Earlier this morning I was listening to a report on the radio about the work some scientists have done in translating the communications gestures used by chimpanzees – see here for more details. It was an interesting study and provides insight into how this class of great apes communicate using a rudimentary sign language.
What I found interesting, and concerning, were the comments made by the reporter and radio host who were discussing the report. They made some statements which don’t seem to be backed up by the science in the report regarding the evolutionary relationship between chimps and humans.
They talked about how this study increases our understanding of how human language developed and talked about apes being ancestors of humans. The idea being that because humans are descended from chimps (or at least share common ancestors), understanding how chimps communicate will help us understand how our own languages developed.
The report on the BBC website was more balanced. One scientist commented that this study demonstrates that meaningful communication is not unique to humans and that
chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes
Another, however, talked about the results as being “a little disappointing” and stated:
So, it seems the gulf remains
There is the sense that even though this work is being done to fill some gaps in our understanding of how human language evolved it hasn’t delivered all that was hoped for. But there was none of this nuanced understanding in how it was discussed on the radio.
I accept that the media have a difficult job in these areas as they are trying to communicate fairly complicated ideas in just a few minutes to a, generally, non-technical audience and they need to operate within the scientific consensus regarding evolution. But, from a quick look at recent discussions there are questions which the scientific community are grappling with regarding this putative direct link between the great apes and humans.
A report in the Los Angeles Times in April last year speaks of evidence which could help solve the “evolutionary ‘missing link'” but it acknowledges that not all scientists share the view expressed in the report.
A report in the Guardian in October last year speaks about the discovery of a skull throwing the “story of human evolution into disarray” forcing scientists to:
rethink the story of early human evolution
A report in Scientific American in January this year speaks about a “missing genetic link in human evolution” and focuses on genetic material which is believed to play an important role in the brain. It is a fascinating report but one of the things that struck me is the level of honest uncertainty which is expressed by scientists with phrases such as “I think”, “My feeling” and “Much about the duplication process – and its implications – remain a mystery”. They are exploring and studying but recognise that there are still many questions.
A report in New Scientist in April this year raises the possibility that one of our “closest long-term relatives may never have existed” due to some confusion over some fossil remains.
A report in the Daily Mail science section (from less than a month ago) talks about finding a “missing link in human evolution” and claims that it is:
causing scientists to reconsider the path of human evolution
It is right and proper as part of the scientific process that scientists, in many different fields, should explore and study and critique to try and develop a deeper understanding. But it is important to recognise, as these reports – along with many others – show, that there are questions about the evolutionary theory regarding humans which haven’t been comprehensively answered and currently divide the scientific community.
While the debate continues to rage there, and media correspondents try to present snippets to their audiences, it is good to be reminded that we need to be prepared to dig a little deeper to try and understand what we don’t yet know and to not just accept blanket statements as fact.