Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Australopithecus erotimanis, and the evolution of the human hand

WARNING:  The following post contains adult content!

From the very beginning of formal taxonomy in biology, genus and species names have been assigned partly as descriptions of important aspects of a species.  Hence, Homo sapiens refers to our species' purported wisdom.  The underlying idea is that one correctly understands important key functions that characterize the species.  Linnaeus did not have 'evolution' as a framework with which to make such judgments, but we do.  And we should use that framework!

However, sometimes, in the rush to publish in the leading tabloids (in this case, Science magazine), a name is too hastily chosen.  That applies clearly to the recently ballyhooed 1.9+ million year old South African human ancestor.  Substantial fossil remains of two individuals, a male and a female, were found and seemed clearly to be contemporaneous.  Many features suggested that they could be marketed as a Revolutionary! revision to our entire understanding of human origins.

Now, too often in paleoanthropology there is little substantial evidence for such a dramatic consequences, similar to the pinnate carnage known as the War of Jenkins' Ear between Britain and Spain in 1739.  But not in this case here!   In this case, the specimens were dubbed Australopithecus sediba (See the special issue of Science, Sept 9, 2011 [subscription required]), and there are many traits, some more dramatic than others, by which to argue that it is Really (this time) important.

We haven't the space to outline all these features, but although we are amateurs at paleontology (for expertise, we fortunately have Holly the Amazing Dunsworth as part of our MT team from time to time), we feel qualified to comment.  One of the most remarkable features of A. sediba is its long, delicate digits on its obviously dextrous hand, and in particular its long and clearly useful thumb.  But useful for what?

One who is rooted, or rutted, in classical human paleontology, and thinks that tool use is what Made us Human, the obvious inference is:  a dextrous hand for tool use!   There is, however, a tiny problem: no tools were found in the site.

Now this can be hand-waived away in defense of the explanatory hypothesis that is derived from classical adaptive thinking.  Wooden tools, like stems chimps strip and use to ferret out termites, wouldn't preserve, and at that early stage of our evolution, stone pebbles might have been used--or even made--but would be perhaps sparse and if not remodeled by the creatures, unrecognizable.  Or perhaps these creatures hadn't carried their tools to the site.  There may indeed be perfectly reasonable explanations for why no tools were found, but one must at least admit that the absence of tools does not constitute evidence for the tool hypothesis. 

Still, if you believe there must be a functionally adaptive explanation for absolutely everything, and you are committed to the current framework of explanations about our ancestry, then tool-use is the obvious one.  How occasional use of pebbles led to higher reproductive success--which, remember, is what adaptive explanations must convincingly show--is somewhat less than obvious.  Also, it is the female specimen whose hand is best preserved, though the male is inferred (from one finger bone!) to have been similarly handy.  But females don't throw pebbles to gather berries!

A satisfying explanation
So how solid or even credible is the tool-use explanation?  Could there be better scenarios? We think so, and we believe our idea is as scientifically valid as the tired old one of tool use.

It is obvious upon looking at the fossil hand, that its most likely purpose was, not to mince words about it, masturbation.  Just look at the hand itself and its reach position (figure 2).  Think about it:  deft and masterly self-satisfying would yield  heightened sexuality, indeed of keeping one's self aroused at all times, ready for the Real Thing whenever the opportunity might arise. Unlike having to wait for prey to amble by, one could take one's evolutionary future in one's own hands--and use one's tool in a better way, one might say.

Being in a dreamy state is a lot less likely to provoke lethal strife within the population nor "Not tonight, I'm too tired" syndromes, compared to the high-stress life of hunting giraffes (much less rabbits) or trying to bring down berries, by throwing chunky stones at them.  Our laid-back scenario does not require fabricating stories of how rock-tossing indirectly got you a mate, because pervasive  arousal would be much more closely connected to reproductive coupling, a way of coming rapidly to the important climax: immediate evolutionary success.

Indeed, and here is a key part of our explanation, the same fitness advantage would have applied to both the males and the females.  If both parties were at anticipatory states more of the time, fitness-related activity would have occurred even more frequently than it does now, if you can imagine that, and quickly led to our own very existence as a be-thumbed if not bewildered species.

Supporting our hypothesis, vestiges of the original use are still around, as for example the frequency with which football and baseball players grab themselves before each play.  Of course, humans seem subsequently and unfairly to have evolved to be less gender-symmetric in this regard.  But our explanation is far better than the tired stone-axe story-telling with which we're so familiar.  For this reason, we suggest the new nomenclature for our ancient ancestor:  Australopithecus erotimanis.

Now, you may think our scenario is simply silly and not at all credible.  But is it?  By what criterion would you make such a judgment?  Indeed, even being silly wouldn't make it false.  And, while you may view the standard Man the Hunter explanation as highly plausible, being plausible doesn't make it true. Nor when you get right down to it, is the evidence for the stone-age hypothesis any better than the evidence for our hypothesis.

Indeed, if you think carefully about it, even the presence of some worked pebbles would not count as evidence that hands evolved for tool use.  The dextrous hand could have been an exaptation, that is, a trait evolved in some other context, and then later was co-opted for a new function--in this case, the flexible hand, once evolved for one use, could then be used to make and throw tools.  What we have explained here is the earlier function that made the hand available in that way.

Don't laugh or sneer, because this is actually a not-so-silly point about the science, or lack of science, involved in so much of human paleontology.  It's a field in which committed belief in the need for specific and usually simple adaptive scenarios, using a subjective, culture-specific sense of what is  'plausible', determines what gets into the literature and the text-books (though our idea might have a better chance with National Geographic).

