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Perspectives in Human Biology

Editor: Charles E. Oxnard

Centre for Human Biology, Department of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, WA 6907, Australia, 1999.

Volume 4, Issue 1: Is human evolution a closed chapter?Note 1

Maciej Henneberg and Charles Oxnard (Issue Editors)

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

C. Loring Brace Note 2

Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1079, USA

The publication, Perspectives in Human Biology, Volume 4: Issue 1, has a query as a sub-title: "Is Human Evolution a Closed Chapter?" From the perspective of the international roster of those professionally involved in the study of human evolution, the obvious answer is "no!" It is also obvious, at least to some of us involved in that enterprise, that the majority of those nominally identified as students of human evolution have a less than solid grasp of the principles of evolutionary biology. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first "Millennial Issue" of Evolutionary Anthropology, where the two lead articles ("Paleoanthropology: The last half-century," by Ian Tattersall, and "Archeology and the Evolution of Human Behavior," by Richard G. Klein) would justify renaming that journal "Antievolutionary" Anthropology (1,2).

The issue of Perspectives in Human Biology under consideration is not quite so resolutely anti-evolutionary as the outlook promoted in Evolutionary (sic) Anthropology although the outlook of evolutionary biology is largely missing or unused. To be sure, the field of human biology has been able to function effectively without much more than a nominal reference to the actual principles of evolutionary theory for a very long time.

The volume under review represents the roster of papers presented at the joint conference of the Australasian Society for Human Biology (ASHB) and the Commission of Human Ecology of the International Union of Anthropolgical and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) held in Adelaide, December 1-5, 1997. There are 26 contributions from five of the nine sessions held at the conference. Those five sessions are entitled: Setting the Evolutionary Scene, with six presentations; Changes in Humans From Terminal Pleistocene to Holocene, with seven; Changing Patterns of Human Disease, with six; Human Biological Variation, with three; and the Human Future, also with three.

Two of the papers in the first session and one in the third were designated Keynote Addresses. The first of these in Setting the Evolutionary Scene is the paper by Colin P. Groves, "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being Domesticated." Groves, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, is known for his work showing how dental variation in that spectrum of gorilla populations spread from the west coast of Africa to the mountains east of the Congo Basin is tied in to differences in subsistence strategy and diet (3,4). He is also known for his effort to apply the Medieval version of Aristotelian hierarchical categorization - cladistics - to the taxonomy of the Primates (5). Groves provides an interesting survey of the consequences of domestication in a comprehensive roster of animals with full documentation (except for any mention of the pioneering work of Charles Darwin)(6).

The suggestion by Eugen Fischer that some aspects of human form might be the consequences of self-domestication is given note (7). Groves documents the reduction in brain size that frequently accompanies domestication and summarizes Henneberg's evidence that human cranial capacity has been reducing since the Mesolithic in Europe and the Middle Stone Age in Africa. In spite of his claim that "at the same time, there has been no reduction in body size" (p. 10), it is abundantly clear from work not cited that human body bulk also has significantly decreased late in the Pleistocene and in the Holocene (8,9).

Groves also launches an amusing but highly improbable trial balloon. In his words, "Humans domesticated dogs, and dogs domesticated humans" in a symbiotic relationship that was stable "over 100,000 years or so" (p. 11). The early date for the domestication of the dog derives from inferences concerning the length of time necessary to produce the base-pair differences in mtDNA observed for a series of dogs, wolves, coyotes and jackals (10). The problem with that date is that it is based on an assumption of a wolf-coyote split of a million years or more. However, the same laboratory that produced that study has also demonstrated that there continues to be gene flow between wolf and coyote populations so that the differences cannot be the result of long-term genetic isolation (11). This then puts us back to the estimates of the antiquity of canine domestication provided by the archaeological and skeletal record, all of which indicates a post-Pleistocene date of not much more than 10,000 years (12,13).

The second Keynote Address at the beginning of the conference was by Santiago Genovés from the Instituto de Investigacionas Antropológicas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. For those of us old enough to remember when he entered the field after earning his doctorate at Cambridge over forty years ago, this provides us with the answer to the question "whatever happened to Santiago Genovés?" Many of us remember his early promise in anthropological research, and then his serving as one of the crew on Thor Heyerdahl's reed-boat Ra as it sailed from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean (14). Subsequently he vanished from the anthropological horizon. His contribution here, "Human Evolution and Violence," lists more than 35 pieces he has written over the past three decades. All are focused on the matter of institutionalized violence such as warfare, and it is clear that Genovés has concentrated his energies on worthy social issues instead of evolutionary anthropology. One might say that he has become an applied social scientist, or, more accurately, a social activist.

The final Keynote Address, "Fouling and Cleansing our Nest: Human Induced Ecological Determinants of Infectious Disease," is by John Last of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine, University of Ottawa, Canada. It is a balanced and thoughtful survey of how social circumstances have had their impact on aspects of public health, starting with the marsh-draining and aqueduct-building of the Romans, but more particularly since the growth of scientific medicine in the 19th century. Last concludes with a declaration of our need for "transdisciplinary approaches" linking physical, biological, behavioral and social scientists with economists, politicians, representatives of management and labor, religious leaders and scholars from philosophy, ethics and the humanities. His "transdisciplinary" plea echoes the same sentiment articulated previously at the end of Santiago Genovés' Keynote Address.

