Ardi Shook Science to its Roots

Science misled itself--and us--into believing things about the origins of our species that were wrong. Now what?Find Bill Allin at

Science misled itself--and us--into believing things about the origins of our species that were wrong. Now what?Find Bill Allin at


Ardi Shook Science To Its Roots

by Bill Allin, author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to understand all the ways children develop, not just intellectually. People have problems when they don't know.

"From studying Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, we learn that we cannot understand or model human evolution from chimps and gorillas."
- Owen Lovejoy, a lead author of one of the 11 studies of Ardi that appeared in the journal Science.

Science labelled the discovery of Ardi (more accurately, the revelations of study results of Ardi) the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2009.

At this stage, the study of Ardi and the ramifications of the changes of thinking that will come from it are just beginning. This article will add a few important observations to what we in the general public should learn from the whole exercise. Different information to ponder.

First and foremost is that the lead author of a respected scientific study admitted that the theory (that human evolutionary models could be devised from ape models) that was cherished so long it became thought of as fact, was wrong.

As much as we look somewhat like apes, especially so in the case of young chimpanzees, we differ significantly. The theory claimed that our prehistoric and prehuman ancestors lived in trees and only emerged from the African jungle to walk upright, learn to run and hunt on the savannah.

Cats and birds, for examples, live in trees (at least cats are as comfortable in trees as they are on the ground). Cats and birds can hang upside down from a tree branch and their brains will adjust to the orientation so that they can understand the scene as well as if they were standing upright.

Humans cannot. Stand up now, spread your legs and bend your head down so you look between your legs at the scene behind you. It simply doesn't make as much sense as it would if you were standing upright even though you know the components of the scene you are trying to look at. Your brain cannot adapt to what it understands as a scene that is non-conventional, that is not oriented to the way it wants to understand a floor or ground level scene.

Can you not bend that far? Interesting. Cats and birds can do that for their whole lives. Most can also keep their bodies steady and turn their heads almost completely around to face behind them (some can even do it more than 180 degrees). That would be useful for animals that spend a great deal of time in trees.

If you have observed a pet cat--perhaps one climbing on you--then you have likely seen it hang upside down (at least its head would be upside down according to common orientation) and yet have no trouble understanding everything in the scene. Birds can do the same. To a cat or a bird, there is no upside down, only different orientations of the head, to which their brains easily adapt and adjust immediately.

Monkeys and their kin can do the same. You may have seen one in a zoo, on television or in a movie hanging upside by a foot, or even by its tail. They understand the scenes around them no matter what orientation their heads have to view the scene.

We humans can't. No matter how practiced we become, viewing a scene from a non-conventional perspective is always "not right" to us.

Why? If we did indeed once live in trees, we had no reason to lose what was once a critically important ability. We may lose body parts because we have no use for them (prehensile tail of the human fetus that disappears after the fifth month, wisdom teeth that will soon not appear in future generations, useless organs we can have removed and easily live without), but there is no example of humans or other animals losing inherent skills or abilities they once had.

We may no longer be able to do things we once did because our bodies have changed shape or configuration slightly, but we don't lose the skill within our brain should we ever need it. The potential is still there. Yet we still can't understand a scene that is "upside down" to our brain.

Even the reason science gives for humans losing their body hair is lame. The claim is that humans lost their body hair because it would have been too hot to run around the plains hunting in a fur coat. So we lost our fur coats so we could expose our bare skin to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (more direct, thus damaging, in Africa than in temperate zones) so we could contract skin cancer more easily?

That doesn't make sense. Evolution has never been shown to work to create more health risk in any animal. That would be counter to natural selection. Besides, do monkeys not get hot from swinging around in the trees? I would, if I had that ability and strength, hairy or naked. But I don't now and I didn't as a child, though I climbed awkwardly (by ape standards) in some trees.

The claim that hair in the crotch and armpits helps to dispel sweat, which is why we still grow it in those places, would apply as well to hair anywhere else on the body. Sweat would evaporate more quickly from crotch and armpits without hair to slow down the movement of air across them. If not, then women who shave those places today would be sweatier than women who let their hair grow. I'm not an expert, but I have never heard of that being a problem of women who shave.

Why do we retain head hair? To protect us from the sun? That argument should give more reason why we should retain all-body hair, not lose it. We can wash hair and skin (cooling off in the water at the same time), but we can't slough off melanoma.

Why do we like water so much? Never mind that most of our bodies consist of water as that applies to all animals and plants. Archaeologists looking for ancient human habitation almost always look near water. Or they look near where water once was in the prehistoric past.

Why? We can get enough water into our bodies the way monkeys and other animals do.

We also swim differently from most land animals that spend part of their lives in water. A dog swims using the dog paddle (elephants, excellent swimmers, swim the same way). A dog swims this way so easily because its face and nose are, compared to the locations of our own, on top of their heads. A dog doesn't have to lift its head to swim because its nose is already above water as it floats.

That convenient location of the nose and eyes for dogs did not cause them to lose their fur because they hunt and basically live on land. Elephants, on the other hand, are naked, can find food in the water, and they have webbing between their toes like a duck.

It seems highly likely that our prehuman ancestors--in the Pliocene period--spent a good deal of time in the water. There we lost our body hair, retained it in crotch and armpits for warmth and on the head so our babies could hold onto it. Ever held out your finger to a young baby and had it grasp the finger naturally? For more on this see Elaine Morgan's The Descent of Woman.

If the experts that study the history of our own species are so careless, so inexact, so arrogant about teaching theory that doesn't even meet the criterion of common sense examination, as if it were established fact, how much confidence can we place in any scientific claims made with the certainty of experts?

Theory is not fact, by its very definition, though theory is often taught as if it were fact. Even the laws of physics bear questioning. Remember reading about when light was believed to travel in straight lines, when time and space were linear, when the earth was the centre of the universe and when an object was in one place it couldn't be anywhere else? Not anymore. Evidence proves that these "facts" of science were wrong.

We may be wrong to adopt fantastic stories masquerading as religion (my story is always better and truer than yours), but we would be equally as mistaken to accept all statements by science as fact, no matter how confidently and passionately the statements are made.

We humans do not really know as much as we claim we do. We just act as if we know more, as if we are always right. It's called hubris. We teach it to our kids.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to understand all the ways children develop, not just intellectually. People have problems when they don't know.
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