Will anthropology ever become a more seriously rigorous science, with at least an appropriate level of circumspection?  It's something to ponder.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Ken, you're such a master-debater.

And I think you may have just created a lustier niche than Auel's! I'm probably not the only one who would read more. Care to start a novel series?

And, I'll say it as many times as I have to say it: A. sediba is important! (smile)

Ken Weiss said...

The three Homo erectines had heard the rustling noise, and gave each other quizzical and somewhat fearful glances. Ugmup crept slowly and stealthily up to the crest of the ridge. He turned his head sidewise and, brushing his (reddish) hair aside, allowed one eye to peer over the crest.

That was all he needed, to see the amorous pair fondling each other lovingly at the mouth of the cave.

"Two 'strokers'," he whispered, giving them the name they had acquired among the erectines for their habitual behavior.

"Let me see 'em," said P'Qeeb as he, too, stole a glance. "Mmmm!" he said, "she look yummy!"

"No!" said Ugmup sternly in a low and ominous voice, "She not for you. She too short -- I mean, too advanced for a semi-intelligent dolt like you."

"What you mean?" barked Slthmch (articulate speech--or at least naming--not as yet having evolved).

"Them might have tools," explained Ugmup, "even if me can't see any."

"Mmmm, you probably right.... but man (so to speak), just take a look at her..."

At this point, P'Qeeb's excitement got the better of him. Without the mental faculties required for self-control, he lept up to get a better view.

But that gave a better view to the amorous erotimanii, who, startled, quickly uncoupled. Unfortunately, shocked by seeing P'Qeeb coming at them in his erectine state, they reflexively jerked backwards, and stumbled against the pile of crude stone pebbles they had been leaning against, and tripped.

With piteous screams, they tumbled uncontrollably into the cave-mud. As they both slowly sank, locked in an eternal love-grip, the last thing that could be seen, oozing slowly out of sight, were her .....

"....Hands!" gasped P'Qeeb.

occamseraser said...

Ah, the solution is in the hand

Actually, you must be onto something because the sediba hand isn't even dextrous in the derived human sense -- primitive gracile (=wimpy) thumb metacarpal; highly curved, ape-like pollical carpo-metacarpal joint; a capitate that's a dead ringer for afarensis; and an autapomorphically (not human-like!) hyper-elongated thumb, along with robust and curved proximal hand phalanges.

Grasping at straws, perhaps? Thumbing their noses at paranthropines?

Ken Weiss said...

We can dispense with all the technical terms that only an expert such as you would know. To the likes of me, I thought about what I knew of the hand, and fingered our explanation that way. We first wondered about hitch-hiking, but in the absence of fossil hub-caps, we quickly moved on.

Thumbing at paranthropines is a bit dicey, however, because those bruits could eat the tiny A. erotimanines' lunch unless the latter actually did have nasty tools.

Grasping at straws is what chimps do for termites, so the A. erotimanii have to be explained in more advanced terms! Still, you're on to the right level of explanation---this is, finally!, science at work!!

Ken Weiss said...

Also, Occam's, weren't you being careless in your last explanation? How could the erotimanii have thumbed their noses at anybody? Did they even have projecting noses to thumb?

occamseraser said...

who nose?

Anonymous said...

From a British point of view, the phrase 'rock tossing' seems particularly apt.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, this can only mean that the Brits are evolutionarily advanced, or at least perhaps manifest extensive atavistic traits. (Assuming they still toss)

Torbjörn Larsson said...

Even as a layman, I can see your point ... er, well. I wouldn't know how to test a "tool-hand" hypothesis - neither presence nor absence of tools would invalidate such a hypothesis, at least locally. If you _never_ see tools, the hypothesis shouldn't be raised in the first place, I guess.

But I get questions:

"How occasional use of pebbles led to higher reproductive success".

Surely you mean higher differential reproductive success? I would think an early form of tool use would be "rock tossing" indeed, seeing the signs of predation on early hominins.

[Hmm. I guess if you have problems with that being a vital tool, you could throw in the vital invention of a carrier sling I believe I've heard of. For freeing the hands when carrying children, food and ... rocks to toss.

Another untestable hypothesis, for sure. But as long as we are telling just so stories.]

"But females don't throw pebbles to gather berries!"

Are we assuming drastic sexual dimorphism in basic anatomy? But men's hips got wider with women's, didn't it? How would a total functional separation work on a genetic and developmental level?

Sometimes biologists are making claims out of the blue, it seems to me. Add to just so stories, and outsiders despair in making sense of it. :-/ (Perhaps I should add that I'm into astrobiology studies when I have the opportunity, and that does make sense. It's not total despair.)

Ken Weiss said...

There is no way to answer the questions directly, which was our point. But things we currently take as 'plausible' because they fit our own experiences and world view and view of ourselves as a species, tend to determine, as much as actual evidence does, what we will accept.

Darwin worried about 'correlation of characters' and males' nipples were an example. He didn't know about developmental genetics, so basically hypothesized that early mammals were hermaphrodites--or that there were ancestral functions in both sexes.

So again, claims out of the blue are widely accepted, it seems strange to ask what the actual evidence is or whether such work should receive research funding: as we said in another post, if the idea is just story-telling, let Hollywood(or Bollywood) pay for the research!

I could question the relevance of 'astrobiology', in particular because in the US it's paid for by NASA largely, I believe, because it is exotic and can help sell the cost of sending people to Mars. Studies to understand early earth life, which are part, perhaps a main part, of NASA's astrobiology funding, are completely legitimate but should be paid for by our NSF, not NASA.