Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Máximo Sandín

This chap is a biologist, a lecturer in the anthropology of human evolution in the biology department at the Autonomous University of Madrid. I mention this not just to give an idea of who he is, but to show that he is supposed to be a specialist in the development of Homo sapiens, and that he works in the science faculty at a serious university. Which just goes to show that it isn’t only in the humanities departments of the Anglosphere that you can find unreason.

It’s fairly clear that he is just not very bright, and should probably have gone in for something less intellectually demanding. He can’t get a complete grasp of the literature, having to construct his arguments from very general, hazy (and inaccurate, as we shall see) notions interspersed with odd details to which he attaches too much importance.

He claims that he does not publish in English language journals because he doesn’t want to pander to the Anglo-Saxon dominance of cultural assumption, and he specifically says that words like ‘fitness’ and 'selfish' cannot be properly translated into Spanish. This last point is true, but quite immaterial. There is no Spanish word which covers all the acceptions and connotations of the English word ‘fit’ and its derivatives (though his own suggestion, 'pringao' is a particularly inept translation, and he seems to think selfishness is, in English, held to be a positive quality), but it’s easy enough to explain the idea in any context, and people working in the field of human evolution understand the term perfectly in that context. There is no ambiguity, whatever their native tongue (because they understand the idea, not the word used to name it). Sandín gets grandiosely, and rather foolishly, Whorfian on this point.

I suspect he doesn’t publish in the more prestigious journals because they don’t accept his submissions. And since he doesn’t seem to do any real research, just churn out articles musing about how Darwinians are wrong and why doesn’t everyone listen to him instead, this is perhaps not surprising.

He states, and it seems to be a cornerstone of his faith, that the Australopithecines were not ancestors of man or a dead branch on the evolutionary line that led to Homo sapiens, but the ancestors of chimpanzees (Australopithecus africanus), and gorillas (Paranthropus robustus). He doesn’t explain satisfactorily why he thinks this is the case. Apparently it’s just obvious, no real evidence is needed. On the other hand, he brushes aside the detailed analyses of anatomical structure which allows the experts in the field to distinguish between the hominid lineage and the other ape lines. It is hard to imagine why he thinks he is the only person to have noticed their glaring errors, nor what those errors supposedly are, since he doesn’t say.

He refers to ‘Darwinism’ in much the same way that creationists do, as though it were some kind of idealistic belief defended against all logic by a powerful clique. This is typical of the closed and limited mind; it reduces ideas it cannot understand in detail to simple beliefs, and attributes them collectively to the body of people he imagines oppose him. These are straw men arguments, since the people who work in the field do not ‘believe’ in this sense at all; they observe, they tabulate, compare and contrast data, they interpret it in so far as seems reasonable and safe, they construct hypotheses which they then test by designing further experiments or, in this field, usually by what chance leads them to discover. Qua scientists they do not ‘believe’ anything at all.

Our knowledge about the history of evolution has grown enormously since the publication in the mid 19thC of the work of Darwin and others, and continues to grow, constantly altering the proposed reconstructions of our own and other lineages. It is well understood by palaeo-anthropologists that what is known is a tiny fraction of what there is to know, and geneticists are likewise aware that they have barely begun their work. Nevertheless, there is much that is known to be true, including the fact that species evolve.

It is worth reading both ‘On the Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man,’ if only to have some understanding of the extent and conscientiousness of the research Darwin undertook before setting out the theories that he derived from it. It was not some vision that came to him in the night and which he and his acolytes down the generations have worked to impose on a blinkered academy, but a source of information and ideas which have all been tested and added to down the years.

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