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Michael Shermer, writing for Scientific American, asks “Did This Extinct Human Species Commit Homicide?”
I know, it’s always the same. Is there a question in the title? The answer is probably no. Regardless of what the following article says.
To back up for a second, last year I talked a little about the astounding discovery of a possible new species of human deep within a cave in South Africa, collected by a team of super rad spelunking female scientists. I mentioned that a lot of the details of the research perturbed cranky old gatekeepers, including the fact that the lead researchers used social media, hired younger up-and-coming scientists, and published in a respected open-access journal, making their data available to the public relatively quickly.
We can add Shermer to the list of perturbed gate-keepers, since he uses his platform at Scientific American to first look down his nose at open-access publishing, wondering why the researchers didn’t publish in Science or Nature instead. By this point, that’s a pretty outdated understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of open-access journals, plus it’s an argument from authority. A paper being published in an untrustworthy journal would be a warning flag but not an actual reason to dismiss it, and regardless, eLIFE is a pretty awesome journal, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Max Planck Society, and Wellcome Trust. See? I can do argument from authority, too!
One of the nice things about an open access publishing platform is that anyone can view the paper and its data in full, allowing us to immediately know that Shermer’s hypothesis, that the bones ended up in the cave due to murder and sacrifice, is most likely wrong. As study coauthor John Hawks wrote in his response to Shermer, the paper clearly states that there were no “green” fractures that would have occurred at or near time of death, no cutmarks or toothmarks indicating butchery, and no cranial bones showing intentional breaking. Hawks points out that maybe in the future they’ll find some evidence of violence, but after two years of study they haven’t found a single bit.
To make matters worse, Shermer has responded on Twitter by claiming that his article was “less about H. naledi & more about human nature & our violent past that is often downplayed”, which makes one wonder why the entire thing is about H. naledi, including his conjecture that these researchers in particular “are downplaying an all too common cause of death in our ancestors—homicide in the form of war, murder or sacrifice.” He states emphatically that “further examination of the Homo naledi fossils should consider violence (war or murder for the adults, sacrifice for the juveniles) as a plausible cause of death and deposition in the cave.” That seems awful specific to H. naledi.
But Hawks takes Shermer at his word, which doesn’t help Shermer much, pointing out “So H. naledi was a way to get attention for your pre-existing views about human nature? Not very skeptical-sounding.”
Indeed, a good skeptic begins with the evidence and goes where it leads. In this case, the evidence shows us nothing about violence but everything about how easily bias slips into science journalism.
Image credit: http://elifesciences.