Prehistory

Revealing comments by scientists.

Scientists are trained to be reserved and very correct in the language they use. They have to express precisely what a scientific study shows and must avoid generalisations and statements that could be misinterpreted.

It is therefore somewhat surprising when a scientific author uses words that are emotive rather than dispassionately correct, to describe a finding in a study.

One I found recently in William J Burroughs’ book ‘Climate Change in Prehistory’ is his statement (section 3.11, page 120) “One of the most remarkable features of the last ice age is the success of living on the plains of Russia.” His use of the word ‘remarkable’ indicates a degree of surprise that there is so much evidence of people living quite a good life on the Russian plains and in Siberia at the height of the last glacial maximum. He stresses in many places in the book how cold and grim life at that latitude must have been, when we know that the Laurentide ice sheet extended across all Canada and the North of what is now the USA, and there were glaciers across most of England and the Scandinavian countries. ‘Remarkable’ means that the evidence of human habitation in Russia and Siberia at this period surprises him.

Another example I came across in writing Gods, Genes and Climate is discussion of the DNA of humans relative to that of apes. The phrase used was “...the diversity of human DNA is abysmally low compared to that of apes...”. Again this is an expression of surprise. The author could just have written that diversity of human DNA is very low compared to that of apes. How could have said ‘exceptionally low’. “Abysmally low” presumably is indicative of great surprise at this indisputable fact. The author can presumably find no way to rationalise this finding against their understanding of how animal species evolve. The fact does not fit and cannot be explained by the paradigm of species evolution to which they are working. If I came across something that was so far away from fitting the paradigm I was using to explain my area of study, I would chew on this fact incessantly until I could produce a satisfactory explanation.

A third example was an article in New Scientist about the DNA of modern Europeans and their ancestors. In this case the word used is ‘bizarrely’ - “..the population....ancestral to the early farmers...Bizarrely ...have very different genetic markers from everyone else (ancestral to modern Europeans) who descend from the out-of-Africa migrants.”. In this case the author does attempt an explanation - “The best explanation is that the ancestors of European hunter-gatherers somehow set up a camp on their own in the Middle East and lived apart (from other populations) for millennia - long enough to evolve their own genetic markers. No one knows why and how this happened.”

There a ‘Chinese proverb’ which says ‘It’s the roof tiles with the cracks that let the light in.’ Study of the things that don’t fit your current paradigm is what will lead to generation of a new and better paradigm. This is how good scientists work. When Einstein was puzzling over light there were two competing paradigms for how light travelled, both based on well-checked observations. Einstein decided to ask what the implications were of the facts behind the two paradigms both being right. The result was a completely new paradigm, general relativity.

I have used the examples above in Gods, Genes and Climate as challenges to the current orthodoxy of human origins, and to devise the paradigm the book presents. The three observations that come from these strange uses of language by scientists, that have fed into the book, are:

- It would not be remarkable for people to live successfully on the Russian plains and in Siberia at the last glacial maximum, if these areas were not then at the lattitude that they now are.

- As the diversity of DNA builds up as species evolve, and as we know humans have evolved from some pre-cursor species, somehow diversity has been lost. Which can surely only occur if evolution of the species has gone through an extreme pinch-point, from which only the DNA of a very few members of the pre-cursor species has survived.

- There is another possible explanation for the genetic marker carried by early farmers from the fertile crescent into Europe, rather than a population somehow keeping themselves apart from others for millennia in the Middle East. It is that a population arrived in the Middle East from somewhere from which we have so far not found any examples of ancient DNA containing the strange ‘marker. It must have been somewhere sufficiently far away from Eurasia and northern Africa to make interbreeding impossible.

I will leave you to read the book to see how these play out in constructing the story.