Is Chris Stringer a multi-regionalist?

By Razib Khan | July 6, 2011 10:22 am

In an interesting piece in The Guardian on possible proto-gorilla/proto-human hybridization, the journalist lobs this grenade:

But now that the once popular “single-origin model” of the evolution of Homo sapiens has been disproved, and the previously controversial “multiregional hypothesis” has been proven by DNA evidence, perhaps we need a rethink. According to the multiregional hypothesis all modern people, including modern Africans, are the descendents of breeding and hybridising between separate ancestral groups, all at various stages of evolutionary development.

Evolutionary lice research has helped palaeoanthropologists, including Stringer, to embrace the multi-regional hypothesis. “I’m sure there is plenty more to come from the lice research,” he told me. We know that it took 4m years, 5-9m years ago, for our ancestors to completely split from archaic chimps. During that time hybrids would have been born that mated both with our ancestors and ancestral chimps.


The issue here is semantics. I think regular readers of this weblog will know to be more cautious than to contend that the “single-origin model” of our species has been “disproved,” while its inverse has been “proven.” Those are strong words in science. Additionally, I seriously doubt that Chris Stringer would identify as a multi-regionalist. Some wires got crossed here, to the point where I somewhat feel this article is a case of science communication malpractice. Its main purpose was probably to conjure up the image of man-gorilla sex, but by way of that it totally garbled and misled on the basic state of knowledge in relation to human evolution.

I’m not much into credentialing, as an undereducated fellow myself, but I was curious as to the author’s background:

Carole Jahme has a master’s degree in evolutionary psychology and is the author of Beauty and the Beast: Woman, Ape and Evolution. In 2004 she won the Wellcome Trust’s Award for Communication of Science to the Public

There is simply no excuse that someone with this much background in human evolution should make such a hash of the basic details of what we currently know. Yes, times are a changing, but if you are going to label Chris Stringer a multi-regionalist, you better ask him if he defines himself as such when most of his professional career has been as the primary counter-point to multi-regionalist thinking!

A possible explanation may be the need for journalism to be “punchier” and simplify a bit on the margins. So blame the editor. But if you have to do so much modification that you distort the science then that defeats the original purpose.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Human Evolution
  • Ian

    You could argue that, in a narrow sense, the “Out of Africa” hypothesis has been disproven, at least in the maximalist form that was promoted in the late 80s and early 90s. But if you took that position, you’d also have to admit that the Multiregional hypothesis has also been disproven. Of course, few people take as narrowly a Popperian view of science as that, and any realist would say that the dominant paradigm today appears to be “mostly OOA”. Granted, by the mid-to-late 90s, this was pretty much what Wolpoff seemed to be saying.

    One other thing that jumped out at me in that article, though, was the whole hybridisation thing. At the very least, people should realise that every sexual encounter does not lead to a viable offspring. But more importantly, wouldn’t a speciation event probably involve post-mating isolation mechanisms? And wouldn’t the attraction to gorillas be more reasonably explained through a mixture of retained ancestral traits (all apes look similar enough) and convergence (gorillas look rather more ‘man-like’ than chimps, and in fact are somewhat of an exaggeration of a musclebound male).

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    I do hope an editor at the Graundiad is reading your blog. That’s shockingly bad journalism.

  • jason

    One of the comments on the Guardian piece links to an article by Stringer (also in the Guardian), in which he says he is in favour of a “leaky replacement model”.

    Here it is:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jun/19/human-evolution-africa-ancestors-stringer

  • http://sciencepolice2010.com Ж

    EH?! I gained the strong impression, largely through this blog and the Khan/Wolpoff interview on Bloggingheads, that Chris Stringer was on the multiregionalist side of the argument! (I probably picked it up elsewhere years ago but forgot it.) Pity I didn’t hear I was “wrong” the day before, instead of the day after I mentioned on it on Ж.

    “Proved” is a “too strong” word in science; “Disproved” is strongish and never actually true, but is reasonable.

    Strictly speaking, you could argue that any mixing with pre-existing populations does “disprove” “OOA”, though most would say now it was mostly OOA.

  • http://abugblog.blogspot.com Blackbird

    I completely agree with you, Razib. It has tabloid journalism written all over it rather than science journalism. Why it always has to be sex? Kids nowadays gets them by playing with each other while they play. Jane Goodall showed how chimp young often play with baboons of their age and they even groom each other. While this does not lead to any hybridisation, it could well result in some ectoparasite transmission. I can much more easily envisage this happening than interbreeding.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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