kleio Logo



Both, the palaeoanthropologists and the art historians,

are less civilized than you think

"Who are we? How did we get here? In studying humankind’s emergence from the primeval mist, palaeoanthropologists seek answers to big and fundamental questions. But the high-mindedness of the pursuit doesn’t necessarily translate to pleasantness in their dealings with one another. The field is famous for petty jealousies, bitter rivalries and simmering feuds. The distinguished American evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk tells me she has been at conferences where discussions have descended into shouting matches and colleagues have come close to fisticuffs.

At Monash University, Justin Adams suspects infighting occurs in many branches of scientific endeavour, though he gets the impression people who trace the human family tree for a living are inclined to clash more heatedly than most. Human evolution is a subject that arouses strong emotions. Also, “there’s a particular breed who ends up in palaeoanthropology”, Adams says. “There are huge egos associated with this.” [like in art history!]

Another pioneer known for his pugnacity was Louis Leakey, the Kenyan-born founder of a palaeoanthropological dynasty now into its third generation of fossil hunting. The late US primate palaeontologist Elwyn Simons summed up Leakey’s attitude this way: “The fossils I find are the important ones and are on the direct line to man, preferably bearing names I have coined, whereas the fossils you find are of lesser importance and are all on side branches of the tree.”

Roger Lewin describes palaeoanthropology as a science that is “short on data and long on opinion” [as is art history, but why are so many people following their silly claims?]. Because of the scarcity of hard evidence of how humans evolved, the temptation is to fill in the gaps with educated guesswork. “When we don’t have much data and we’re using a lot of imagination, we call it a ‘scenario’,” Curnoe says wryly. “That’s code for, ‘We’re largely making it up’.” He adds that even when evidence emerges that exposes flaws in their hypotheses, palaeoanthropologists can be reluctant to change their thinking: “There’s a lot of politics in the field and often not a lot of science, to be quite frank with you. People cling to their pet ideas regardless. And that can play out in some quite nasty ways.” (in: Jane Cadzow, Indiana Bones, the Melbourne archaeology students and the fossil 'jigsaw puzzle' that wowed the world (article of June 20, 2020).