Extinct 'hobbits' defy placement on the human family tree

Real scientists unafraid to say, “We don’t know.”

The nice thing about scientists, as opposed to right-wing Christian fundamentalists, for example, is the way they react when they don’t have all the answers. The good scientist, when faced with a piece of reality that doesn’t seem to click with existing theory, relishes a new opportunity to dive back into that wonderful pond again where he or she thrashes around, swims and explores until he or she can come out with a little more knowledge.

The Christian fundamentalists miss out on all that fun because, of course, they already have all the answers and have no need to ever jump into any kind of place where something might be discovered.

There was an article in the New York Times this week about extinct little people called hobbits who once inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. They were discovered six years ago, and their discovery, rather than answering a few more questions about the origins, transformations and migrations of the early human family, instead opened up a whole series of new questions. Scientists got together last week to review research at a symposium in Stony Brook, N.Y.

The “hobbits” were very small, about three feet tall but bear no resemblance to modern pygmies. They had short legs and walked upright. The one skull that has been found is the size of a grapefruit, a size that would support a brain about one third the size of a human’s. Despite this, they made stone tools similar to those produced by other hominids with larger brains. They lived isolated from the rest of the world on the island of Flores as recently as 17,000 years ago. Humans were already living in nearby Australia at that time.

The name for modern humans is homo sapiens. The immediate ancestor of home sapiens was homo erectus, known to have lived in Asia and the islands surrounding Flores for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet the hobbits were not simply a smaller version of home erectus.

When their discovery was announced, scientific critics said that homo floresiensis, as they are called, were merely modern dwarfs afflicted with genetic or pathological disorders. Scientists came away from the Stony Brook gathering with an emerging consensus that H. floresiensis, as originally proposed, is a distinct hominid species around far longer than and much more primitive than homo sapiens. Researchers showed images of hobbit brain casts in comparison with those of human brains, refuting the “sick dwarf” hypothesis. A few were more skeptical and said they need to find more skeletons at other cites, particularly a few more skulls.

This is all as it should be.

It is the reasoned, documented arguments of scientists going back to Charles Darwin and before that revealed and advanced the theory of natural selection and enabled our understanding that species were not created all at once by a divine hand but started with a few simple forms that mutated and adapted over time.

It is fashionable today for the fundamentalist churches to point to the controversy around issues like the hobbits who don’t “fit” or missing layers of fossils in the Grand Canyon as proof that evolution and natural selection should be replaced with theories of “intelligent design.” That’s because a world created by a God who they define for us is a world they can better control.

The right wing hooks up with these folks because a world full of liberated scientists would be a lot harder to control than a world full of people living in fear of a God who wants us to follow the rules of the fundamentalist Christians, who claim they already know what the world is all about.

True scientists, on the other hand, reward and praise those who ask questions and those who discover flaws in the established “rules.”

Among the many things we can celebrate at the end of the first 100 Days of the Obama administration is its defense of science, from its support of stem cell research to its reversal of the Bush administration’s attack on the teaching of science in our schools.

If we allow “intelligent design” into science textbooks, classrooms and laboratories we risk destroying the chances of making discoveries about things now on the outer edge of science.

It is many of those discoveries that we will need to drive the economy of the future.

If forcing the teaching of intelligent design results in even one less student equipped to make the next breakthrough in renewable energy resources, it will have been a disaster. Teaching intelligent design is nothing less than abuse of our children.

A student who grows up believing that anything he or she does not understand or that no one else yet understands is divinely constructed and therefore beyond his or her intellect is a human being who has been robbed. Sitting in amazement of what we don’t know is no substitute for boldly going where we have never been before.