Thursday, November 4, 2010

National Geographic & The Power of Worldview

Joel Achenbach, “Lost Giants.” National Geographic 218.4 (October 2010): 90-109.
David Quammen, “Jane: Fifty Years at Gombe.” National Geographic 218.4 (Octobewr 2010): 110-29.

I have blogged before about the power of worldview. Specifically, I have argued that worldview exerts influence over how we interpret and accommodate new data, information, and arguments that we encounter.

The October 2010 edition of National Geographic contained a fascinating article about extinct megafauna (animals) in Australia. Over the past 180 years, numerous fossilized remains of massive wombats, kangaroos, tapirs, thunderbirds, wallabies, and marsupial lions have been discovered. Paleontologists debate the causes of their extinction – which current theories estimate to have occurred approximately 45,000 years ago. Some postulate a cataclysmic ecological (or metereological) event; others suggest that the arrival of humans (currently estimated to have arrived in Australia approximately 50,000 years ago) caused a precipitous decline in megafauna.

Within the context of the intramural debate, scientists involved make surprising admissions about the power of worldview, paradigm, and interpretation.

Author Joel Achenbach suggests that Judith Field “makes a key point about her scientific data—there’s not enough of it. … [Field's words] ‘What you’re looking at is an incredibly thin data set from which these elaborate explanatory models are constructed.’” (106)

For example, one of the famous fossil finds, from Australia’s Mammoth Cave (near Margaret River) is “a femur with a notch in it.” (106) What, pray tell, created the notch? Lindsay Hatcher insists that it was “notched by a sharp tool.” (106) Mammoth Cave is a perfectly suitable habitat for early humans—sheltered, covered, and defensible. Others suggest that the femur was “notched by the razor-sharp tooth of a marsupial lion.” (108) Which is it? The article’s author, Joel Achenbach, concludes: “Everything’s interpretation.” (108)

A little later, paleontologist Peter Murray admits that in paleontology, “Every step of the way involves interpretation. The data doesn’t just speak for itself.” (108) What interests me, however, are the influences which direct necessary interpretation. I agree with Murray, Field, and Achenbach – scientific data does not speak for itself; every step in the scientific process involves human interpretation of the data. Approaching the same data from different paradigmatic controls results in significantly different interpretations. Case in point: Hatcher’s insistence that humans hunted and killed the original bearer of the notched femur vs. the theory that it was felled by a giant marsupial lion. The data is amenable to either interpretation; the interpretation one adopts will depend largely upon the perspective one began from.

In the case of Australian megafauna, I admit to being entirely indifferent to which interpretation is correct. Whether the femur is the result of animal predation or human hunting does not particularly interest me—I find it enjoyable to read about and consider, but nothing significant hangs in the balance (for me). In other cases, the same process of necessary human interpretation of scientific data carries much more importance.

Indeed, the very next article in October’s National Geographic is a paean to Jane Goodall, whose fifty years studying chimpanzees at Gombe has set the bar for the study of species in the wild. Goodall’s mentor and sponsor, naturalist Louis Leakey, had a fairly open interest in Goodall’s work in Gombe: a redefinition of what it means to be human. Goodall was the first to observe chimps making and using tools (to hunt termites), leading Leakey to write ecstatically: “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” (116) A thin set of data, out of which Leakey desired to build a major theory about human/animal nature.

A closer comparison to Australian paleontology is paleo-anthropology, or the history of human origins. If the fossil remains in Australia are judged to be relatively thin and incapable of speaking for themselves, how much more so the paucity of hominid remains and the edifices that have been built thereupon?

We do well to remember that scientific theories are built upon data which are not ‘brute facts’. The data does not speak for itself: rather, they are interpreted by human beings, and when we hear interpretations, we are also hearing the worldview of the interpreter speaking.