Scientific American recently published a spineless attack on the state of access to paleoanthropological specimens. They titled it, “Fossils for All: Science Suffers by Hoarding,” and John Hawks lend it credibility with a nod in his post. Aside from being spineless, it reeks of ignorance and is tactless. In this post I’ll be discussing why this is not a honest criticism but rather a sloppy slam.
If you read the piece, you’ll notice that Tim White is in the cross hairs of the editors of Scientific American. Why? Tim White discovered Ardipithecus ramidus fifteen years ago and continues preparing the specimens. For the editors, that’s enough to pull the guns out and start shooting — claiming he’s sitting on his golden egg far too long and damaging the field as a whole. The cowards at Scientifc American decided to make this bold claim behind a wall of anonymity… publishing this piece simply as the editors. And here in lies the drama and the conflicts of interest.
See, most anthropological editorials on Scientific American are authored by Kate Wong, a twelve year veteran editor for magazine. She is their anthropology editor. Her authority on the subject matter come from a Bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology and zoology from the University of Michigan. University of Michigan is home to Milford Wolpoff, the man who supports multiregional evolution hypothesis… You know the one that claims the origins of Homo sapiens happened in multiple places around the world and not from a common African origin. He’s known for not being a field scientist. Furthermore, within the discipline, the rift between Wolpoff and White is pretty well known and deep. White got his PhD from the University of Michigan. And Wolpoff holds a ~50 year grudge against White in regards to his stance against his single species origin of humans.
Wong has worked closely with another large anti-Tim White camp, the Hadar folks, during the lead up to the Selam news frenzy that we talked about several years ago. The Hadar camp is more or less a Donald Johanson territory as he was there when Lucy was discovered and published the findings. Where Wong may not have an immediate connection to Wolpoff, aside from earning her Bachelor’s from the department Wolpoff teaches in, she does have a clear one with Johanson. She was a coauthor with Donald Johanson on a book published this year, Lucy’s Legacy.
As you may know, there’s also sour grapes shared shared between Johanson and White. I won’t get into those details… But its clearly out there and is exemplified by a passage in Lucy’s Legacy,
“Tim is a very exacting scientist who is not about to be pressured into saying more about ramidus until he is good and ready. But his unwillingness to share more information about the fossils – not to mention access to the remains themselves – in a much more timely way has drawn criticism. (So secretive are he and his team about the fossil that it has been referred to as the Manhattan Project of paleoanthropology.) In fact, spurred in part by Tim’s actions, some researchers have even proposed that funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation establish a limitation on how long the discoverer of a fossil has exclusive access to that material before having to share it with other investigators.” p. 155-156 Lucy’s Legacy
There’s no way to know if Johanson or Wong wrote this particular passage but they both share authorship and royalities of the book and ultimately agree on the points raised in the text.
This is a clear conflict of interest for Scientific American and their anthropological editor, Kate Wong. As an editor of Scientific American, for Wong to be an author of a book which conveys the same criticisms as published under anonymity in their magazine and on their website, shows that she exploited her professional capacity for personal benefit.
In addition to egregious political move by Scientific American, the piece is ignorant of the whole process involved in finding, cleaning, documenting a fossil. Fossils don’t come out of the ground perfect. Believe me, I know. Some of the time these findings are as delicate as a ball of dust and require a great deal of care to preserve them during which time it is the primary investigator/discoverer’s responsibility and privilege. I’ve actually discussed this before, very thoroughly in this comment thread.
For the editors and other supporters to suggest there should be a limit to how long it takes to prepare a fossil show how they really have no idea to what it takes to curate a fossil. There’s no way to put a time limit on this process. Aside from a select few, most field scientists are professors at universities. Again, as I’ve said before, their time in the field is limited, several months a year, of which time is split between finding new fossils and curating old ones. Field scientists, like White, can’t leave their teaching positions at places like UC Berkeley and dedicate years to preparing the specimen. They do as much as they can and they do it with quality. The Middle Awash, White’s stomping ground, has an impressive record of impactful, frequent fossil discoveries and publications which can’t really be said for Wolpoff and Johanson.
You may consider this a defense of White. I admit this is. This was a shameless jab at White and a despicable, cowardly, and haphazard move by Scientific American. Science is not about quantity. I shouldn’t have to tell freaking Scientific American that. Science is about quality. Editorials like this don’t advance the field. They completely ignore that science is a process and not a product. In doing so they damage the discipline.
One last thing… To the editors of Scientific American, grow some balls next time you wanna put out crap like this and publish your full names along side your criticism. Stand behind your words.