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New Nobel Laureate, Svante Pääbo, on the “Politics” of Paleontology and Humans Origins

Photo: Svante Pääbo, by Jonathunder, GFDL 1.2 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Congratulations to Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo, awarded a Nobel Prize today:

…for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution

Humanity has always been intrigued by its origins. Where do we come from, and how are we related to those who came before us? What makes us, Homo sapiens, different from other hominins?

Through his pioneering research, Svante Pääbo accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans.

In the past, Ann Gauger and Denyse O’Leary have cited him for his acute remarks on the political aspects of human origins studies. 

“The Myth of 1 Percent”

He commented on human-chimp genetic similarity, often said to be 99 percent identical, an idea that even Science magazine has conceded is a “myth.” From, “Relative Differences: The Myth of 1%”:

Could researchers combine all of what’s known and come up with a precise percentage difference between humans and chimpanzees? “I don’t think there’s any way to calculate a number,” says geneticist Svante Pääbo, a chimp consortium member based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “In the end, it’s a political and social and cultural thing about how we see our differences.” [Emphasis added.]

The Myth of Objectivity 

In an interview with Edge, “Mapping the Neanderthal Genome,” he explained why paleontology can seem to be such a bitter field. It’s the sparsity of the data, and the politics.

As an outsider to paleontologists, I’m often rather surprised about how much scientists fight in paleontology. And I am thinking about why that is the case. Why do we have less vicious fights in molecular biology, for example? I suppose the reason is that paleontology is a rather data-poor science. There are probably more paleontologists than there are important fossils in the world. To make a name for yourself is to find a new interpretation for those fossils that are extant. This always goes against some earlier person’s interpretation, who will not like it very much.

There are many other areas of science where we can agree to disagree, but at least we often generally agree on what data we need to go out and collect to resolve the issue and no one wants to come out too strongly on one side or the other because the data could, in a year or two, prove you are wrong.

But in paleontology you can’t decide what you will find. You cannot in most cases go out and test your hypothesis in a directed way. It’s almost like social anthropology or politics — you can only win by somehow yelling louder than the other person or sounding more convincing.

These are welcome and candid observations, refuting notions that human origins is a fully objective area of research. They also echo things that our colleagues Günter Bechly and Casey Luskin have said here.