Distributed equally before and after Last's Address is a motley collection of offerings, ranging from the focused and substantive to the almost outré. To start things off, there is a sober and scholarly treatment of "Taphonomic Factors Bearing on the Recovery and Dating of Early Hominid Remains from Eastern and Southern Africa" by Darren Curnoe of the Australian National University, Canberra. This is followed immediately by a consideration of aspects of human physiology offered in support of the 'aquatic ape' theory of human ancestry of the late Sir Alister Clavering Hardy. This latest version is presented by a Swedish group headed by Boris Holm from the Department of Animal Physiology at the University of Lund. Curiously there is no mention of its flamboyant and equally indefensible promotion by Elaine Morgan (15) or by Marc Verhaegen (16).

Then there is a brief but fascinating consideration of the fact that humans represent the only species outside the order Carnivora to have their own species of tapeworms. This is presented by Vassilios Sarafis and Maciej Henneberg, of the Universities of Queensland and Adelaide in Australia, as "Taenid Parasite Evidence for Eating Meat as a Natural Part of the Human Diet." The patron saint of cladistics, Willi Hennig, had suggested that the study of an organism's parasites might provide evidence concerning its phylogeny, and this brief gem would appear to be a lovely demonstration of his point (17).

The very next paper, however, "Testing Multiple Species Hypothesis on Frogs," by Rachel Norris, Department of Anatomical Sciences, University of Adelaide, then tries to use island frog population differences to test whether the variation visible in ancient hominid skeletal fragments constitutes evidence for specific distinction or not. The metric analysis and the use of the coefficient of variation is all very carefully and conscientiously thought out, but no consideration is given to the fact that island populations are not the proper model to use for comparison with continentally distributed populations. The study of frog distribution on a continental scale was one of the first contributions to the realization that clinal variation can render the identification of subspecies untenable (18,19). This is equally true for Stephen Jay Gould's assumption that prehistoric hominid diversity constituted evidence for specific distinctions based on the analogy of his own field studies on island differences in Caribbean land snails (20).

This paper is then followed by a fine quantitative investigation into prehistoric human body size by Carmen de Miguel and Maciej Henneberg, both of Adelaide. Interesting papers on recent human form include treatments of a pituitary giant Sumo wrestler, Ainu cranial variation, and the affinities of a prehistoric skeleton from Perak in the Malay Peninsula. That last contribution, by Hirofumi Matsumura of the National Science Museum in Tokyo and Ang Bee Huat and Zuraina Majid from the Center for Archaeological Research in Penang, Malaysia, clearly shows that the early Holocene inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula had morphological affinities with native Australians and were unlikely to have been the source for the Jomon Japanese as has often been claimed (21).

Two technically sound papers on the "archaeobotany" of sites in prehistoric Mexico seem oddly out of place. Then there is a curious piece by an assorted group of authors from Finland, Estonia and Calcutta entitled "Is Myopia Related to Stature and Other Body Measurements?" The answer, not surprisingly, is "no," but it leaves one wondering why the question was asked in the first place. Trailing after this group is a truly unfortunate piece by Albert Ducros and Jaqueline Ducros of the Université Denis Diderot in Paris. Entitled "François Péron (1801-1803): Old and Modern Views in Anthropology and Ecology," it reprints the dynamometer test results from the investigations by the French explorer François Péron in Tasmania, Australia and Timor at the beginning of the 19th century. The volume's editors, who generally left their authors a free rein, felt impelled to add a footnote saying "This paper necessarily describes work done at a much earlier time; quotations from that work must be seen in their temporal context" (p. 139). Point well taken!

The authors have accepted Péron's conclusion that Tasmanians, Australians and Timorese are much weaker of hand and body than French or English. While the authors suggest that the lower "working capacity" of "the natives" was a product of "a weakening climate" and "poor nutrition," and they mention such things as "sociocultural factors" and "poor motivation," I am reminded of the attempts reported by Hooton long ago at using a dynamometer to compare the strength of chimpanzees with American college football players. The humans - admittedly nowhere near the size of the young men who now play that game - had two-handed pulls that approached 400 lbs. While that was not as good as the chimpanzees, there was a real question about whether the chimpanzees were actually trying their hardest. That was only answered when a 135-lb. female chimp became annoyed and tried to wreck the machine by giving a good solid tug. The dial read 1,260 lbs. (22, pp 4-5). What incentive would an early 19th century Tasmanian or Timorese have had to show their colonial exploiters just how much real strength or "work capacity" they actually had?

