SocraticGadfly: 2/26/06 - 3/5/06

March 03, 2006

Cultural imperialism rears its ugly head in science

The latest twist in a claimed case of backward evolution appears to be a bribe-style silencing of further research by the Turkish scientist who started the ball rolling.

Turkish researcher Uner Tan, who claims to have discovered a case of “backward evolution” among a family of wrist-walking eastern Anatolian peasant farmers, is crying foul against three British researchers, including internationally renowned psychologist and cognitive scientist Nicholas Humphrey.

Tan claims that Humphrey and two other scientists paid the family 1,000 euros plus gas and electric service being installed and turned on. He says the deal included exclusive rights to further research, thereby shutting him out of the picture, and rights to a documentary film to be run on the BBC. Picture an American family getting paid $50,000 or more for exclusive scientific research rights and you get the idea.

It raises questions of whether the payment is tantamount to bribery. Science research participation payments are not supposed to be so high as to provoke that worry, nor so low as to be trifling or paternalistic.

Humphrey claims he is properly crediting Tan in any further research he does. But, beyond that, he’s not talking much. Neither is film producer Jemima Harrison.
“I’m suspicious all over the place,” said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics in Philadelphia. He said the deal should have been pre-reviewed by one of the ethics panels that research institutions appoint for such purposes.

I would definitely agree. Humphrey would never pull something like this on a fellow British scientist, or an American or German one. Not likely with a Japanese one, either. But to do this to a Turkish scientist not only smacks of being rude and grasping, it also looks a lot like cultural imperialism or something similar.

As for Australian psychologist Thomas Suddendorf’s claim Tan is skating on thin ice, I Googled Tan when the story first came out. He’s written and co-written articles in leading American and European neuroscience journals. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Specific to this disorder, on its genetics, he showed it occurs at a spot on the human genome called 17p that is far different from the analogous chimpanzee genetics, and a genetic area that has been linked to bipedalism, supporting his contention this is indeed, at least possibly, “backward evolution.”

Humphrey piled on, calling Tan’s theories bizarre.

Rather, what seems to be bizarre is the trampling of someone pushing the envelope on traditional science, and trying to do it in a Muslim, although state-secular, country.


Update, March 19, 2023: World Science has apparently hauled down all its stories, and it's not just link rot. "Uner Tan" is nowhere to be found on its website. So, maybe I've been too harsh on Humphrey. Also, Tan passed away last year. As for the "syndrome," it does appear that Tan misinterpreted it, that it's not an "atavism" or "reverse evolution," and other things. And, such disequilibrium has been documented elsewhere. Now, as much or more than cultural imperialism, it is a question if Tan (and colleagues) were doing something close to clickbait science.

Further undercutting Tan? Per the movie that Humphrey et al did, on advice of a Turkish medical doctor mentioned in it, the family bought gymnastics parallel bars to practice upright walking, and a couple of years after the initial scenes were filmed, a retrospective has one kid doing just that. And, Humphrey et al invited Tan et al to participate in their paper about the family but "this did not prove workable." So, probably still an ethics issue on the amount of money paid the family, but not cultural imperialism.

That said, the paper, while rejecting "evolutionary atavism," does note that the family may shine light on evolutionary intermediates to human bipedalism.