Friday, 29 October 2004

Homo floresiensis

Writing about the news, this week, of the discovery of a previously unknown human species, dubbed Homo floresiensis, Desmond Morris includes this provocative comment:

[T]he existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion, but I can already hear the fanatics claiming that he has been put on earth by the Devil simply to test our faith.

This seems to me to be something of a non sequitur, but presumably Morris is referring to the more fundamentalist versions of religious faith, and whether his inclusion of all religion in the comment is deliberate or accidental, it is surely the case that the existence of other human species is something that most Christians have almost taken for granted over the last hundred or so years.

As Morris notes, the intriguing question is whether the newly-discover species would be able to communicate with us in a spoken language:

When it comes down to it, being able to talk is really what defines humanity

and Christians should have little problem with that either. Speech enables us to communicate; speech enables us to think and to apply our brains to complex problem-solving; speech enables us to tell the truth and to lie, to influence and mislead. In short, it is language which separates us from other creatures — in this world, creatures which can speak are creatures which have, in the parable of the book of Genesis, fallen.

Scientific discoveries such as this should indeed be another nail in the coffin of fundamentalist religion, but sadly I suspect that those who deny the possibility of evolution will deny the logic of this discovery too.

That we should accept and even welcome the obvious conclusions about our ancestry does not seem a big thing to me. The message of kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth, is neither strengthened nor weakened by such news — it is true regardless.

Update 1 November

Morris’s article referred to above has drawn a lot of comment on the BBC website. The BBC has also published this response by David Wilkinson, lecturer in theology and science at Durham University, and council member of the Evangelical Alliance

Posted by Simon Kershaw on Friday, 29 October 2004 at 12:01pm BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

I think the important thing to remember is that Desmond Morris treats his atheism like any other fundamentalist treats their religion. When he says that "the existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion" he is expressing his desire, not stating any kind of logical or factual position.

Posted by: Simon Richardson on Monday, 1 November 2004 at 1:29pm GMT


Three days ago the world was stunned by the announcement of a discovery of a new species of humans who survived until, perhaps, historical times. A skeleton of diminutive person was unearthed in Liang Bua limestone cave on the Indonesian island Flores by an Indonesian-Australian team of scientists. In the same cave were found small fragments of skeletons of a few other humans, sophisticated stone tools and bones of animals that were apparently hunted and eaten by inhabitants of the cave. Occupation of the cave extended from over 38 thousand years (ka) ago to 13 ka. During that time surrounding islands and Australia were already settled by people looking like modern humans. The discovery has been made by researchers of excellent professional reputation and published in the leading scientific journal "Nature".

The skeleton belonged to an adult of short stature, around 105 cm, that is equal to that of shortest women among modern pygmies. The most astounding feature, however, is the size of its braincase- mere 380 mililitres (= a stubby bottle of beer's volume), less than half of the size of the smallest brains of intellectually normal modern people, and clearly below the minimum for even the oldest humans who lived 1-2 million years ago. The face attached to this tiny braincase, however, fits comfortably within normal human size range.

This discovery shatters many long-cherished theories: brain size can no longer be seen as indicative of the level of intelligence, vastly different human species co-existed until very recent times, fairy tales of hobbits, elfs, gnomes and the like become true. It is so amazing that many scholars from around the globe are uncomfortably grappling with its consequences, while others wholeheartedly embrace it. It is not the first time that a breaktrough in our understanding of human evolution was caused by a single discovery. When the first Neandertal was unearthed in mid-19th century, leading scientists became deeply divided: some accepted the discovery while others tried to dismiss it as a modern skeleton that was severely altered by diseases. Today we know that it was a genuine early human skeleton. On the other hand, a discovery of the Piltdown man in the early 20th century turned out to be a fraud inadvertently accepted as genuine by many reputable scholars. Hence the discovery in Flores needs to be carefully examined.

Last Thursday, when I read reports in "Nature" I started going through all I learned from studying human evolution for 32 years and from describing and measuring thousands of skeletons excavated by archaeologists in Europe, America, Africa and Australia. The Liang Bua skeleton did not fit comfortably into my experience: small, but still not really dwarfed, stature, normal face and abnormally small brain - a strange combination at any stage of human evolution. I obtained from the "Nature" website measurements of the Liang Bua skeleton meticulously published there by discoverers. Dimensions of the face, nose and jaws were not significantly different from those of modern humans, but the measurements of the braincase fell a long way below the normal range. The bell rang in my head. I remembered reading a report of a 4 ka old (Minoan period) skull from Crete. This skull has been identified as that of an individual with a growth anomaly called microcephaly (=small brain). This well known condition has multiple causes and affects individuals to a varying degree. Its most severe congenital form (primordial microcephalic dwarfism - PMD) leads to death in childhood. Milder forms of microcephaly allow its sufferers to survive to adulthood though they cause some level of mental retardation. My statistical comparison of 15 head and face dimensions of the Liang Bua specimen with those of the Minoan microcephalic shows that there is not a single significant difference between the two skulls though one is reputedly that of the "new species of humans", the other a member of sophisticated culture that preceded classical Greek civilisation. Deeper down in the Liang Bua cave a forearm bone, radius, was discovered. Its reported length 210 mm corresponds to stature of 151-162 cm depending on method of reconstruction. This is a stature of many modern women, and some modern men, by no means of a "dwarf". Thus, until more skeletons of the purported "new species" are discovered, I will maintain that a well known pathological condition was responsible for the peculiar appearance of the skeleton so aptly described in "Nature" and that we are still a single rational species.

(Prof) Maciej Henneberg
Head, Department of Anatomical Sciences, Medical School, University of Adelaide

Posted by: Maciej Henneberg on Monday, 1 November 2004 at 11:31pm GMT

They found seven skeletons

Posted by: on Tuesday, 2 November 2004 at 10:15am GMT

No, they DID NOT find seven skeletons. They found small fragments of bone belonging to some six individuals, plus LB1 that is the only reasonably complete skeleton. My comment stands.

Posted by: Maciej Henneberg on Wednesday, 3 November 2004 at 12:21am GMT

Prof Henneberg,

The fundamentalist creationist organisations have now picked up on your comments regarding Homo Floresiensis.

Your comments are being presented as an authoritative statement from a leading scientist in the field that evolution does not take place, thus proving Biblical Creation.

Please will you comment on this.

Please will you also give an indication of your religious beliefs.

I understand from 3rd party sources that you accept a continuous human evolution and that observed fossil specimens are all examples of a single species from different time periods. Please will you extrapolate backwards through the evolutionary development of Homo Sapiens and comment on what you envisage were the precursors to Homo Sapiens.

I apologise if you have already published this information. However, your published works are numerous and my reading time is finite.

Paul Thompson

Posted by: Paul Thompson on Monday, 3 January 2005 at 12:12pm GMT