Kicking the hobbit habit
The nickname for the new hominid Homo floresiensis has its advantages, but will the label obscure the true importance of the find, asks Henry Gee.
When the remains of a tiny species of human were discovered on the remote Indonesian island of Flores (as reported in Nature last month1,2), it was clear that the story was going to have far-reaching implications.
The one-metre-tall hominids jolted palaeoanthropologists' notions of what it means to be human, and challenged the idea that Homo sapiens has long been the only human species on this planet.
But one aspect of the find wasn't so obvious: what should the creatures be called?
The problem was choosing a nickname for the single specimen, catalogued as LB1.
Individual specimens are not the same things as species. They are more concrete; they can be imbued with a personality that a formal name such as Homo floresiensis doesn't convey. When a discovery leaves the halls of science and enters the public arena, we want someone we can get to know, not a list of bones.
Searching for inspiration
Anthropologists have long recognized that a good nickname can propel news of a discovery much further into the public gaze than any amount of formal nomenclature. AL 288-1, a skeleton of the extinct East African hominid Australopithecus afarensis, would have been invited to few parties without the nickname 'Lucy', after the Beatles song Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds.
Unfortunately, the researchers involved in the presentation of Homo floresiensis could not agree on a nickname, despite our entreaties to think of one. Parents with new babies have had less trouble with names than did the intellectual parents of this latest member of the human family.
Many in the field crew had become attached to the name 'hobbit', after Tolkien's pint-sized protagonists in his perennially popular novel, The Lord of the Rings. But the suggestion was anathema to others in the team. At the last minute, a compromise was attempted involving the name 'ebu gogo', the term for the small, hairy forest-dwellers of local legend. But it was hobbit that stuck.
The name hobbit does seem singularly appropriate for LB1. It was the right height, lived in a hole in the ground in an isolated part of the world, and was even chased by dragons. Really, it couldn't get any better.
And nobody can doubt that this nickname gave Homo floresiensis an instant and compelling identity. Coming hard on the heels of the spectacularly successful films of The Lord of the Rings, everyone felt an instant kinship with LB1. They could identify it with fictional characters that have been known by millions with affection since childhood and that are now household names.
If the researchers had left the find as Homo floresiensis, or promoted the name ebu gogo or even just LB1, the story would probably still have enjoyed wide coverage in those papers and magazines that routinely cover scientific stories (New Scientist called it Ebu). But it might not have penetrated the public consciousness very far, and it would not have been followed up (as it was) with editorials, cartoons and opinion pieces on its general significance.
In 1994, Nature published a paper on Australopithecus (now Ardipithecus) ramidus, a hominid from Ethiopia that was then the earliest known. The story was widely covered, and even penetrated the tabloids. But without a nickname, the journalists had to invent one (Britain's Daily Express duly came up with 'Uncle Ram', but it didn't catch on). Discussion of the new fossil continued in academic quarters, but soon faded from public consciousness.
The hobbit from Flores is likely to be more tenacious. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term 'meme' as a cultural equivalent of a gene, standing for a concept that propagates itself through human cultural (rather than sexual) intercourse. The name 'hobbit' is a successful meme, already well established in popular culture.
Oddly enough, I was invited on to Richard and Judy, a daytime TV talk show popular in Britain, to discuss LB1, and I shared the comfy sofa with Dawkins, who made a plea that the find should not be called a hobbit. It was to no avail; perhaps memes have finally outdone their inventor.
I agree with Dawkins, however, that there is a downside to the name. Before I make the case against calling Homo floresiensis a hobbit, I should state my credentials. Not only did I edit the Homo floresiensis papers, I am a paid-up Tolkien geek.
I contribute to a Tolkien fan site, www.TheOneRing.net; I travelled to Los Angeles to celebrate the clean sweep of The Return of the King at the Academy Awards ceremony last February. I have even written a book called The Science of Middle-earth. If anyone should applaud the nickname 'hobbit' for Homo floresiensis, it should be me.
But here's my concern. For all the extra publicity, LB1 is now inextricably entwined in the public mind with the 'hobbit', and all the immensity of cultural baggage that comes with the name.
News stories on TV and in newspapers, especially outlets not usually associated with in-depth science reporting, prefaced the discovery with stills from the Lord of the Rings films. These articles were followed up with pieces about our enduring love affair with the 'little people', who populate the imaginations of everyone from Flores to Donegal.
LB1 is one of the most important discoveries in human evolution for decades. But the significance of the find in the tale of natural history, as a thing in its own right, irrespective of its name, is bound to be distorted or obscured.
The problem lies not with now, but the years to come. Will researchers looking at LB1 ever be able to study it without having their thoughts being crowded out by images of Bilbo Baggins?
- Brown P., et al. Nature, 431. 1055 - 1061 (2004).
- Morwood M. J., et al. Nature, 431. 1087 - 1091 (2004).