Harvard Biologist Admits: We Know Nothing About Brain Evolution
March 19, 2008
Science journals have featured countless stories about the evolution of the human brain. Scientists are puzzled since humans have much bigger brains than any other species. Their suggested explanations have often been mutually exclusive, for instance the old text book explanation relied on eating meat but a few years ago an article New Scientist, a popular science magazine, suggested that eating starch was the secret of brain growth. But both explanations fail to answer why other meat or starch eating species do not have big brains.
At the recent AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting in Boston, Richard Lewontin, a distinguished biology professor at Harvard University, acknowledged that stories about human brain evolution have not been based on facts. Reporting on the meeting for the journal Science, Michael Balter quoted Lewontin as saying, â€œWe are missing the fossil record of human cognition, so we make up stories.” The title of Balterâ€™s article seems to be an admission of sorts: â€œHow Human Intelligence Evolved–Is It Science or â€˜Paleofantasyâ€™?â€
According to professor Lewontin, it is fantasy. Lewontin suggests that there is much cause for pessimism in the study of human origins. Science reporter James Randerson of Britainâ€™s Guardian newspaper was even more brunt, saying, â€œWe know nothing about brain evolution.â€ Randerson went on to summarise Lewontinâ€™s reasons for pessimism. â€œThe handful of hominid fossils stretching back 4m years or soâ€ cannot tell us whether any of them were our ancestors. We â€œdo not have the have the faintest idea what the cranial capacity [of a fossil hominid] meansâ€. Moreover, we do not even know which hominids walked upright and which did not.
Lewontin is well-known for his outspokenness. In 1997 he wrote in The New York Review of Books that scientists choose to make up â€œunsubstantiated just-so storiesâ€ because they â€œhave a prior commitment, a commitment to materialismâ€¦ Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.â€
Obviously, the scientific community cannot ignore Lewontinâ€™s recent conclusions. If the ruling paradigm (naturalism or the view that nature is all there is) leads us into a blind alley, might there be something wrong with it?
About the Author:
I am a translator and novelist currently living in Finland. I have an MA in translation studies and a BA in Bible and theology. I like to keep up-to-date with science and origins issues and write about them in my blogs. You can find more of my work on my blog