Four years ago to the day, I wrote a post called “Why I Am Not a Scientist”. I’ve since privated it, because I don’t like the way I spoke about myself and my own intelligence in that post. My main idea was that I was new to being an informed atheist, and I was not confident in my abilities to refute young-earth creationism. I called myself “scientifically challenged” and expressed that I felt that in order to really be confident in my atheist stance, I would have to become much more educated in various fields of science. I said that I was “really bad at science” even as I said that I loved and appreciated how it allows us to learn about the world around us.
I am still not a scientist, and I still know that my strengths lie more in art and writing (as I said then), but what I see now as I re-read that post is that I was buying into the idea that science is only for the elite gatekeepers with PhDs. I don’t mean that it is valid that young-earth creationists, flat earthers, or anti-vaxxers claim that they know better than the scientists adamantly refuting their heinous claims. I do mean that people like me, who love and respect science, should be allowed to talk about it, learn about it, and share how we feel even when we have no intentions to become (and no false claims that we are) PhD-level scientists.
I bring up this old post for two reasons. One, I use this as a disclaimer because I am, in fact, about to talk about science and don’t want anyone to think that I am an authority figure on this. Two, I think my old self was too quick to say that I simply could not do science. Everyone can do science or at least try. And two years ago, I fell in love with one field of science that even my younger self would have understood.
There is a lot that I love about paleoanthropology. Of all the branches of science, the study of human evolution is the one I have the firmest grasp on. In many ways, to the comfort of my past self, one could say that it is much easier than the science and math subjects that I mentioned being bad at in that post: biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, and algebra. I know that they all have their nuances, but in general they are much more objective and technical than what comes easy to me. Paleoanthropology, it sometimes seems, has nothing but nuance.
I thrive in the intersection of the objective and the subjective. Yes, I am an “art” person, but I like when that art comes with a high level of organization or even constraint. Meanwhile, I am a science enthusiast, but not the kind of person who does scientific equations or experiments like my PhD-pursuing friend. I like reading and writing, but often about science. I like science, but mostly just the parts that discuss the beauty of the cosmos or the incredible history of humanity. So paleoanthropology, being largely about scientists’ interpretation of fossils and artifacts, fits the bill perfectly. And of course, I first discovered it when searching for the truth outside of young-earth creationism. My 2017 self would have loved it.
In one sense, you could say that paleoanthropology is easier than chemistry and physics. At least in order to have a rudimentary understanding of it, you don’t need to be able to do calculations or have technical knowledge. You can learn about how people spend months on the African savanna, or Asian caves, or Indonesian islands, searching for fossils or tools or just stumbling upon them. You can learn about how people classify fossils into various species and how, at the same time, each new fossil reshapes our view of what each species is. And depending on how you look at it, the most fun part can be learning the history of the controversies in the field, as different fossil hunters have vied for the title of “Discoverer of the First Human”.
I’m sure it’s not quite so easy once you decide to pursue paleoanthropology professionally, however. Excavators of fossil sites have to use painstaking attention to detail in marking where they found everything. I read once that if someone finds a fossil but doesn’t mark where they found it, they might as well not have found it at all. Plus there are many other professions that all overlap with paleoanthropology. In order to function, paleoanthropology needs specialized experts in molecular biology, archeology, anatomy (both humans and other species), geology, radiometric dating, and dozens of other fields. While it might be easier for me to grasp the basics of the hominid family tree than it is for me to grasp quarks, quasars, and spacetime, actually being a paleoanthropologist is surely no easy feat.
Meanwhile, just as the objectivity of sciences like physics is hard for me, I’m sure that the subjectivity of paleoanthropology might not come easily for a physicist who prefers questions with definite answers. Even experts in paleoanthropology will probably never agree on where to draw the lines between species. Even as someone who has only learned the basics of hominid history, there has been a learning curve in coming to accept that there is a lot that we still don’t know and may never know. I think my own frustration with this stems from my old feelings of not being able to refute young-earth creationism unless I had all the answers. The truth is that none of us do.
I think that the subjective nature of paleoanthropology is also what makes it difficult. Yes, there is plenty of controversy in fields like physics and chemistry, but the difference is that those questions have (mostly) objective answers that can be found if the scientists continue researching. With paleoanthropology, the more specimens you have, the more complicated it can get. For example, we had a pretty good idea of what belonged in the genus Homo (humans and our closest ancestors and relatives) versus Australopithecus (our ancestors further back that have many similarities with both apes and humans). Then Australopithecus sediba came along with a pretty equal mix of Homo and Australopithecus traits. I’m imagining that early paleoanthropologists had been so intent on finding the transitional species between apes and humans that they hadn’t planned to start finding transitional species between those species and humans as well.
This is just one example of a lot of debates in the field. Is A. sediba Australopithecus or Homo? (They had to name it one or the other—there is just not a named intermediate genus—so it is, at least for now, narrowly classified as Australopithecus. See my post on this for more details.) Are Neanderthals part of our own species, Homo sapiens, or are they too different, and thus only part of our genus Homo? If they are Homo sapiens, then what does that make Denisovans, whom we know much less about, but are thought to be equally as similar and dissimilar to us as Neanderthals? And what is Homo habilis anyways? Its first specimens were discovered so early that there were not good descriptions of the various categories, and H. habilis has thus been described as a catch-all name for all the late Australopithecus and early Homo fossils that no one knew where to put.
The following is true both for paleoanthropologists and for the young-earth creationists whose articles I enjoy critiquing: what makes human evolution difficult is that it’s not an exact science. Answers in Genesis wishes they could stamp each fossil as Ape or Human, but they can’t. This is a case of tens of thousands of generations of mothers giving birth to babies, going back seven million years. It has only been possible to categorize fossils because we don’t have them all. Suppose that hypothetically, we did have access to knowledge of every single generation of hominid. Which mother and child pair would you walk up to and say, “Sorry, you guys are different species”? You couldn’t do it. The change is too gradual. The names are all arbitrary, and for scientists who want answers, this is immensely frustrating.
Thinking of paleoanthropology in this way might make someone want to simply give up. If it’s all just a word game, then what’s the point? Well, for one, you really could think of anything and everything this way and spiral into existentialism. Yes, we are all just practically using our own made-up languages to describe things that would exist with or without humans having to label them. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do it, though. Working through these problems to the best of our abilities, listening to each other’s arguments, and being humble enough to admit that we might never know some things for sure, is how we do learn more about our origins and make it make some sort of sense.
Even though I don’t have all the answers, the degrees, or the confidence, I believe that I am worthy of being fascinated by this. Sometimes it can even be fun to not know for sure, because you can speculate and throw ideas around with others, experts and enthusiasts alike, who share an interest in a field. Depending on how you look at it, paleoanthropology could be easier or more difficult than the hard sciences, but its uniqueness is what I love about it.