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LETTER TO THE BOOKSHELF

A letter regarding Peter Andrews's review of A New Human

My response here to the review by Peter Andrews of A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia is prompted only in part by the need to insist on the appropriate role of fact versus fancy in any discussion of the skeletal remains from the Liang Bua Cave on Flores, Indonesia. Dr. Andrews's review ("Choosing One's Relatives," July-August 2007), by uncritically repeating assertions made in the book, perpetuates the numerous errors of simple evidence as well as dubiously speculative interpretations that have marked this emblematic episode in paleoanthropology, from the first publications about it in Nature late in 2004 until now. More important, I am moved to take time from my own research on this scientific problem to register my disgust that American Scientist would lend its pages to the continuing attempt to discredit the scientific findings of my colleague Teuku Jacob, not by examination of the evidence or the reasoning that he and others have brought to bear on the problem, but by repeated clumsy attempts at character assassination.

I will confine my comments chiefly to the following paragraph:

Unfortunately, because other people wanted to get in on the act, departures from the scientific method occurred after the Nature article was published. Most notably, Teuku Jacob, an Indonesian anthropologist who was not a member of the team, precipitously removed the skull, lower jaw and femur of the Flores woman, along with another lower jaw found at Liang Bua, from the lab where they were being kept. He then restricted access to the specimens and dismissed them as the remains of modern humans with the pathological condition known as microcephaly. According to Morwood and Oosterzee, Jacob essentially hijacked the remains, claiming falsely that Morwood had agreed to their transfer. The authors also complain that when Jacob finally returned the fossils, the bones had been mishandled and irreparably damaged.

To begin with, the phrase "because other people wanted to get in on the act" is a disingenuous inversion of what happened immediately following publication of the first two papers in Nature and the accompanying media hype and distortion, which were of magnitudes unusual even for the scientific sideshow that paleoanthropology increasingly appears to be. The initially independent reaction of several experienced researchers in various specialties related to the study of human evolution—including but not limited to Dr. Jacob in Indonesia, Maciej Henneberg and Alan Thorne in Australia, and me, as well as Robert Martin at the Field Museum of Natural History—was incredulity rooted in experience, not any wish to join the original authors in what appeared then, and still appears now, to be a very obvious scientific blunder. Drs. Jacob, Henneberg and Thorne immediately were drawn to the anomalously small size of the cranium of LB1. Dr. Martin was attracted initially as well, I think, to the problems of brain size, body-size scaling being a subfield in which he has significant expertise. My own attention focused at first on what seemed to be an exaggeratedly low estimate of stature for LB1. All of us—far from wanting "to get in on the act," as Dr. Andrews accuses—were attempting to draw attention to what we considered to be flaws in "the act" of reifying a new hominin species—a performance in which we wished to have no part other than that of serious critics.

What of the accusation in the review that Dr. Jacob was precipitous in removing the skull, lower jaw and femur of the Flores woman, along with another lower jaw found at Liang Bua, from the lab where they were being kept? Such a statement echoes what by now has become the epic epithet that Dr. Jacob sort of popped into a lab far from his own and "made off with the bones." A reality check is in order. At the time that the Liang Bua bones were transported from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta to the Laboratory of Bioanthropology and Paleoanthropology in Yogyakarta, a trip slightly in excess of 440 kilometers (roughly the distance from London to Land's End in Great Britain, or from New York City to Boston in the United States), Dr. Jacob was a 75-year-old emeritus professor. It is my own observation that, although this gentleman retains an enviable measure of professional vigor, he habitually walks with a cane. It is more than a little unlikely that he does many physical tasks "precipitously" in any of the usual senses of that term. Moreover, it wasn't just the limited inventory of bones listed by Andrews that was transported from lab to lab across Java, but rather the full set of bones belonging to all of the Liang Bua individuals—rather a lot to juggle with one hand, it would seem. When several other colleagues and I viewed them in Yogyakarta, these bones filled several large plastic trays.

Numerous uninformed and misleading statements have been made about the propriety of Dr. Jacob and his colleagues (including me) studying these bones. I will note only that I understand that there was an agreement between the Centre for Archaeology in Indonesia and the University of New England in Australia that made provision for specialist input from other institutions, and also that said agreement apparently had expired around April 2004, nearly a year before my colleagues and I examined the Liang Bua skeletal remains in February 2005. Then, as now, the traditionally critical role in science ascribed to independent examination of evidence and attempted replication of results seemed more important than distractions in the guises of legalistic charges and gratuitous insults.

