (my beloved Seattle Seahawks!). What fun is there in watching a debate where one side honors time-tested rules of evidence and the other just makes s— up? As much fun as watching a football game where one team plays by NFL rules and the other team kicks the ball into the stands and screams “100 points, we win!”

If anything good came out of the debate, it’s that people are talking about evolution – most often talking past each other. Ignorance is on proud display. Images like this break the heart of an anthropologist.

Photo by BuzzFeed's Matt Stopera.

Photo by BuzzFeed’s Matt Stopera.

If you’ve seen all 22 of these images, you know that it’s a whole lot of wrong; people smugly holding signs displaying the most elementary misunderstandings of science and religion. Good news: if you want to make your extinct hominin memorable to an anti-evolutionist, give it a cute name like “Lucy.” Bad news: that might be all he/she remembers – to the exclusion of all other paleoanthropological finds!

If you’re taking the time to read Anthropology Now, you probably know that Lucy is one specimen of the species Australopithecus afarensis. There are, of course, other individuals representing this species. And Lucy’s skeleton is 40% complete (more than “a few pieces”). You want hundreds of bone specimens? Below is a partial list of hominin species identified in the fossil record (there is some disagreement about which were truly distinct species and which could be “lumped” into the same species – now that is an actual evolutionary debate!):

Sahelanthropus tchadensis

Orrorin tugenensis

Ardipithecus kadabba

Ardipithecus ramidus

Australopithecus anamensis

Australopithecus afarensis (the young lady and I agree that this one exists)

Australopithecus garhi

Australopithecus sediba

Australopithecus (Paranthropus ) aethiopicus

Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei

Australopithecus (Paranthropus) robustus

Homo habilis

Homo rudolfensis

Homo ergaster

Homo erectus

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens (I’m guessing she acknowledges the existence of this one too).

Also the mysterious Denisovans and Homo floresiensis (“Hobbit”) about whom we still have a lot to learn. There’s plenty of freely available information on each of these species online, along with links to the peer-reviewed primary literature and tons of popular books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Just Google any of the species names above.

Our evolutionary past can only remain a mystery if we choose not to see it.