Brains Distrust

Gary Lynch and Richard Grainger. Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Pseudoscience comes in many guises but it is usually well signposted: the publishers are notorious for producing crank books, the authors have no relevant qualifications, or blazon their PhD's in some totally irrelevant subject across the title page. This one is different, the authors are real professors (of psychiatry and computational science respectively) at real universities, the title does not blazon their degrees, they have quotes from actual real authorities in the world of neuroscience on their blurb, and it is published by one of the most respected academic publishers. But...

Well, they tell an interesting story. Once upon a time, long ago (in 1913 actually) there was discovered at Boskop in South Africa the remains of a forgotten type of human being with a huge skull with a giant brain. This to be the first of a number of these ancient supermen to be discovered. They were given the name Homo capenensis. Scientific papers were written about them, then silence. They did not fit in with the picture of human evolution suggested by the fake Piltdown skull, so were quietly forgotten about. The authors quote from a number of pre-War scientific papers, waxing lyrical about their huge cranial capacity. They speculate about their amazing capabilities, beings who are to us what we are to Homo erectus, whose imaginations soar to the stars. Beings whose huge foreheads and little faces look like popular images of ufonauts. The imagination is gripped, and one can already see how the story is taken up on the internet: they are human alien hybrids, Mel Torres' lost race of parahumans building the flying saucers and lord knows what else. Soon they will be reported as having fled to the lost world of Agharthi, fled the earth in a flying saucer or built the statues on Easter Island. A new myth is being born.

Too good to be true you might think? You're right, it is. Indeed there were a group of skulls discovered in the early years of the twentieth century, to which the name Boskop Man was given. However the context has to be understood. This was a period in which notions of human evolution were hazy at best. Only the Javan fossil of Pithecanthropus (Homo erectus), Neanderthal skeletons, and the jaw of Homo heidelbergensis, and the notorious Piltdown skull were known. There was a tendency to place all of these on side branches and look for really ancient, really human remains. Old literature was full of them, Lloyds Man, Galley Hill Man and the like. The idea of large brains in remote periods actually fitted in with the then view of human evolution in which large brains developed first, the exact opposite of what we now know to be the case. Until the invention of modern techniques from the early 1960s onwards, dating was little more than guesswork, and reconstruction, and this was the generation that 'reconstructed' the Neanderthals and shambling ape-men on the basis of a single arthritic individual, and produced half a dozen different 'reconstruction's' of Piltdown man.

Despite this, even the old authorities were not as mystified by the Boskop remains as these authors pretend. Books written from the 1930s to the mid 1950s all connect them to the people now known as Khosians but then known as 'Bushmen', 'Hottentots' and 'Sandlopers'. Loren Eisley whom the authors quote at length was clear about this, so how come they don't follow this up?

Eisley however, influenced by ideas of orthogenesis or self-generated evolution, conjured up the notion that these skulls were the result of runaway neotony. He was influenced by the same sort of folk ideas of evolution which inspired the creation of the Mekon as the huge brained, small faced man of the future. This notion had been suggested by earlier writers, but their motivation was to present the Bushmen as primitive overgrown children. Believing the Boskop skull to be old, and that of the ancestor of 'primitive savages' Sir Arthur Keith, for example, found evidence that the brain had 'primitive features'. He had 'discovered' the same about the modern human skull used in the Piltdown fraud.

After 1958, several years after the Piltdown fake was exposed the Boskop and related remains were re-examined by Dr Ronald Singer who concluded that there was no Boskop race, that this had just been a arbitrary name given to large skulls from a variety of times and places and taken out of context of the rest of the remains. They are now seen to be part of the typical Paleo-Khosian population of the area. No cover up, just new information.

So what this book produces is, after all, classic pseudoscience, people with expertise in one field writing on subjects way outside their specialisation, too lazy or arrogant to phone up or email colleagues in the relevant field (or even do a Google search) to check up, the recycling of long outdated ideas, selective quoting, the erection of vast edifices of speculation on minimal evidence etc, publishers too lazy to check simple facts.

There is an additional new problem which we are going to encounter more and more. Old, out of copyright material is constantly being added to the Web, but often the material which refutes, corrects or amends it is still in copyright and is not on the Web, or is only on expensive subscription sites. At one time, when old material was consulted, it was in old dusty volumes or reels of microfilm, consulted in major libraries. The social context, and the context of the whole source of the material (the other articles, the letters, the adverts) all gave a psychological sense of age. Now this old material can be viewed on the web, often looking as fresh as this morning's news, no longer giving that psychological sense of age and distance, that warns us that this material may be very old hat indeed, and that some real hard research may be needed to check its current validity.

No doubt these authors wanted a fascinating story around which they could weave their account of brain evolution, but they have set out a hare which will be chased by cranks and creationists for years to come, and may done a major disservice to science. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 99, April 2009.

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