Two otherwise unrelated articles recently published online raise again the question of what differentiates artful interpretation from empirical science — in different terms, what is the core difference between “soft” and “hard” science?
The first article, “Mental problems gave early humans an edge,” by Kate Ravilious, was published by New Scientist on November 2nd.
In the article, Ravilious argues that the conjunction of an increase in the mutation rate of genes associated with autism and other mental disabilities with the explosion of tool-making technologies around 100,000 years ago may mean that the technological progress which differentiated humans from other primates, and other hominids, was the result of the innovative skills of “different” minds.
It’s an intriguing idea, but there is one small problem: the association of changing genes and tool technologies is, Ravilious acknowledges, “circumstantial.”
I would go further and argue that pairing the archaeological record with this genetic information is entirely speculative.
This isn’t a bad thing in itself, of course, for even in the most rigourous physical science speculation is one of the foundations of the experimental methodology, helping scientists to identify areas of inquiry and specific targets for testing.
But it would be a mistake to treat the “Hey, maybe it’s like this …” moments of evolutionary archaeologists and psychologists as true science. There’s more art than science, more invention than investigation, in even those best guesses which prove, after appropriate empirical study, to have been correct.
There’s considerably more speculation in Ravilious’s article, as when she reports on some of the other “research” in this area, with experts suggesting that successful human migration may have resulted from the special skills of the mentally disabled, or that the presumed evolution of “higher emotions” like compassion and tolerance may have nurtured and accepted the differently minded, allowing this small group of mental outsiders to contribute a unique imagination, invention, even spirituality, to prehistoric human groups.
Maybe all of this is true; maybe it all happened just this way. But how are we to know? Not by sitting around a faculty lounge coffee table and swapping ideas. As rich and rewarding as such conversations might be, and I’m sure that they often are, they’re not science.
Why this obsession with empirical science? Why not just lighten up a little?
Well, for one thing, there’s the second article.
“Ancient DNA Provides New Insights into Cave Paintings of Horses,” published online by Science Daily on November 7th, clearly shows both the differences in methodology between artful interpretation and empirical study, as well as some of the implications those differences hold for what we know and how we know it.
The Science Daily article reports that new data undermines one popular interpretation of the famous cave paintings of dappled horses at Peche-Merle, while at the same time reinforcing another view.
The Peche-Merle horses do not look like the bay and black horses long believed to have inhabited the area when the drawings were made, around 25,000 years ago.
Since the horses did not look like the “real” horses the artist would have seen, one popular interpretation has been that the dappled horses are abstract or fanciful objects, not realistic representations of the world as it had been.
With the help of this sort of interpretation, some archaeologists have based entire systems of explanation on the importance of myth and symbolism in primitive art — in particular, basing their theories of the origins and nature of early religion on this sort of “data.”
Of necessity, such explanations have been substantially speculative. There just wasn’t enough direct evidence available on which firmly to base one’s theories. It’s not that the theories are silly, or even wrong — it’s just that they are not truly scientific, not subject to material confirmation or disproof.
In the small area of these cave paintings, at least, the situation is changing.
The Science Daily article reports a DNA study of existing remnants of prehistoric horses, and that study indicates that dappled horses were, in fact, part of the physical world in which the cave artists lived. Not only that, but further analysis shows that the cave painting ratio of dappled to unicolour horses, of spotted to bay horses in particular, closely matches the frequency of dappled and bay colour markers in the fossils.
In other words, the cave paintings not only show actual horses, but they also show them in an appropriate ratio. The horses at Peche-Merle are, in a word, realistic.
Whether or not the paintings also have symbolic or religious significance can’t be known from this kind of data, but any interpretation that the paintings are wholly or primarily abstract or unrealistic has to deal with specific, empirical data that says different.
What emerges from a comparison of these two articles is another example of the reason that the “social sciences,” despite recent increases in the use of empirical tools to augment interpretation, are still more social than science.
That’s not all bad — unless, that is, speculation and interpretation are considered as rationally equivalent to experiment and investigation.