Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wading at 50

I'm feeling a bit low today. It was my 50th birthday last week and I had a great time. Lots of friends very kindly came to my football/beer fest shindig and I had some great gifts. I even managed to convince myself that being 50 was great. After all you've reached an age where your responsibilities are beginning to wane and your freedoms (after years of parental servitude) are starting to re-emerge. Also, as an additional birthday bonus, England won the ashes. To anyone not familiar with what that means, never mind. It's just a bunch of blokes in white playing a silly game with a willow bat and a very hard red leather ball. Forest even beat Boro last night in the cup so, "why so sad?"

Maybe it's just that after every high must come a low and that as this was a particularly huge "high" I've now got to suffer a particular deep "low". Maybe it's because I'm a bit "bipolar". Who knows?

Well I think I do know. I've not got much "proper" (i.e. money related) work on at the moment so when you get to my age you're left to wallow in your thoughts and sink into a sulk about all those things you haven't achieved.

I'm still waiting to hear from Homo (The Journal of Comparative Human Biology, that is) about my cursed wading paper. Apparently it went to peer review straight away so it's been about 3 months now. The editor Macej Heneberg told me it usually takes six months. Six months to read a paper? I suppose they must be really busy.

I've now officially packed in my PhD at UWA because it was getting too depressing. The discrepancy between the amount of time and effort you put into a PhD and the reward you get out is just grotesque in the extreme unless, of course, your whole future career in academia depends on it - which is, I guess, true for most post grad students but not for me. Just like the feeling you get when you stop banging your head against a wall, it felt great.

Ironically, I seem to have had more rewards for my efforts since I packed in than whilst I was doing it. I gave, I thought, a pretty good talk at the Australasian Society for Human Biology Meeting in Adelaide in December.

Here's an extended version of it if you're interested...

Then, I got accepted to give a talk at the conference commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in Melbourne, sharing a platform with some of the most respected people in the field of evolutionary biology.

My slot was on Monday afternoon at 3:15. It went very well, I thought, and I spoke to several people there who seemed very open to the idea. The conference was great, only marred by the grim stories about the tragic bush fires just a few kilometres away that had gone on the day before it started.

Earlier this year, I attended the American Association of Physical Anthropology meeting in Chicago - the biggest and probably most prestigious anthropological event in the world. I'd always hoped I'd go to one of these to present my ideas once I'd completed my PhD or at least having had something published. But, alas, it wasn't to be. I gave my talk pretty well I thought and the audience, on the whole seemed interested although one guy, amazingly asked me at the end "so, by your logic perhaps we should study the possibility that human ancestors rode the backs of dinosaurs" (!)

Again I have a You Tube video of the talk although it's a very poor quality, sorry...

At the end of the talk I was honoured to have a chat with John Langdon (author of the only published critique of the so-called "aquatic ape theory" in a proper anthropological journal. He was very kind and said that was a "very courageous" thing to do. We had a beer afterwards. (Well I had several... he was driving) and I told him that I thought it was really not on to have claimed that "the Savannah theory" was an invention of Elaine Morgan. He agreed he'd been stretching it a bit. We had a long chat and although I'm sure I didn't change his mind in the slightest he did concede that the idea wasn't in the same league as Von Daniken, ID etc. as implied in his paper which put them under the same umbrella. I don't suppose John will be writing to JHE any time soon to point out the mistake and even if he did that they'd publish an errata 12 years later. Or even if they did that anyone would notice.

Ho hum.

Anyway, after Chicago I gave another talk, this time in London at UCL, the place I first got into the subject for my masters degree. It was nostalgic going back, although the department had now moved to a shiny new building. It was great to bump into Volker Sommer, my supervisor. He's a really nice guy and quite hilarious! Unfortunately, when introducing me to a gorgeous young student he let the cat out of the bag by saying something like "Algis is trying to bring the 'akvatic ape' into respectability after some crazy old woman wrote about it". Oops! As I sipped my sherry I pointed out that "Elaine Morgan wasn't crazy and that she was here to watch the talk!" Volker ended up sitting next to her but I don't think any words were exchanged.

