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Science in Seconds with Timothy Bromage - Part 2

February 28, 2010

Brit Trogen

Dr. Timothy Bromage is a renowned researcher of human evolution, professor of Biomaterials and Biomimetics at NYU, and the 2010 recipient of the Max Planck Research Award, valued at $1.2 million.  In addition to fieldwork leading to the recovery of the oldest known specimen of fossil in the human genus, he recently discovered a previously unrecognized "long-period rhythm" in bone microstructure, providing for the first time a basis for understanding the connection between chronobiology and the life history of an organism. 

 

[Interview has been edited for length and clarity]

BT: I’m going to move on to some broader questions. Last year's Gallup poll found that 25% of Americans don't believe in evolution, and another 36% have no opinion on the matter.  As a researcher of human evolution, have you ever encountered any difficulty or opposition from this segment of the population?

TB: Well, first of all, I don’t believe in evolution either. Because it’s not a belief system. It’s based on evidence. Of course I don’t belong to that 25% of people, but I also don’t believe in evolution. And that’s actually the big mistake that a great deal of—not only the scientific community—but the lay community that really doesn’t believe in evolution make.


"I don't believe in evolution either.  Because it's not a belief system.  It's based on evidence."



The moment you make it a belief system it can never be correct or true. That’s what separates the study of evolution from an ecclesiastical enterprise; it’s based on observations, and tests of hypotheses, and facts that you accrue and that you meld into a narrative of how things must have worked given this evidence. So I believe a lot of that 25%, they feel that way because they see it as a belief system.

I have encountered with them, because I was a professor of anthropology for 15 years before I came here. And in my class that I taught, that was Introduction to Human Variation, there was a whole section on human evolution. And there would be students who could not come around to understand that this was something that could ever be true. 

But my lectures were never about whether it was true or not. I was just providing the evidence for it. And of course they knew they would be tested on it [laughs]. That’s life. So I managed. I’ve never had any conflagration with anyone on the subject.

BT: There is a population segment that actually denies the facts.

TB: Absolutely. But this is arising out of a bias that already exists, in which you’re back to describing things according to a belief system. That’s what a bias is: it’s a distortion based on something that isn’t the facts. It’s a preconception that you have already. So it can’t be true.


 

And by the way, this happens in science itself too. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the division between science and religion. Even within science, scientists themselves can be biased in a way that prevents them from “seeing.” 

So at every step of the way it’s everything that we can do to eliminate the bias. Because we’re human it’s extremely difficult. And it can never be truly unbiased, what we do. Because even to decide from the start that something is even interesting is already imposing something on it. But you do the best you can. 

And there are certain harbingers of science like having a hypothesis, testing it, it should be repeatable, etcetera. So the larger that sphere becomes, and the [more often] something is always seen that way by however many people are observing it, then you can say it’s pretty unbiased and objective. 

But this is so common that even as scientists we have to be aware of it all the time and watch out for it.

BT: Last year we had the Ardipithecus ramidus skeleton “Ardi,” this year Australopithecus sediba in South Africa. How do you feel about reports of “missing links” in human evolution being reported as soon as they’re discovered?

TB: Well, you know even in the highest resolution genealogy of the current generation to their parents and grandparents, the moment you’re missing only one level of that hierarchy only to later discover their identity, you will have filled a “missing link.” So everything is a missing link.

And of course, the reason that expression is used is to give something extra to the find. And to make that find representative of the first of something. But in truth, how can that really be the case, if every single find is another missing link? And there will always be a species that’s older. 

The reason why black belts never blatantly challenge someone else is because there’s always another black belt hiding. You don’t know who they are, and they might be better than you.

Timothy Bromage and Friedemann Schrenk in Kalonga, Malawi

So filling in these gaps is what the people who work in the field do. I’m a part of that. I do paleontological field work too. And you’re always hoping to fill a gap because finding yet another of something that there’s a hundred of already increases sample size, and you can improve your statistics, but maybe it doesn’t satisfy your curiosity in the first place. So you can understand why they’re maybe built up like that.

BT: One final question: what excites you the most about the future of your research?

TB: The next paradigm shift.

BT: Do those always come out of nowhere, or can you see them coming?

TB: That’s a good question. In the past I’ve noticed that they didn’t come out of nothing. That everything that I’ve done ever since I can remember in the field has actually been adding a piece to some larger puzzle. Quite honestly not really knowing where I was headed. But even right from the beginning I knew the epiphany I had to begin investigating life history was something that arose only because of believing everything was important. 

I’m a firm believer that everything is important. And I read in lots of different fields, from quantum mechanics to network analyses to human biology. And usually when I come up with an idea out of nowhere that ends up having some importance and changing the field, it’s because I’ve suddenly seen the connection between fields. This is something called integrative science, not interdisciplinary. And this for me is the excitement I have for the future.


"I'm a firm believer that everything is important."



To change the field of human evolution by promoting integrative biology rather than interdisciplinary. If you’re interdisciplinary you’ve got your archaeologist [on one side] and your linguist [at the other], they’re both in the same department of anthropology. But all that’s really done is created little disciplines within the bigger one. The walls are still there. The linguist is not participating and cooperating with the archaeologist.


 

The premise of integrative science is first you have a cooperation, and then you have collaboration, and you discover new things. Most new advances are quite honestly by people who are bringing already established fields together for the first time to a brand new effect.

And so integrative biology is something I want to promote with this Max Planck prize. And I’m going to do that by creating an army [laughs]. Half of this money is going to go directly into student dissertation research expenses and for their travel to scientific meetings.


"Integrative biology is something I want to promote...  And I'm going to do that by creating an army."



So lets say after five years we’re able to fund somewhere between 20 and 30 students. In five years they’re all going to be getting jobs at universities all over the world, and before you know it we will have actually moved the field forward. You couldn’t do that if you didn’t have a trained focused group of students, all working in that area, graduating, and then beginning to fill out the various departments in the world.

So basically what we want is to make hard tissue biology an element of the mainstream of human evolution research, which it definitely is not at the moment. Most of the people who work in the field of human evolution don’t really understand the work that we do. And that might be our fault—that we haven’t sort of played nice in the sandbox, to make sure that we integrate well enough with them to do that. 

Our objective would be to change that. And I think that’s a winning strategy.

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For more information about Dr. Bromage and his research, visit his webpage at http://www.nyu.edu/dental/faculty/bios/ft/tgb3.

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