Objections and answers

This eclectic list of objections to critiques of the AAT/H was drawn from various forums and newsgroup postings. They illustrate, I think, some common misconceptions which make it harder for many to understand the counterarguments to the AAT/H. Amongst the AAT/H principle proponents only Elaine Morgan is represented here at this point; I'm sure as I write more there will be more from the principles. Except for the objections of these principle AAT/H proponents and professionals who should know better, I've deleted the names and initials of posters. Some of their objections are well thought out but naive, while others are simply foolish. My aim is to point out the inaccuracy of their objections without embarrassing them. All the writings of others here are in blue

My opinion? Anthropologists should study humanity as it exists now, and leave the question of when and how it arose to those more qualified, like evolutionary zoologists and molecular biologists...

Anthropologists are qualified to study human evolution; it's a major part of the field. A great deal of the study of human evolution is cross disciplinary, needing either study of or input from many different fields. In fact, one of the problems commonly seen in studies of human evolution when non-anthropologists do it is not spending enough time understanding "humanity as it exists now", both physically and culturally, which can lead to naive mistakes about what "we" are like, because often only a relatively small subset of "us" is examined. Anthropology itself is a big field now, where too many don't interact enough with their colleagues in the other sub-fields. Still, anthropology -- since it covers "the science of us", which is a pretty large subject -- is unusual because it does contain such wide-ranging sub-fields, which include not only cultural and physical anthro on modern peoples, but also physical anthro involving old bones and fossils, molecular anthropology, archaeology, and primatology. These fields also bleed out into other disciplines, such as linguistics, history, history of science, and psychology (in fact, in Great Britain primatology is generally found in the psychology departments).

The psychology and sociology and meta-science of those against the AAT never ceases to amaze me. Ms. Morgan is a grandmother. I can picture her like Andy Rooney composing her books on an old Underwood, consulting notes on 3 by 5 cards. It would be rather a burden for someone who works in that style to type in ALL the references. Not like appending a text file to a usenet post.

The most thorough researcher I've known was a grandmother, and she wrote everything in longhand in pencil on yellow legal-sized pads (had to be legal-sized); it didn't stop her from giving refs and double checking the primary sources for her claims. Regardless of the accuracy of the picture of a career television scriptwriter doing her writing (and Internet postings) with a manual typewriter, the issue is whether someone who is producing a theory which is intended to replace well researched and supported science should be able to get their view accepted when it's supported by "false facts", misrepresentations of valid research, and altered quotes. Science not only doesn't work that way, it cannot work that way. And you don't get a free pass cause you have grand kids.

On the perceived need to always be near drinking water:

Our ancestors MUST have been guzzling lots of fresh-water wherever they were. In fact, because we lose so much water when we sweat, it is untenable to suggest that our ancestors were ever very far from water-holes of some sort.

Define "vary far"... then consider this: in the very recent past modern human hunters from gathering-hunting groups in arid and semi-arid regions (such as the !Kung in Africa and Australian aborigines) commonly did not carry water in their travels while hunting, and they traveled quite a ways; miles from water holes, certainly. Water can also be gotten in many ways other than from water holes or streams, for instance from plants or by sponging it from depressions in trees or rocks (both methods are used by both humans and chimps). The early hominids lived in less dry areas than these groups did.

The !Kung have high technology. They survive in an area where early hominids could not and they have ways of obtaining water far beyond the means available to early hominids. It's a mistake to use analogies with highly developed h.s.s. societies.

True, compared to our earliest ancestors they have very high technology. The point is that they didn't use any of their relatively advanced technology in using water during their travels; they don't use any technology at all! It negates the claim that early hominids would have to stay right by fresh water, because having fresh water with them even in an extremely dry desert environment is not necessary for humans today, as the !Kung demonstrated. This experiment by analogy is a valid one; it involves no technology or any developed or "advanced" technology or social structure of any kind.

On the idea that a bare skin would be too great a detriment for a terrestrial hominid:

Have you ever tried walking/running barefoot and naked through the woods? Poison ivy would be the least of your problems. An animal in that environment would have rapidly acquired a sensible coat of hair - even if it didn't have one at the start.

Since in fact anatomically modern humans ("us") did exactly this -- "running barefoot and naked through the woods" -- for tens of thousands of years, and since earlier hominids did so for hundreds of thousands and even millions of years before them, we know that this objection is invalid. Actually, this one is foolish, since even a moment's reflection would be sufficient for virtually anyone to realize this.

Where did our ancestors get the extra Omega 3 fatty acids needed in the diet for brain growth? From the marine food chain, perhaps? I'll give up on this if you manage to find one human being with a normal, functioning brain who has never eaten any seafood.