This was by far the worst of the four talks. I had the luxury of 40 minutes to fill but ended up rambling on with a little too much emotion. I think I wound a couple of members of the audience up a little with my "aggressive style" so for that reason, and because a couple objected to us filming it, I haven't put it up onto You-Tube.

The highlight for me was driving Elaine Morgan home. I cannot describe how privileged I felt having given such a talk at UCL, after my previous three, driving Elaine home and being able to listen to her wise words alone for hours. Imagine being an early advocate of Darwinism and giving a talk about it in London and then sitting in a horse and carriage with him back to Downe House. I know some people would scoff at the comparison but I think it's their sad loss if they can't see how wonderful she is.

Having got back to oz, then, all seemed pretty good. I got back into money work pretty quickly which was good as we had accrued a few debts. One of the things I'd spoken to Elaine about was my idea of a book and she encouraged me to get on and do that - and I have. It's taking longer than I thought but I'm now on chapter 5 of about 12. I'll keep you posted on how that goes.

The other thing I've been doing (far too much, actually) is posting on the Richard Dawkins.net forum. I just cannot resist arguing with people about this subject and I do end up wasting a lot of time there. I suppose the benefit is, at least, that the arguments are there for anyone to read and that by writing ideas out it helps to make them more solid and clear in your mind.

I've had a running battle with some opponents of the idea there, including Jim Moore himself, author of the very official sounding"aquaticape.org. You'd think, from such a URL, it would be a fairly objective site and he's always boasting about it. Whenever he sees a 'pro-aquatic' argument anywhere on a newsgroup, he's quick to jump in with fatherly advice not to be "taken in" by it and that people should read his "scientific critique" about it. I thought scientific critiques were supposed to be scholarly, to report all the salient arguments and provide all the key quotes in full without trying to distort them, but he doesn't. He doesn't even mention the key sentence or the key paragraph or the key chapter in the most important book on the subject Roede et al (1991)... that is Reynold's summary of the Valkenberg symposium - the only time and place the idea has been openly and fairly debated. It's no scientific critique at all, more like an attempted character assassination of Elaine Morgan and anyone who dares not to laugh at the idea. I would encourage people to go and look at it for themselves. I have a critique of it written too if you want to read my thoughts on each page... Critique of aquaticape.org.

I suppose that's partly why I'm feeling a bit low. One of the posters there - another aquasceptic posted a link to a podcast broadcast of a sceptic radio show which included a piece about the aquatic ape. It was an interesting program but the 'experts' made the usual distortions about this idea. One lady said (in her piercing American accent) "so if we were living in the water for millions of years why are we such poor swimmers" (or words very similar). I mean, crikey, if people can't even be bothered to understand this much about the idea! In another slot one of the guys 'debunked' the 'aquatic' argument for greater fat by saying it's just sexual selection and that "we're just as fat as monkeys are", clearly completely ignoring that main point that it is human infants that are relatively fat compared to all primates and all Savannah mammals. It was clear from other parts of the program that he'd got some of his information from Jim Moore's web site.

It's kind of depressing. You try to do things the right way. You go back to university, do a master's degree, pass with a distinction. You get a piece published in the literature. You start a PhD. You give talks at scientific conferences, some of them win prizes. You do the lit review, design the experiments, do the experiments, do the stats, write the findings up, get scores of people to read it and then submit to the journals and you get rejected again and again and again - sometimes without peer review, once without even so much as a word of a reason.

Meanwhile it's Jim Moore the librarian's web site that still seems to be the most respected source of what's wrong with the idea - despite it being a journalistic and unscientific example of the art of discreditology.

Sorry. I shouldn't get all bitter about it. The world was never a fair place, after all. Anyway, I was spending so long at RichardDawkins.net I had to force myself to stop posting (at least for a while) but, of course, like any proper junkie, I can't pack it in so easily, so I thought it was time to add another blog here.

Sad, sad old man!!!

Algis Kuliukas
26th August 2009

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