The papers on the evidence for prehistoric disease in Hungary, along the Murray River in Australia, in first century Pompei, and the nineteenth century Canadian subarctic are worthy but not exciting. Curiously, the volume seems to lose its focus in the latter quarter. The section on Human Biological Variation has three contributions, one on "Switching Handedness of Adults" after ten weeks of training; one on "The Role of Fluctuating Asymmetry on Judgements of Physical Attractiveness"; and one on the distribution of fat on the rear end of the female form divine. This contribution, by V. Sarafis of the University of Queensland and co-authors from the University of Adelaide, is entitled "A Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Anatomy of Adipose Tissue in the Pelvic and Gluteal Region of the Human Female." And by "'the' Human Female," they mean only one, a young woman of 23 who was 1,655 mm tall and weighed 62 kg. To be sure, they note that their work is in a "preliminary stage," and it does indeed point in a promising direction, but that is a long way from characterizing the anatomy of adipose tissue in the nether regions of the human female as a collective phenomenon.

Two of the last three papers are brief speculations about energy production and life in the information age. The final contribution is "Human Evolutionary Patterns in the Past and an Extrapolation into the Future" by Gerrit N. Van Vark of the Department of Anatomy at Groningen in the Netherlands. Although Van Vark is a very sophisticated biometrician and has mined the data base of W. W. Howells for his comparative material, the sample sizes used to produce his matrix of squared Mahalanobis distances are so small that one does not feel much confidence in the tentative pattern of craniometric change presented. Finally, he suggests that the driving mechanism may be "directional selection," but he adds that the "particular selection pressures are unknown." There is no discussion of expectations for the future.

There are some good solid pieces of research reported in the volume. Some seem oddly out of place, and there are a few that never should have been set in print. Such is often the case with Conference volumes, especially when the separate contributions have not been subject to the full rigors of the refereeing process of established scholarly journals. On the plus side, referees often enforce a humorless and unimaginative uniformity that might have eliminated some of the more interesting of the contributions represented here. After the high spots of the first half, however, it is just a bit of a let-down that the volume ends with more of a whimper than a bang.


(1) Tattersall, I. 2000. Paleoanthropology: the last half-century. Evol. Anthro. 9:2-16.Online abstract

(2) Klein, R.G. 2000. Archeology and the evolution of human behavior. Evol. Anthro. 9:17-36.Online abstract

(3) Groves, C.P. 1967. Ecology and taxonomy of the gorilla. Nature 213:890-893.

(4) Groves, C.P. 1971. Distribution and place of origin of the gorilla. Man 6:44-51.

(5) Groves, C.P. 1989. A theory of human and primate evolution. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

(6) Darwin, C. 1868. The variation of animals and plants under domestication. John Murray, London.

(7) Fischer, E. 1914. Die Rassenmerkmale des Menschen als domestikationerscheinungen. Z. Morph. Anthrop. 18:479-524.

(8) Ruff, C.B., A. Walker and E. Trinkaus. 1994. Postcranial robusticity in Homo. III. Amer. J. Phys. Anthro. 93:35-54.

(9) Ruff, C.B., E. Trinkaus and B. Holt. 2000. Lifeway changes as shown by postcranial skeletal robustness. Amer. J. Phys. Anthro. Suppl. 30:266.

(10) Vilà C., P. Savolainen, J.E. Maldonada, I.R. Amorim, J.E. Rice, R.L. Honeycutt, K.A. Crandell, J. Lundeberg and R.K. Wayne. 1997. Multiple and ancient origins of the domestic dog. Science 276:1687-1689.

(11) Wayne, R.K. and J.L. Gittleman. 1995. The problematic red wolf. Sci. Amer. 273:36-39.

(12) Olsen, S.T. 1985. Origins of the domestic dog: the fossil record. Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 118 p.

(13) Scott, J.P., O. Elliot and B.E. Ginsburg. 1997. Man and his dog. Science 278:205-206.

(14) Heyerdahl, T. 1971. The Ra expeditions. Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 341 p.

(15) Morgan, E. 1982. The aquatic ape: a theory of human evolution. Souvenir Press, London, 168 p.

(16) Verhaegen, M. 1991. Aquatic features in fossil hominids? In M. Roede, J. Wind, J. Patrick and V. Reynolds (Eds.). The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? Souvenir Press, London, pp 75-112.

(17) Hennig, W. 1966. Phylogenetic systematics. D.D. Davis and R. Langerl, Translators. Univ. Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, 263 p.

(18) Moore, J.A. 1944. Geographic variation in Rana pipiens of eastern North America. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 82:347-369.

(19) Moore, J.A. 1949. Geographic variation of adaptive characters in Rana pipiens Schreber. Evolution 3:1-24.

(20) Gould, S.J. 1997. Unusual unity. Nat. Hist. 106:20-23, 69-71.

(21) Hanihara, T. 1994. Craniofacial continuity and discontinuity of Far Easterners in the late Pleistocene and Holocene. J. Hum. Evol. 27:417-441.Online abstract

(22) Hooton, E.A. 1940. Man's poor relations. Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, NY, 412 p.


1 To whom orders can be addressed: Maciej Henneberg, Department of Anatomical Sciences, Medical School, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia. Email

2 Dr. C. Loring Brace is Professor of Anthropology and Curator of Biological Anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can be reached by email at

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