This has to do with the dietary significance of various fatty acids, such as DHA, which our bodies must either get through food directly or synthesize from linolenic acid (LNA). These acids are often mistakenly said to be only available in fish oils, especially those of fatty cold-water fish. (Looking up accurate information on this on the web can be difficult, since you have to sift through many sites devoted to selling you their fatty acid supplement, and they, for some reason, tend to "overstate" their case.) However, although fish are an excellent source of these fatty acids, wild game is also good (and this was, after all, the only type of meat available to our ancestors); also, sufficient quantities can be gotten through our bodies' synthesizing DHA from LNA obtained from plant sources. The Mayo Clinic points out that the amount necessary for modern humans is not terribly high ("One tablespoon of vegetable oil easily meets your daily requirements.")

It should also be noted that human infants are not as good as adults at synthesizing DHA from LNA, but this isn't a problem for breast-fed infants since human breast milk is also a good source of DHA. It shouldn't really have to be pointed out that amongst our early ancestors, all infants were breast-fed.

The particular AAT/H proponent objection above (in the words of humorist Dave Barry, "I am not making this up") is, sadly, not atypical in its lack of forethought. It should be fairly obvious, with just a bit of thinking, that during our evolutionary history, a great many humans have lived, grown up, and developed normal brains while living in environments where fish (and especially cold-water sea fish) were just not available, and so weren't eaten. To give an example that folks may be more familiar with, milk is a terrific source of calcium, but calcium is also found in a great many plants, and it isn't necessary to drink milk to get it. Same situation with these fatty acids; fish is a terrific source, but you don't need to eat fish to get them.

After a poster asked why AAT/H critics spent so much time pointing out mistakes and misrepresentations in Elaine Morgan's off-line and online writings; one such critic replied: "Primarily because she does present herself as an 'expert' and the AAT as a viable option." The poster then asked:

So why does this bother you?

My reply was:
Because she presents a theory and supports it with false "facts" and unsupported statements, then complains -- loudly -- if her work is ignored by professionals. When her work is examined and her research is found wanting, she complains about that too.

If it's ignored, people might reasonably think she actually has done reasonably good research and is presenting accurate facts. It is the process of science -- the essential core of science, in fact -- to examine theories and check out the facts they are supposedly based on. The question is, I would think, why does it bother so many people here when this essential requirement of science is applied to what is supposed to be a scientific theory?

This following poster asked a good question about how to gauge the accuracy of what you read online (he was talking about newsgroup posts in '96, but the same problem always exists on any post or web site, as well as in writings off-line and in conversations or presentations):

There is one slight problem, how do I judge the quality of information from the people who claim to be professionals? In my field I do see inaccurate information from professionals all the time. I see no reason a priori to assume that professionals are any more or less accurate than are electronics professionals.

It's a problem, I'll grant you, but science writing (and biography writing, etc.) deals with this by offering a means to check them out. This is why, in science, people give references for statements they make. If the references are checked out (and I would argue that this doesn't happen enough) and they have been reported accurately and actually support the claim(s) made, you have additional evidence that the person's statement(s) can be accepted as being valid.

Now, given the nature of this medium [newsgroup or forum posting], it's harder to do this here than when writing a book. But posts can help you determine -- not always perfectly -- who is a more reliable or credible source. If, for instance, a poster continually repeats information that is contrary to established fact -- as several posters did here when they claimed that shellfish are not high in sodium -- you should start to wonder how accurate any of their info is. If a poster states, as several have here in the past, that they do not intend to read anything on the subject but insist that their view is as valid as someone's who has read on that subject, you should start to wonder how accurate their views are.

As I mentioned, I don't think refs get checked out even in professional science as often as they should be; partly this is due to time constraints and partly because scientists tend to not think someone will, for instance, claim a reference says one thing when it says the exact opposite.

But if the references are checked out and the person turns out to have claimed something that is not supported by the reference and/or is contradicted by facts -- as happened when I checked out Morgan's claims about seals' "eccrine sweat-cooling" -- you can see that the original claim was bogus. If the references are checked out and they say exactly the opposite of what the person said they did -- as happened when I checked out Morgan's claims about hypertonic sweat (and last summer ['95] on several of her claims about salt and salt appetite) -- you can see that the person making the claim is either an incredibly sloppy researcher, or has incredibly poor comprehension of what they read, or is simply being dishonest. You can't tell which, necessarily, but you can tell that their work and statements should be treated with extreme suspicion (at best).

A similar instance which bears on credibility would be a poster making a claim, and supporting it with a reference, but avoiding any mention of contrary information also from the same reference. One instance of this was seen with Morgan's cite of William Frey's book on tears, where she mentioned only the aquatic animals and left out all the terrestrial animals also mentioned in that book (doing this through honest omission would require inadvertently skipping every couple of paragraphs in the applicable chapter). Another is her contention that salt glands do not exist in terrestrial reptiles and birds; she supported this bogus claim by citing Schmidt-Nielsen's book, Desert Animals (and ignoring posts with references that gave her the correct info). But in Schmidt-Nielsen's book he specifically states that these glands do exist in terrestrial reptiles and birds.

