Paleoanthropologists were excited by the Malapa discovery, but many were skeptical about Berger’s bold evolutionary claims. To some, he had long seemed more interested in fame than in careful science, and his press conference struck them as theatrical and unscholarly. Yet any scientist who wanted to vet his sediba research could do so: Berger shared his data and declared the fossils available for outside study, something that paleoanthropologists traditionally had not done. Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, has said that the field often resembles “a swamp of ego, paranoia, possessiveness, and intellectual mercantilism.”
Berger donated replicas of the Malapa bones to museums and schools, and started attending conferences with a sediba cast, allowing anyone to inspect it. Jeremy DeSilva, a Dartmouth paleoanthropologist who collaborates with Berger, recalls that when he visited Wits in 2009 Berger offered to open the fossil vault. “A lot of people in our business are petrified to be wrong,” DeSilva told me. “You have to be willing to be wrong. What Lee is doing takes that to another level.”
From a profile of Lee Berger in the New Yorker. What makes this more amazing and galling is just how few artifacts are out there:
In the century and a half during which scientists have been formally studying humankind’s earliest ancestry, they’ve found fossil remains of only about six thousand individuals. Most have been fragments and isolated finds. Donald Johanson, who is now seventy-two, has said that before he found Lucy all of the hominid fossils older than three million years could “fit in the palm of your hand.”
The full article is fascinating because it describes perfectly the tension between extremely careful scholars who take great care, and often many years, to produce findings, and scholars who have less patience for the diligent, tiresome, work of getting something exactly right.
Berger is a self-promoter and hasty scholar by any standard. Maybe my favorite example (emphasis mine):
The dig, in November, 2013, lasted three weeks; a smaller dig followed in March, 2014. National Geographic live-blogged and tweeted the latest developments. Viewers watched the team recover bag after bag of remains—some fifteen hundred fossil elements, an unprecedented assemblage.
A dig is less than half the job. Scholars say, “It’s not what you find—it’s what you find out.” To analyze the fossils, Berger again turned to Facebook, inviting “early career” scientists to apply for a six-week workshop, in May, 2014. He promised that, together, they would describe the fossils for “high-impact publications.” By the end of that August—an extraordinarily fast turnaround by traditional standards—Berger had submitted twelve papers to Nature.
Every field has these tensions. The professors who make the most boisterous and careless claims get a lot of media attention. Furious, diligent scholars rush to counter the more ridiculous claims.
Even though I count myself among the more careful and diligent class, I see a lot of value to the Bergers of the discipline. They are often quite creative. They open up new fields and discussions. Other scholars rush to fill the new territory, however furious and angry. The questions get debated by a broader range of people. And the usually quiet scholars now have incentives to try to dispel the public’s worst misunderstandings. The march of progress?