Hominid Paleoneurology
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 16: 13-28 (Volume publication date October 1987)
D Falk
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Having recently read “Language and Disputing” I was immediately struck by the fact that subject matter covered in “Hominid Paleoneurology,” is at the center of a long running academic dispute. Though “Hominid Paleoneurology” appeared in the 1987 Annual Review of Anthropology, the dispute began around 1980 and continues presently.  The dispute is between Dean Falk, the author of the review, and Ralph Holloway, and it involves identification of a feature (lunate sulcus) of the early hominid brain of the Taung child and whether that feature is indicative of a move toward a more human brain structure (Holloway) or more typical of an ape-like brain structure (Falk).  Well, the dispute has to do with identification across a range of early hominid fossils, but more papers have focused on the Taung child.  The New York Times related the highlights of the still-running dispute in a 2007 article, “In Study of Brain Evolution, Zeal and Bitter Debate:”

“The reorganization of the brain became clear,” Dr. Holloway said. “These australopithecines had brains the size of apes, but they were bipedal, their hands were free, some of them might even have made stone tools. You can’t get this kind of behavior without rewiring and reorganization.”

Over the next decade, Dr. Holloway elaborated on these themes. But in 1980, Dr. Falk, then at the University of Puerto Rico, returned from her own trip to Johannesburg and announced a radically different conclusion: the Taung child’s brain and those of a half-dozen other South African australopithecines were like those of apes, not later humans.

Thus began a bitter debate between Dr. Falk and Dr. Holloway. The stakes were high. “The basic question was how far back you can trace the beginning of humanity,” said Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York.

The Times notes that Holloway considers work from 2004 to have effectively ended the dispute in his favor.  The Times gives the impression that most anthropologists agree with Holloway.

I found the language and tactics in the Falk-Holloway dispute interesting and I wondered whether these were typical of academic disputes and/or encouraged somehow by academic culture.   The language and tactics were certainly familiar and ones that I have seen in other academic disputes.  I wasn’t able to identify any of the sources listed in “Language and Disputing” as dealing specifically with academic disputes and there was no discussion of this topic in the body of that review.  Internet searches led to either the long-running dispute regarding linguistics between Noam Chomsky and his earlier students or disciplinary procedures in academia or other aspects of academic culture.  I imagine that literature on this topic is out there; I just need to refine my search techniques.

Generally speaking I noticed that both disputants held firm to his/her position and acknowledged that agreement was not possible;  both disputants called into question the academic integrity of the other; both disputants extolled the virtues of those who agreed with him/her; both disputants framed arguments to his/her best advantage.  Below are examples that give a flavor of the language used.

In a 1989 article from the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Falk accuses Holloway of misrepresenting her data in a paper:

I have identified and illustrated a spherical “dimple” or “depression” on the Taung endocast as indicating the most likely position of the medial end of the lunate sulcus but have not drawn an actual lunate sulcus on Taung because one is not visible. In a recent paper, R.L. Holloway (Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 77:27–33, 1988) drew a lunate sulcus on his copy of the Taung endocast, incorrectly attributed this sulcus to me, and used it to obtain a ratio of 0.254 to describe “Falk’s” position of the lunate sulcus. My published ratio of 0.242 for Taung (Falk: Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 67:313–315, 1985a) was not considered, although the focus of Holloway’s paper was my assessment of the position of the lunate sulcus. Holloway also excluded published ratios for a chimpanzee in my collection from his statistical analysis but, even so, my published ratio for Taung is still only 1.5 standard deviations from his chimpanzee mean. If my chimpanzee brain is included in the sample, the ratio for Taung is 1.2 standard deviations from the mean. Furthermore, one of Holloway’s own chimpanzees (B60–7) has a ratio of 0.241, just 0.001 below my ratio for Taung. There is no sulcus where Holloway has drawn one on Taung, his “F(LS)” is not mine, his 2 mm error is not mine, and the correct ratio for my measurement of Tuang is the one that I published, not the one that Holloway attributes to me. Assessment of Holloway’s chimpanzee data supports my claim that the dimple on the Taung endocast is within the chimpanzee range for the medial end of the lunate sulcus.

In a 2008 article for the Annual Review of Anthropology Holloway accuses Falk of using questionable methods:

My estimate of the Taung endocast volume came out to 404 ml, double the volume of the 202-ml hemi-endocast I had constructed under the scrutiny of both Tobias and his fabulous assistant, Alun Hughes (Holloway 1970a). This value was quite less than the 525 ml previously reported, and I was pleased that both Alun and Phillip did not find fault with my
reconstruction…Of course, nothing is static in paleoneurology, and the Taung endocast volume has been recently deflated (i.e., 382 ml) by Falk & Clarke (2007) in a paper filled with questionable methods, the most grievous being that they never bothered to define a midsagittal plane, an absolute requisite when trying to mirror-image a half-portion of an endocast (R. Holloway, manuscript in preparation). Falk et al. (2000) proposed some minor deflations of other australopithecine endocast volumes, and replies will ensue in the future.

I looked at several abstracts and several articles that were available online either written by the disputants or about this dispute.  I felt unsure how to relate my experience blog-style.  Anyway, the clock was ticking and I needed to get “something” up, so there you go.