Danakil Island and the Baboon Marker: two of the AAT/H's "false facts" which have indeed "endured long"

There are some AAT/H arguments which you just don't see much, if ever, anymore from the principals, but you do see them pop up again and again when people ask about the idea. This is because they've become those "false facts" Darwin warned about, and they do, as he said, "endure long". Long after the principals in the pro-AAT/H camp have dropped them like a hot potato, they come back over and over. You may have seen one of these in a forum or newsgroup, and heard someone mention one as evidence for the AAT/H, and wonder why you don't hear a refutation of it -- you may wonder even more why AAT/H proponents rarely, if ever, mention them now. Interestingly enough, they generally weren't dropped, as far as I can see, because any AAT/H proponent disproved them, or even accepted that they aren't good evidence. They've just quietly been disappeared, like Soviet officials on the reviewing stand of a May Day parade, or the unwanted ex in old photos. Like the Cheshire cat, only the smile remains to show they were ever there.

Danakil Island

Now there's a blast from the past for Morgan readers, and it still pops up even though Morgan herself has for whatever reason made a point of not mentioning it for years. This is the place where, supposedly, Morgan's aquatic apes were busy evolving while the other apes slept. It seems, according to Morgan's scenario of the time, that this population of ever-more aquatic early hominins were cut off from the rest of the population because -- I kid you not -- they were trapped on a near offshore island!

That's right -- on an island.

At that time Morgan was very big on the idea of a marine-dwelling ancestor and got this idea of their being isolated on what she described as a close offshore island near Afar, the region where the earliest hominids known then had been found. The Danakil Alps, a mountain range near the sea there, had, she described, been partially submerged and the bits sticking up constituted "Danakil Island". This idea came about as the brainchild of Leo P. La Lumiere, who was an acoustic engineeer (but who Morgan has repeatedly and inaccurately claimed was a geologist), who was in vogue for a time with AAT/H proponents; he had no other connection to the AAT/H other than Morgan's championing his idea of Danakil Island, so when it was left to drift on the seas of memory, so was he. Since the island tends to sail back whenever people ask about Morgan's books, so should La Lumiere.

La Lumiere didn't do the primary research about the Danakil past -- nothing wrong with that, as the libraries of the world have loads of info that really ought to be used. The information LaLumiere used regarding the Afar region came mostly from two western Ontario researchers who studied the past shorelines of northeastern Africa. There was a period when the area of Afar was semi-submerged, but the claims of La Lumiere and Morgan do not follow from that fact.

There are several problems with this idea. One was Morgan's claim at the time that we evolved in a saltwater environment and she had a list of reasons why, all of which I pointed out were wrong (when we did the back in forth in early 1990s newsgroups) and which are covered on other pages on my website. And, of course, it never seemed sensible that a population of ever-more aquatic hominids were trapped on an near offshore island for any great length of time, much less the millions of years Morgan claimed for this supposed episode.

The last is that Danakil "island" was never actually an island; it was a peninsula with one end covered by flood basalt, which are low viscosity lava flows. Now La Lumiere seemed to think (and Morgan and others followed his lead) that this meant it was a continual sheet of solid rock many miles wide and created an insurmountable barrier to those hominids. But flood basalts don't just remain rock; for instance the Columbia River valley east of Portland Oregon is flood basalts; the Massif Central in France is another example. These basalts break down and things grow on them, just as things grow on lava flows in general, and in fact they grow pretty darned well. It takes a while, but you're not cutting off a group of hominids for several million years, as La Lumiere and Morgan thought, with flood basalts.

La Lumiere simply did not know what he was talking about, and Morgan made no apparent attempt to learn more than she had from La Lumiere (if she had she wouldn't have touted the idea). Not a good way to do science, in fact not a possible way to do science. And certainly not a good way to demonstrate your research skills and realibilty.

I also point out in my page critiquing Elaine Morgan's 2008 book, The Naked Darwinist, that she brings in La Lumiere in a truly bizarre claim: Morgan falsely claimed that up until La Lumiere wrote up his idea the oldest hominid fossils had been found in South Africa and that La Lumiere had pointed science to the rich and important new hominid fossil area in the Afar region. This could only be true if La Lumiere had utilized time travel (if only he'd shared it with the world :), because of course La Lumiere wrote up his idea in 1981 and Donald Johanson took over the Afar fossil site well before that (Lucy was discovered in 1974 and that was the third year Johanson had been looking for hominid fossils there) and the Leakeys had been finding what were then very early hominids in Kenya for 20 years before that. The idea Morgan here promotes, that La Lumiere pointed a fossil area not already well known, is sheer nonsense and easily seen to be nonsense by any researcher who had done even the most cursory study of human evolution, like reading a couple popular books -- for instance the bestseller Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson, which Morgan had indeed read.

The Baboon Marker

This was tied to Morgan's use of Danakil Island; she was looking for something that said our ancestors were not in Africa when all the known fossils were, and the "baboon marker gene" came along just at the right time.

