Data Transparency in Paleoanthropology: 1925

There’s a lot of public conversation right now in the paleo-world about the nature of doing science and what good science ought to look like.  As journals like Nature and Plos One begin to encourage/require transparency of data and analyses, to say nothing of grant agencies requiring data management plans, the move seems to be met with general enthusiasm and agreement that the science done will be better for these data requirements.  (While discussions have generally focused on genomics, the questions seem to be floating broadly within the paleo-ether.)

Interestingly, there seems to be a sense that this transparency in data is new for paleoanthropology and is revolutionary within the history of its science.

In reading through discussions of this “new” trend in paleo, I was reminded of the true longevity of this call for transparency in data and in analysis.  In 1925, when Dr. Raymond Dart published his interpretations of the Taung Child fossil, there were many reasons (the Piltdown fossil, Java Man,  particular and specific notions of the nature of human evolution) that fed into the academic establishment dismissing the fossil as a hominin ancestor.

However, I want to highlight an oft-overlooked reason.  Many, like Sir Arthur Keith, simply thought Dart was doing sloppy science and were frustrated by the lack of available information.  Everyone wanted more details.  What we might call, today, transparency in data. 

Upon publication of the fossil, Sir Arthur Keith, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, and Dr. W.L.H. Duckworth, expressed cautious interest in the fossil as a material object, without lending support to Dart’s interpretation of the fossil.  Even Professor Elliot Grafton Smith, Dart’s mentor and champion of sorts expressed cautious curiosity.  

Lateral view of the Taung Child, as photographed in January 1925 for Nature.  Courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, Raymond Dart Archive.

Lateral view of the Taung Child, as photographed in January 1925 for Nature.  Courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, Raymond Dart Archive.

They wanted measurements, casts, and information simply not provided in the original Nature article.  As such, the university-based scientific establishment saw the fossil as nothing more than a curiosity and an interesting example of a fossil ape or anthropoid.  The only visual frame of reference others had for making sense of the fossil were the small photographs Dart included in his Nature publication.  What they wanted measurements, casts, and detailed comparisons.  What they got was Dart’s florid prose:

We must therefore conclude that it was only the enhanced cerebral powers possessed by this group which made their existence possible in this untoward environment [South African paleoenvironment]…For the production of man, a different apprenticeship was needed to sharpen the wits and quicken the higher manifestations intellect [Dart 1925.]

Dart’s narrative enthusiasm was quickly cut by Sir Arthur Keith in the following week’s publication of Nature.

No doubt when Prof. Dart publishes his full monograph of his discovery, he will settle many points which are now left open…When Prof. Dart produces his evidence in full he may convert those who, like myself, doubt the advisability of creating a new family for the reception of this form… On the evidence now produced one is include to place Australopithecus in the same group or sub-family as the chimpanzee and gorilla [Keith 1925a.]

The snipping continued into sequent letters to the editor.  Indeed, one of the best quips Nature has published could well be Keith’s subsequent scathing observation (after being made to view the fossil with the unwashed massed of humanity in the Wembley Exhibition):

In a large diagram, placed in the show-case at Wembley, Prof. Dart gives his final conception of the place occupied by the Taungs ape in the scale of man’s evolution.  He makes it the foundation stone of the human family tree.  From the “African Ape Ancestors, typified by the Taungs Infant,” Pithecanthropus, Piltdown man, Rhodesian man, and African races radiate off.  A genealogist would make the identical mistake were he to claim a modern Sussex peasant as the ancestor of William the Conqueror [Keith 1925b.]

Zing!  On so many levels.  

While discussions of data and transparency are useful – indeed, important! – within the communities of science, these calls for more or better information are hardly revolutionary.

 

References

Dart, Raymond. “Australopithecus Africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa.” Nature 115, no. 2884 (1925): 195–199. doi:10.1038/115195a0.
Keith, Arthur.  “Letter to Editor.” Nature 115, no. 2885 (1925): 199-200.
Keith, Arthur. “Letter to Editor.” Nature 116  no. 2890 (1925): 462–463.