Thursday, 17 October 2013

Not Yeti?

Gigantopithicus still alive?
Has the Yeti mystery been solved? New research finds 'Bigfoot' DNA matches rare polar bear - Science - News - The Independent

Has the yeti question been answered?

Like so much with science, it depends on what the question is. If the question is, "Is there a humanoid creature living in the Himalayas?" then Prof. Bryan Sykes findings don't actually refute the claim that there is, but they certainly don't support the claim either.

If the question is, "Is there a large, unidentified (until now) creature living in the Himalayas?" then these finding are a qualified "quite probably". What the team in Bryan Sykes's Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project have found is that the DNA from two samples of hair, allegedly from yetis, and collected from locations 800 miles apart, one in the Ladakh region, the other in Bhutan, is identical to that extracted from the jawbone of an ancient bear from northern Norway which lived between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago. This species of bear is believed to be ancestral to both polar bears and brown bears, which are known to be closely related, even interbreeding where they come into contact. The match was discovered when the DNA from the samples was compared with DNA held on an international DNA database.

In fact, this illustrates a point scientists keep having to make. It is technically impossible to prove a negative; the best one can do is to fail to falsify the positive claim. A determined critic, and especially one who isn't averse to using the absurd to support her claim, can always raise the "Ah! But..." objection to any evidence which fails to support her. For example, a die-hard yeti fan can always argue that the samples analysed weren't from yetis. And of course that's true - they were from bears.

So a devout Yetiist would probably feel vindicated, even more convinced in his own mind that yetis do exist - which is why someone has faked the evidence to try to disprove them. Why would they do that if there were no yetis? Just like a Millerite in the Great Disappointment when Jesus failed to materialise as prophesied. They decided God had postponed Judgement Day because he was so impressed with their piety and wanted to give them more time to convert those of us who just couldn't see the sense in that argument. They founded the Seventh Day Adventists.

What's probably more interesting to biologist, in addition to the possibility that a large unknown bear may well be alive at high altitude in the Himalayas, is that this bear seems to have once been widespread during the last Ice Age, and a remnant population may be hanging on at a high altitude in the Himalayas to where it may have taken refuge as the climate warmed up and the ice sheets retreated.

So, creationists, you can now go around trying to impress people by asking, "If polar bears evolved out of ancient bears, why are there still ancient bears?". You'll be told, of course, by those who bother to answer you, that it's because they both evolved out of genetically separated populations, just like humans and the other apes did.

Bryan Sykes is no stranger to exciting creationists and Bible literalists. He was the author of the 2002 book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, which showed, from an analysis of mitochondrial DNA, that all non-Africans are descended from just seven women, themselves descendants of a nominal single common ancestral female whom he termed 'mitochondrial Eve'. Hoards of delirious Bible literalists immediately swarmed onto the Compuserve Religion Forum and elsewhere in the early days of the Internet to announce that a 'brilliant scientist' had proved Adam and Eve existed and that the Bible story was a scientific fact - how they crave validation by science. Part of their 'evidence' was that this scientist had even worked out the names of Eve's seven daughters!

None of them had read the book, of course. Few of them had even seen it and even fewer knew what mDNA is. Like present day commenters on Reddit, they were simply reacting to the title and saw no reason to actually read what they were commenting authoritatively upon.

Sykes, of course, like any self-respecting scientist, is urging caution and says much more analysis is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn from this (as yet unpublished) work.

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