What this marker supposedly showed was that all African primates had a marker gene showing they'd been exposed to a virus that had coursed through the African baboon population several million years ago. All but humans. This meant (again, supposedly) that humans' ancestors had not been in Africa at that crucial period of their evolution. The original authors of the study said that meant humans' ancestors had actually come from Asia, while Morgan seized on this to say they'd been trapped on that off-shore island -- swimming, diving, evolving features like seals, otters, and whales; but somehow unable to swim to the mainland a few miles away.

The mid 1970s was the time of molecular data's rise as really important evidence in evolution. The baboon marker gene idea first came out in two papers in the journal Nature (in 1974 and 1976) and the conclusions of the authors conflicted with all known fossil data, comparative anatomy data, and virtually all other molecular data, blood data, etc. At the time this created a lot of debate over this idea. Now there isn't any. Why? Perhaps that Great Paleoanthropological Conspiracy that keeps out heretic ideas from the pristine Ivory Tower?

Well, no. Since the baboon marker idea did conflict with all known fossil, comparative anatomy, and virtually all other molecular and blood data, that should make you wonder what's up, and it did for paleoanthropologists at the time. Fortunately, you don't have to wonder too long to see what the problem was.

There was, in the professional anthropological literature, a deal of discussion about this finding when it first came out in 1974 and subsequent years, and there's a very good reason -- besides the conflict with all other, extensive, evidence -- it hasn't been taken as evidence of hominids not being on mainland Africa at the time the baboon virus arose. That is that the researchers who did the work originally did find that humans do carry a marker for the p30 protein of the virus in question, showing that they had indeed been exposed to it (this was also confirmed by other papers on the subject by various researchers). The researchers who did the initial work on this (Benveniste and Todaro) drew the unwarranted conclusion that hominids had not been in Africa at that time -- by ignoring that part of their own findings, which really is rather foolish. Elaine Morgan and later other AAT/H proponents then committed the same error.

In addition, the relative expression of this gene shows a pretty direct correlation with how closely related the various African primates are to baboons, with humans and apes having the least and humans the least of all; this strongly suggests that the expression of the gene is changed over genetic distance, which is what one might expect. There's also the issue of reexposure; humans during later evolution didn't all live in Africa (as other African primates did) and so the overall population might well be expected to show less reexposure to the virus; this would also aid in lessening the expression of the gene, and would also help produce the results we see.

In the sci.anthropology.paleo newsgroup on 15 Nov 1994 Philip Bigelow explains what this means:

That humans, themselves, show exposure to the baboon type-C virus, although in a very small way, and that the RELATIVE degree of expression of this genetic marker follows the evolutionary family tree of primates all the way up to humans; humans have least expression of the marker (although they have some) and chimps and gorillas have more expression of the marker, and the monkeys and baboon has the greatest expression of the marker: This is exactly what would be expected from a dimmunition of the expression of the gene as one goes up the primate family tree.

And more directly to the point vis a vis the AAT/H (Philip Bigelow in sci.anthropology.paleo again on 15 Nov 1994):

All it takes to disprove Morgan's evidence in this case is AT LEAST SOME genetic marker in humans against this baboon C virus. The authors showed that some exposure MUST have occurred in humans in the distant prehistoric past.

That humans were exposed to this virus is also shown by the fact that only some few Africa-descended cats also bear this marker, and those that do are precisely those cats which had the most contact with humans over the years (ie., the domestic cat and some of its wild relatives, the European wildcat and the small African cats found in the Mediterranean region -- cats, during domestication, had a deal of contact with their wild relatives in Europe, Africa, and far West Asia). Since these are the only cats with that marker, it is virtually certain that they got it through contact with humans, and that adds more evidence (besides the p30 protein) that hominids were exposed to the virus. The "baboon marker gene" is not an indicator of hominids not being in mainland Africa during the period the baboon virus arose.

Since the information about the p30 gene and the cats was available in the sources Morgan used to make her case does show she did a poor job of research on this issue, apparently just grasping at the straw offered by a poorly thought-out conclusion without really thinking at all about the data. Mind you, I think Benveniste and Todaro should've done a better job in formulating their conclusion (since it didn't actually follow from their data) but Morgan was remiss in not looking at the data before grabbing a conclusion she liked the sound of. As Philip Bigelow said, she used a conclusion as a "fact", when a conclusion is an interpretation and should not be used as if it were a fact; what she needed to use were the facts in the paper (such as the info on the p30 gene and the cats) which in fact did not support her position. We've seen this in other AAT/H mistakes, using the logical fallacy called Irrelevant Conclusion (ignoratio elenchi), which Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies defines as: An argument which purports to prove one thing instead proves a different conclusion.

Raoul E. Benveniste and George J. Todaro 6 December 1974 "Evolution of C-type viral genes: inheritance of exogenously acquired viral genes". Nature 252:456-459.
Raoul E. Benveniste and George J. Todaro 13 May 1976 "Evolution of type-C viral genes: evidence for an Asian origin of man". Nature 261:101-108.

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