Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Humans, Chimps, and Bonobos

At the NY Times, the ever-wrongheaded Nicholas Wade makes a mistake that really irks me:

Paleoanthropologists often assume that chimp societies are a reasonably good stand-in for the ancestral ape society that gave rise to the chimp and human lineages. Living hunter-gatherers may reflect those of long ago, since humans always lived this way until the first settled societies of 15,000 years ago.

The two species’ social structure could scarcely be more different. Chimp society consists of a male hierarchy, dominated by the alpha male and his allies, and a female hierarchy beneath it. The alpha male scores most of the paternities, cutting his allies in on others. The females try to mate with every male around, so each may think he’s the father and spare her child. How did a chimplike society ever give rise to the egalitarian, largely monogamous structure of hunter-gatherer groups?

The problem with this whole line of analysis is that Bonobos are much more closely related to Chimpanzees than either is to us, and Bonobo society is radically different from chimp society: no alpha males, very little violent conflict, no control of breeding by high-ranking animals. How does anybody know that the common ancestor of humans, Bonobos, and chimps was more like a chimp than a Bonobo? We don't. We know, in fact, nothing at all about the social life of that common ancestor. So I wish people would quit launching theories of human origins based on speculations about speculations about guesses.

Memo to the Times: there are a LOT of people in the world who understand science much better than Nicholas Wade and can write as well; why don't you get rid of him and hire one of them?

1 comment:

ramsay said...

Good point. I assume the NYTimes keeps writers like Nicholas Wade on is because they are good at creating journalism and unfortunately journalism is more about a simple story, or a provocative headline, than the truth. People who make large assumptions and are gifted with the ability to pick tidbits of information that support their arguments while often ignoring the mountains of evidence that run contrary to their positions, are often the most productive journalists. I love the NYTimes, but I'm let down by it, as you seem to be, on a regular basis. Too often the gifted writers seem only to posses the gift of gab.