Dr. Andrews refers to "the pathological condition known as microcephaly." However, microcephaly is not a single condition; the term is better used in its medical meaning as a sign or symptom, rather than to refer to any specific syndrome that includes reduced brain volume. There are hundreds of such syndromes, many of which are accompanied by skeletal asymmetry and stature reduction, as appears evident here.

Dr. Andrews, reporting a complaint by Dr. Morwood and Ms. van Oosterzee, writes that "when Jacob finally returned the fossils, the bones had been mishandled and irreparably damaged." Whether the Liang Bua remains should be referred to as fossils is debatable. The initial paragraph of the original 2004 paper by Peter Brown and colleagues (Nature 431:1055) states that "The skeleton is extremely fragile and not fossilized or covered with calcium carbonate." Although it is permissible within the context of some definitions to apply the term fossils to those bones, I believe that the term is being used in this case to dramatize the perceived value of the remains. Another issue is that mishandling of the Liang Bua specimens occurred before Dr. Jacob had any contact with them. As Brown and colleagues note in their 2004 paper, "Unfortunately, the bregmatic region, right frontal, supraorbital, nasal and subnasal regions were damaged when the skeleton was discovered." From my own observations I can state that some of the bones were incompletely prepared and preserved.

Some of the characteristics initially attributed to LB1 and mentioned in Dr. Andrews's book review have not stood up to further scrutiny—for example, the strikingly low initial published estimate for the endocranial volume of LB1, 380 milliliters. Even Dr. Morwood and his colleagues now use a value of 417 milliliters (see, for example, the 2005 paper by Dean Falk and others [Science 308:242-245]); this is a point not acknowledged by Dr. Andrews in his review. Likewise, the early contention that LB1 had "relatively long arms" has been abandoned.

Against this background, to my Sigma Xi "colleagues in zealous research" I would urge somewhat less zeal and a lot more research. To science writers and book review editors, I would suggest that judging a story by how "startling" (Morwood and van Oosterzee) and "exciting" (Andrews) it appears serves in a startlingly irresponsible manner the genuinely exciting enterprise of science.

Robert B. Eckhardt
Pennsylvania State University

References:

Brown, P., T. Sutikna, M. J. Morwood, R. P. Soejono, Jatmiko, E. Wayhu Saptomo, Rokus Awe. 2004. A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature 431:1055-1061.

Falk, D., C. Hildebolt, K. Smith, M. J. Morwood, T. Sutikna, P. Brown, Jatmiko, E. Wayhu Saptomo, B. Brunsden, and F. Prior. 2005. The brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science 308: 242-245.

Hershkovitz, I., L. Kornreich and Z. Laron. 2007. Comparative skeletal features between Homo floresiensis and patients with primary growth hormone insensitivity (Laron Syndrome). American Journal of Physical Anthropology (early publication) doi:10.1002/ajpa.20655

Jacob, T., E. Indriati, R. P. Soejono, K. Hsü, D. W. Frayer, R. B. Eckhardt, A. J. Kuperavage, A. Thorne and M. Henneberg. 2006. Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 103:13421-13426.

Martin, R. D., A. M. MacLarnon, J. L. Phillips and W. B. Dobyns. 2006. Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf? The Anatomical Record Part A 288A:1123-1145. doi:10.1002/ar.a.203895

Richards, G. D. 2006. Genetic, physiologic and ecogeographic factors contributing to variation in Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis reconsidered. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19:1744-1767. doi:10.1111/j.1420-

 

The Editors respond:

Books written by scientists involved in controversies naturally tell the story from that protagonist's point of view. A New Human is such a book, and in order to describe the book to readers and frame his commentary, our reviewer found it necessary to paraphrase the author's statements. We regret that Dr. Eckhardt is displeased by the publication of a review that repeats assertions he considers inaccurate and unfairly deleterious to a colleague's reputation. Because Dr. Eckhardt maintains that important facts have been obscured in media coverage and were not brought out in the review, we have relaxed the rule restricting the scope of Letters to matters discussed in the magazine's pages.


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