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Journal of No. 118

January 22nd, 2016

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, by Ian Tattersall @ 05:06 pm

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This book traces the history of the discovery of various human and hominid fossils, and gives us Tattersall's boldly biased opinions about everything. I don't know enough to say whether he's right or wrong, but he clearly has an axe to grind (or flake from rock cores, I suppose). The rickety Cossack of the title refers to a mid 19th century opinion about a Neanderthal fossil -- a quickly discarded idea now only remembered and promulgated by creationists.
The story of all the early finds is interesting and well-told. As we get further into the 20th century, Tattersall starts to name names and call people idiots. Unfortunately, the level of detail is sometimes too much for a dabbler like myself. But what I take from it is that his beef is largely with the lumpers, while he is more of a splitter. And that early thinking locked later thinking too much into the idea that we are the unique descendants of a single line of descent from an early hominid ancestor. When it's become clear that our genus has been fairly bushy, even in relatively recent times, as H. floresiensis shows.
While reading the book, I also happened upon an essay on the controversy about the evenmorerecent discovery of H. naledi. The brief exchanges quoted there give something of the flavor of Tattersall's view:

Echoes of that type of extreme lumping can be found in Tim White’s criticism of H. naledi, who similarly criticized the discovery of Australopithecus deyiremeda earlier this year, insisting that it was no more than a variant of A. afarensis, the species of Lucy.

I spoke with Ian Tattersall and asked his opinion of the controversy. While he was loathe to criticize colleagues whom he greatly respects, he did admit that “Tim’s definition of erectus is so broad so as to make that sort of thing inevitable.” When I asked for his opinion, he said “I don’t think there’s any chance this is erectus. It had a very small brain, but some surprisingly modern features to accompany that tiny brain.”
Tattersall bemoaned this as well. “Because they found a brow ridge in some of the crania [of naledi] and you don’t see brow ridges in Australopithecus, it had to be Homo. That’s pretty much how it works. If something is not Australopithecus, it’s Homo. If it’s not Homo, it’s Australopithecus. Maybe it’s time for us to stop stuffing new morphologies into the old pigeonholes we’ve had for a hundred years.”

Just because he's a bit argumentative doesn't mean that Tattersall is wrong; indeed, I rather think he's on the right side of things. Or at least more right than the lumpers.
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Journal of No. 118