Clearly if someone has been shown, as has happened with Morgan in these cases, to ignore contrary information that is found in the same book, or even, as in these examples, on the same page as other information they use, that is the mark of a writer whose word cannot be trusted.

The same applies to some of the posts of the professionals. By the way I tend to believe the professionals on the "eccrine..." However, how do I know without checking the references myself that you are reporting them in an accurate manner?

Checking them is the most sure method, but you could also see if someone posts contrary info with solid backup. If they don't, when not doing so destroys their claim, you can reasonably expect they don't do it because they can't. This is the usual (messy but interesting) way science progresses.

Now, since you say that some of the "professionals" (they're not all pros, you know) have done what I talked about in the preceding paragraph, you must have examples. I would appreciate hearing what they are. Since you have provided no info to back up your claim (just as in the previous time you made such a claim) that such examples exist, your claim seems, quite reasonably, to be not credible.

This quote is from a newspaper column, written by Jay Ingram, a science writer and host of a television show on the Discovery Channel in Canada:

I'd be unhappy if it faded away. Theories like this add color, wit and imagination to the scientific enterprise.

Well, I think J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth works are colorful and full of wit and imagination but I don't think they should be taught as history.

What the AAT/H adds to science is a generous helping of false "facts" and poorly drawn analogies; this doesn't add anything useful to science. Sadly, if the proponents of the AAT/H had done their research in even a basic, simple, halfway rigorous fashion, they might have been able to present some valuable insights to science. However, since such basic, simple, and even halfway rigorous research would've shown them their evidence is inaccurate, they wouldn't have a theory to present. Just because something is a good news story, it doesn't follow it should be taken as good science. For someone in the business, a good news story is gold, and you hate to see it go, but in science news, you have to accept it, because if bad science doesn't "fade away", science doesn't improve. Even a science writer on the lookout for a good story should appreciate that.

And here we hear from Elaine Morgan with objections:

EMorgan: Most of our disagreements are on matters of terminology, and interpretation, not substance.

Our disagreements are not on matters of terminology, but on an extremely substantial issue: I think one should attempt to state facts instead of falsehoods; you, as we see above in this post [it was the info about salt glands in terrestrial birds and reptiles], do not. You have no apparent qualms about claiming that researchers have said the opposite of what they actually did say (we've seen this with your recent claims about Hancock, Whitehouse, and Haldane's statements on sweat, and before with your claims about Derek Denton's work on salt and salt appetite).

I think this is a substantial disagreement, about as substantial as you can get, and it has nothing to do with either terminology or interpretation.

This same tack again later:

EMorgan: It seems to me that we disagree hardly at all on the facts; we disagree on how they are to be interpreted.

But in fact it is not a case of simply disagreeing on interpretations, as I have said when you made this erroneous statement before. AAT/H proponents in general, and you specifically, make a great number of non-factual claims, and these aren't just ideas that are later shown to be false by new information. They are things which are known to be false at the time they are stated, and often shown to be false in the very sources AAT/H proponents use. We've had many examples of this demonstrated in this newsgroup over the past couple of years. It's not just you: this is true of Marc Verhaegen and Alister Hardy as well.

I'm afraid it's been quite clear we disagree a great deal on the facts, despite how it seems to you.

Then a different tack (perhaps playing to the gallery):

EMorgan: You keep trying to prove I am a deliberate liar. You keep failing. You seem to work on the principle that "if I say this seventy-four times people will think it is true."

I attempt to demonstrate that your research cannot be counted on to have factual content. Thanks to you I am repeatedly successful at doing so. I make a point of not saying you are a deliberate liar; however, since the only other explanation I can think of is that you are an incredibly poor and unreliable researcher, this is probably of small comfort to you.

Then another, on my posts pointing out similarities in the tactics of quoting and evidence gathering between AAT/H proponents and "creation science" proponents:

EMorgan: No, he is just trying to connect me to them in people's minds. He is trying to make them think I am a nutter.

I don't think that even the creationists are "nutters"; not the ones who make up the data and alter the quotes to prop up their theoretical musings. They simply want to establish a theory and are willing to do virtually anything to do so, so they make up data and alter quotes to suit their purposes. So do you. What I am doing is pointing out that you are doing this; if that makes you seem like a "nutter", may I humbly suggest you stop making up data and altering quotes. Your faults lie not in me, but in yourself.

And another new one (albeit on well-worn ground) wherein one of Elaine Morgan's supporters again suggests she's too old to be expected to do science properly.

She is eighty-one years old this year. Can you imagine what she must feel like when she reads the nasty rubbish you have written about her. Couldn't you have shown some sensitivity? What kind of person are you?

The kind of person I am is one who treats older people of both sexes as people; real people fully capable of thought and with the ability to do real scientific work. Frankly, it saddens me to see this attitude on the part of some of Elaine's supporters that suggests she is senile or somehow "past it". You should really get over this horribly prejudiced ageist attitude of yours.

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