Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Heated hobbit debate takes new turn.

In October 2005, I commented on a scientific dispute pertaining to the discovery of a 'new species' of Hominids in Indonesia known as the Hobbits for their small size, known also as the Flores people, Homo Floresiensis.

At the time, mainstream publications and mainstream science were refuting a dissident voice from an Indonesian researcher contesting the Characterisation of the Flores people as a new species. There were two arguments that rallied me to the dissident researcher voice.

The first one was epistemological and methodological, the Ockham razor hypothesis: he said that research into the new species should first eliminate any doubt about whether the Flores people had a pathological condition.

The second one was more theoretical. If we look at the evolutionary tree below, we realise that for Homo Floresiensis to become a new species, evolution should have taken a bizarre departure from both Gradualism, and Punctuated Equilibrium which states that species change little over time and that evolution occurs in rare rapid events of branching speciation. The H. Floresiensis species not only appears in one giant leap but reaches the phenotypic status of other species situated far away on the evolutionary tree.

This figure, taken from the Prehistoric Cultures web page of the University of Minnesota Duluth, shows the improbable descent of Homo floresiensis.

And then there was this troubling fact that the number of specimen studied was ridiculously low. Good science cannot be made without numbers...

So it was rather an agreable surprise to read today that a new research from an Australian group shows that the Flores people might not be a new species and that they were probably afflicted by a congenital disorder known as Dwarf Cretinism. Of course this doesn't seem enough to close the debate for now but the irony of the finding is that for the refutation to get the approval of the mainstream press, it had to come from an Australian group. The group who are defending the new species hypothesis is also an Australian group and while the early dissident voice of the veteran Indonesian researcher was dismissed by them as Hubris, they might be forced to listen this time to fellow scientists from their country. From what it appears, this case is paradigmatic about how scientific consensus can be race sensitive.

Although I am glad that I was correct in my appreciation of the debate, I am sad for the new species that probably wasn't.

UPDATE: Small bodied humans from Palau.

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