Rama’s ape

Ramapithecus (Rama’s ape) is no more. Another Hindu god has taken over the franchise; Ramapithecus is now subsumed under Sivapithecus, an earlier discovery.

The story is interesting from a history-of-science point of view. Ramapithecus used to be presented as the very first ape on the human line, postdating the split between humans and great apes, maybe even a biped. This was given in textbooks not so long ago as established fact. Then geneticists (Sarich and Wilson) came along, and declared that the genetic divergence between chimps and humans is so low that the split had to be way later than Ramapithecus. There was a lot of fuss over this. Paleoanthropologists didn’t like geneticists telling them their job. Eventually though the paleoanthropologists found some new fossils, and thought it over, and decided that Ramapithecus (now part of Sivapithecus) looked more like an orangutan relative: likely ancestor of a great radiation of orangutan relatives that left just one surviving species.

There are plenty of examples of experts in different fields coming up with different answers. For example, paleontologists didn’t like physicists telling them why dinosaurs went extinct. And we’ll see other examples in days to come: geneticists, physical anthropologists, and archeologists arguing over modern human origins. And very recently geneticists coming in on the side of old-fashioned historical linguists, and against recent generations of archeologists, in the matter of Indo-European origins.

It would be nice if there were a simple rule of thumb to decide who’s right in these cases. Maybe experts know what they’re talking about (except experts were telling us recently that low fat diets were the key to losing weight and eggs would kill us with cholesterol). Or maybe hard science experts know better than soft science experts (except physicists like Kelvin were telling geologists that the Sun couldn’t possibly have produced enough energy to support life on Earth for hundreds of millions of years – then Einstein and E=mc^2 came along). So the best we can do maybe is realize people are prone to overconfidence and group think – and not just those other people, either, but you and me.

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