Interview Seven: Ian Tattersall

Hello and well met Prof. Tattersall!  How are you?:

Still ambulatory, fortunately.

Today we are lucky in the fact that we get the rare opportunity to interview someone who has made such a mark on the greater world of Paleoanthropology. Professor Ian Tattersall! 

To get started, I would love to give you a little space to tell us a little about yourself: 

Thank you for asking.  I am an emeritus curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  I have spent the last fifty years or so thinking about human evolution in the light of my early experience with the lemurs of Madagascar.  The lemurs are a very diverse group of primates; and this started me thinking in terms of natural diversity, which I soon realized also describes the pattern we find in the human fossil record.  I had been brought up to think of human evolution as a matter of gradual perfecting change, one species giving rise to the next in a slow transformation.  But looking more closely I saw that the story of human evolution has actually been one of vigorous experimentation with the hominid (hominin if you prefer) potential.  Many species were produced over the tenure of the hominids, and most of them became extinct.

Great!  Thanks so much for sharing that! Now, to get to the questions! 

  1. What is your favorite Hominid and why?

Wow, that’s a tough one.  I guess if pressed I’d have to say Homo heidelbergensis, if for no better reason than it is the main hominid species I’m still having to do battle about.  Today, pretty much everyone recognizes that Homo neanderthalensis is its own entity, one that needs to be understood in its own terms, even though it was a close enough relative of Homo sapiens to have done some minor interbreeding with it.  But Homo heidelbergensis is still very confused, and even though it is very distinctive my colleagues can’t even agree which fossils belong to it.  That’s an issue that won’t be resolved until the Atapuerca fossils, wrongly ascribed to Homo heidelbergensis, are given their own name and identity.

2. Twenty years ago, did you see us where we are today?

3. Where do you see us in another 20 years?

I will answer these two questions together, because basically I hadn’t, and haven’t, a clue. When I got into the field half a century ago, our understanding of human was radically different from our understanding today.  Back then we had a much thinner human fossil record, geochemical dating was still a novelty, the CT scanner was in the future, nobody in paleoanthropology was using electron microscopes, isotopic studies hadn’t been thought of, and paleoanthropology itself was in thrall to the Evolutionary Synthesis.  Now the world is a radically different place; and it would be total hubris to imagine that it will have not changed out of recognition again in fifty or even twenty years’ time.  To our successors, what we think today will appear just as quaint as what our teachers thought in 1970 does to us today.

4. Which of your hypotheses was the hardest to defend, and do you think you did it successfully?

I have tried all my career to break away from the hugely minimalist and linear notion of human evolution that Ernst Mayr imposed on paleoanthropology in 1950.  It is a very beguiling one, and it makes a great story; but clearly things in the real world were a lot messier than that.  Evolutionary change is potentially influenced by many different factors, and there is a lot more to evolution than just natural selection.  Paleoanthropologists today recognize many more extinct hominid species than they did a few decades ago; but this havs been imposed by the pressure of discovery, rather than by the rethinking of the fossil record that I would like to see done.  So no, I don’t think I have got very far.  But I comfort myself by reflecting that, in science, we are all ultimately wrong.  

5. What’s it like to travel the world to all of these exotic places and explore human origins?

It has been a blast.  I spent a good bit of my childhood in Africa and so got a taste for travel early on; and I have been privileged to indulge that taste in search of fossils both in the field and in museum drawers.  In the process I have met many wonderful people (and a few not so wonderful); and I have been able to appreciate first-hand that the world is a very big place, and that what it looks like depends entirely on where you are viewing it from.

6. What first got you interested in this subject?

I stumbled into it in college. 

7. What’s the hardest part of your job? 

I think the hardest thing of all in paleoanthropology is its most basic, and most necessary, operation: sorting the hominid fossil record into species.  The problem arises because there is no one-to-one correspondence between speciation and morphological shift.  That makes hypotheses in this area very hard to test, given the nature of the evidence we are dealing with.  But although some scoff that worrying about species is just “arguing about names,” there is no doubt in my mind that if you don’t know who the actors are, you’ll never understand the play.

8. What is one major misconception you would like to clear up?

Probably the notion that phylogenies are a matter of discovery.  The idea often seems to be that fossils are like links in a chain, and that if you crawl over enough outcrops and find enough fossils, you will find where the chain runs.  But in fact, phylogenies are typically very complex, with numerous speciations and extinctions.  Which means that unraveling them is essentially a matter of analysis, not of discovery.  Which doesn’t mean that more fossils are not better, of course. 

9. Who are some of your major inspirations?

Wow.  We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, starting well before Darwin.  But without David Pilbeam, Elwyn Simons, and Niles Eldredge, my career would never have developed as it did.

10. What are your thoughts on Homo naledi; especially possible interment of the dead?

Well, naledi is one of the great recent discoveries, though I am not sure it is appropriately placed in Homo. The algorithm that “If it isn’t Australopithecus it’s Homo, and vice versa” is a bit of a straitjacket for paleoanthropology at this point.  For me, naledi is an additional indication of just how diverse the hominids are.  As to the rumored interment, I am still waiting to see all the evidence, although hominids are so weird anything is possible.

11. What’s next for you? 

Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in how Homo sapiens came to be the extraordinary creature it is, and I think I will extend my studies in that direction.  I am also working on the history of early zoological exploration in Madagascar (old guys always get interested in history).

12. Why is it important to understand where we came from?

It is crucial to know accurately how we Homo sapiens came about, because very often we have the notion that we have been perfected by nature: that we have been honed by evolution to be the creature we are.  Whereas in fact the record suggests otherwise.  It suggests that (like everything else) we are an adventitious product of nature, unperfected in any respect.  Knowing this helps us to understand not only why we are so creative, but also why we are so fallible.  And why we are responsible for what we do, and can’t just blame it on our genes or some imagined past.

13. If you could be present for any discovery, what would it be?

Tough to say.  I don’t know what discoveries will be made, and frankly I don’t want to guess.  But looking back, I know where I would like to have been, as witness to the first Neanderthal/Homo sapiens encounter.  There would have been no better moment to gauge the exactly what it is that makes modern humans different

14. How has the study of human origins changed the way you view the world?

Another tough one, since it has been so long since I viewed the world through any other lens.  Perhaps, though, it has most importantly placed our species in perspective for me.  We are one of many millions of species on this planet, each of which is unique and can do something no other species can.  We are unusual in many ways, notably in our symbolic cognitive style; but we are not special, and we do not have a special right to the world and its resources.

15. What advice would you give someone going into the field?

Be sure you are really motivated.  Getting into a good grad school is nowadays a lot easier than getting a good job at the end of it all.  But never lose your interest!

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my B.A and then my PhD I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

One thought on “Interview Seven: Ian Tattersall

  1. Really enjoyed this interview….read Masters of the Planet a few years ago and Ian has been one of my science heroes ever since!


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