In the image to the left you see three human males. You can generate three pairings of these individuals. When comparing these pairs which would you presume are more closely related than the other pairs? Now let me give you some more information. The rightmost image is of the president of Tanzania. The middle image is of the president of Taiwan (Republic of China). And finally, the leftmost image is of the prime minister of Papua New Guinea. With this information you should now know with certainty that the prime minister of Papua New Guinea and the president of Taiwan are much more closely related than either are to the president of Tanzania. But some of you may not have guessed that initially. Why? I suspect that physical inspection may have misled you. One of the most salient visible human characteristics is of the complexion of our largest organ, the skin. Its prominence naturally leads many to mistakenly infer relationships where they do not exist.
This was certainly an issue when European explorers encountered the peoples of Melanesia. An older term for Melanesians is “Oceanic Negro,” and some sources suggest that the Spaniards who named the island New Guinea did so with an eye to the old Guinea on the coast of West Africa. To the left is an unrooted tree which illustrates the relationships between Papuans, Bantu from Kenya, and Han Chinese. Since the font is small I’ve underlined the focal populations in red. Africans are always the “outgroup” to any two non-African populations. This is a robust pattern whenever you look at averaged total genome phylogenies. In other words, when you don’t privilege particular genes in a phylogeny humanity can be divided into African and non-African branches.
One of the most persistent debates about the process of evolution is whether it exhibits directionality or inevitability. This is not limited to a biological context; Marxist thinkers long promoted a model of long-term social determinism whereby human groups progressed through a sequence of modes of production. Such an assumption is not limited to Marxists. William H. McNeill observes the trend toward greater complexity and robusticity of civilization in The Human Web, while Ray Huang documents the same on a smaller scale in China: A Macrohistory. A superficial familiarity with the dynastic cycles which recurred over the history of Imperial China immediately yields the observation that the interregnums between distinct Mandates of Heaven became progressively less chaotic and lengthy. But set against this larger trend are the small cycles of rise and fall and rise. Consider the complexity and economies of scale of the late Roman Empire, whose crash in material terms is copiously documented in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It is arguable that it took nearly eight centuries for European civilization to match the vigor and sophistication of the Roman Empire after its collapse as a unitary entity in the 5th century (though some claim that Europeans did not match Roman civilization until the early modern period, after the Renaissance).
It is natural and unsurprising that the same sort of disputes which have plagued the scholarship of human history are also endemic to a historical science like evolutionary biology. Stephen Jay Gould famously asserted that evolutionary outcomes are highly contingent. Richard Dawkins disagrees. Here is a passage from The Ancestor’s Tale:
…I have long wondered whether the hectoring orthodoxy of contingency might have gone too far. My review of Gould’s Full House (reprinted in A Devil’s Chaplain) defended the popular notion of progress in evolution: not progress towards humanity – Darwin forend! – but progress in directions that are at least predictable enough to justify the word. As I shall argue in a moment, the cumulative build-up of compelx adaptations like eyes strongly suggest a version of progress – especially when coupled in imagination with of the wonderful products of convergent evolution.
Years ago an evolutionary biologist mentioned to me almost offhand that with the emergence of genomics and the necessity to master computational techniques a lot of the labor hours which may have gone into a more thorough understanding of specific organisms had gone by the wayside. He believed that his Ph.D. advisor was going to take a lot of knowledge with him when he retired because there was just no time to devote to discussing details of specific organismic life history, anatomy, and behavior. I obviously think that the sacrifice has been worth it, the new methods are powerful and answer long standing questions (or hold promise to do so), but something has no doubt been lost. Biological variation is such that a gestalt “big picture” sense of the lay of the land is useful. Much of biology is a historical science, and like history the details are of the essence. But unlike history biology is a natural science, and amenable to experimentation and observation, as well as laced with a more thorough formalization (yes, I am aware of cliometrics). The mileage one gets out of theory in biology is far greater than in history, as evidenced by the high prestige of an evolutionary framework, and the obscurity of cliodynamics (and the relative marginal reputation of Arnold Toynbee).
But evolution purely as logic often fails. The old debate between the balance & classical schools in evolutionary genetics was upended by empirical findings in molecular evolution in the 1960s, which subsequently stimulated neutral theory. Natural science has to extend itself through a long-term dance between system building and empirical verification or falsification. The seeds of new systems don’t come from a vacuum, rather, the prior set of observations and experiments lay the groundwork and serve as points of embarkation.
The combination of biology’s variation and its reliance on theories, heuristics, and rules-of-thumb (e.g., 19th century biology’s love affair with “laws”), often leads to perplexing surprises when a more systematic or deeper read of the data flies in the face of expectations. So it is with a new paper in PNAS which upends some specific relationships between mammalian characteristics and encephalization, as well as some more general prejudices. Brain size, life history, and metabolism at the marsupial/placental dichotomy: