The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on April 2 reporting research findings on the sex roles of our hominid ancestors. It includes a reference to a new book, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory by James Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page. Perhaps the most prominent message in the article is that current paleoanthropology research is invested in studying human evolution from an equal-rights-minded perspective, while past research has chauvinistically and perhaps inaccurately emphasized the machismo of early man’s big-game hunting achievements. No doubt this enlightened effort to consider the importance of early woman’s labors to our extant existence reflects our recent cultural evolution towards gender equality. Bravo in this regard. And while I’ll never criticize the popular media for reporting on, nor researchers from researching, the evolutionary history of the species we’re all most interested in (our own), the fact remains that inferring evolutionary dynamics from ancient fragments of bones and tools is nearly impossible. The opacity of this problem is well illustrated by just how easily influenced the scientific perspective is by the social politics of our culture at large.
Still, there’s a big difference between making the most of the data you’ve got—and the validity of these researchers’ scientific conclusions should be evaluated by the rigor of their scientific method—and flat-out naivety or, worse, disingenuousness. At the end of the article, Stanford anthropologist Richard Klein is reported as saying that a mutation in the lineage of early humans may be responsible for our eventual success, as opposed to the eventual extinction of the related Neanderthal lineage. This point comes after a dramatic description of humans emerging into a “cultural” and “artistic” existence of sophisticated “conceptual thinking,” the implication being that our superior intellectual powers should be credited with saving us from extinction. (There’s no way to know this, either: another example of human bias?) But hand-waving aside, there are some things we DO understand rather well, and the extraordinarily complex, quantitative nature of human biology is one of them. No geneticist or evolutionary biologist would ever think that a single mutation could induce such a dramatic new phenotype, so why should an anthropologist (or reporter)? The truth is almost certainly that multiple mutations distinguished our early human ancestors from their Neanderthal neighbors. This may be less easily dramatized to a non-scientific audience, but I argue strenuously that an accurate representation of the scientific process is as critical in an agenda for general science education as is whether scientific research is reported at all.