Just because this blog is titled “Space Between the Lines”, that does not mean that it will focus only on space science. Also, even though Glenn Wargo’s “Astrology Notes” are the most popular posts in these parts, not everything here will be happy-go-lucky fun and games.
One of the interesting things about science is that it has all kinds of people. Normally, this is a strength as it offers many positive examples of minorities and women who achieve greatness. However, when you have all kinds of people, you also have some who are not the nicest of people and even some downright troublemakers. Some troublemakers, like the late Halton Arp in the field of astronomy, were relatively harmless. Then you have those who will stoop to some pretty low levels just to push their agenda.
Before I get to an example of someone who likely crossed the line to push their view, here is a little background. Back in 2004, a group of scientists working on the island of Flores in Indonesia found the remains of a few rather short individuals. They were no taller than about three feet and had adult teeth, but rather small brains. After much study, it was concluded by the vast majority of scientists that these individuals were not modern humans, but rather some more primitive species, dubbed H. Floresiensis. Opinion is divided as to whether these represent a dwarf variety of H. Erectus or something along the lines of H. Afarensis. I sort of lean towards the H. Afarensis opinion.
Just when everything seemed to be mostly resolved, along comes Robert B. Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State. Eckhardt recently published a paper that claimed the individuals discovered on Flores were not a new species, but rather deformed modern humans who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. The announcement was carried widely in science media including Space Daily. I am sure that most readers of this blog are as disgusted as I am to hear someone, a scientist no less, imply that those with Down’s Syndrome are deformed freaks.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time another species in our genus was described in this kind of manner. In 1829, the first bunch of H. Neanderthalensis bones were discovered near the Neander valley in Germany (hence the name of the species). When examined, they appeared somewhat similar to human bones but there were some differences. In 1856, eminent German pathologist Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) explained that the bones were those of a cavalry soldier from Napoleon’s army who suffered from severe rickets and had further deformities from his military career. He then wound up with severe head injuries in battle and died in the valley. Virchow can be excused since nobody knew anything about evolutionary biology in those days and the idea that there were species that went extinct was fairly new. But Eckhardt can’t use those excuses today.
Eckhardt’s assertion can be proven wrong on several points. One of the major lines of evidence that identified the Flores bones with H. Floresiensis was the bone structure of the wrist. Some of the bones had a more primitive shape than that found in humans. While Down’s Syndrome may have effects on the skull, it does not affect the wrist bones. Also, Down’s Syndrome does not cause a small brain to the extent that was found with the Flores remains.
Another argument has to do with the adult teeth found in the jaws. This would imply that these individuals lived to adulthood. In primitive societies (and some not as primitive), people with birth defects were considered bad omens and signs of divine disfavor, as described in a recent post on EsoterX. Such folks probably would not live very long, either being killed or dying from bad treatment. Lest anyone think that regarding those with birth defects as monsters or warnings of divine anger was a phenomenon of stone age cultures, Dr. Beachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History had a post describing how children in some rural areas of Europe with severe mental issues were considered non-human and were often killed, even up until the 19th century. In fact, no less a figure than Martin Luther (founder of Protestantism) once claimed that a child, who we today would consider severely autistic, be put to death. When the Electors (a fancy German term for a group of princes) refused, Luther then suggested that the local populace should pray daily for the elimination of said individual.
Finally, there is the lore of the inhabitants of Flores. They describe a creature they call “Ebu Gogo” which matches the physical description of H. Floresiensis to a T. You are probably thinking “So what? Lots of cultures have legends of ‘little people’.” True. But in almost all of those legends, the “little people” (fairies, leprechauns, elves, etc.) are described as having some kind of supernatural ability. The Ebu Gogos do not. They are described as stupid, greedy thieves with no powers whatsoever. According to local lore, it was their penchant for thievery that got them wiped out when the local humans decided that enough was enough.
If these points are not enough, it seems that there may be some irregularities about Eckhardt’s paper and how it got published. These are described in this newspaper article.
All of this makes one wonder why there are some people who would go to such lengths and stoop so low just to keep those individuals from being classed as a new species? What could be their motivation(s)?