Errol Morris: Disbelieving is Seeing
"We see on the basis of what we believe, not the other way around," Errol Morris told Big Think in a recent interview. In other words, our relationship to the truth is never neutral nor "value-free."
“Cinema is truth 24 frames per second,” the French new wave director Jean Luc Godard famously said. Not so, said German filmmaker Michael Haneke: "Film is lies 24 times a second to serve the truth."
Whether film is always a manipulation or not, we have grown to expect that in the documentary cinema of the award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris, the truth will somehow win out. And in Morris's films, the truth has profound, real-life consequences. An innocent man is sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer (The Thin Blue Line). But then the real killer confesses at the very end of the film. Cinematic, not to mention real-life justice, is served.
The case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of Morris's latest book, A Wilderness of Error, is considerably more complicated. In 1979, a jury found MacDonald guilty of murdering his family, and the matter of his guilt or innocence has been hotly debated ever since. Even Sarah Palin has weighed in (more on that later).
Here is a trailer (in 3D) for Morris's book:
What's the Big Idea?
"We see on the basis of what we believe, not the other way around," Errol Morris told Big Think in a recent interview. This is confirmation bias. In other words, our relationship to the truth is never neutral nor "value-free," Morris says. The police walk into a crime scene and hastily construct a narrative to explain what they see. Once this "theory" has been firmly established in their minds, the actual evidence "becomes invisible."
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
Confirmation bias is certainly not limited to police work. In fact, confirmation bias might be evident in the reactions to Morris's book. Here's the quick backstory.
Jeffrey MacDonald granted the journalist Joe McGinniss full access during his trial in 1979, believing that McGinniss would exonerate him. However, that was not the conclusion that McGinniss arrived at in his best-selling true crime book, Fatal Vision, published in 1983.
In the spring of 2010, McGinniss moved to Alaska to write an unauthorized biography of Sarah Palin. He even rented a house next door to Palin's Wasilla home. The book that resulted was The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, which was heavily criticized by the Palins but also by many "lamestream media" critics who objected to McGinniss playing fast and loose with the truth.
Here's where our story comes full circle. Errol Morris's book received an enthusiastic review from Sarah Palin, as it presented a different conclusion -- that MacDonald is most likely innocent -- than McGinniss's account. "Apparently, falsely convicted men don’t make for good books," Palin wrote. "McGinniss decided it was a better story to agree with the jury."
Did Palin draw this conclusion due to a confirmation bias (McGinniss lied about me so he must have lied about MacDonald) or was she convinced of MacDonald's innocence after reading Morris's book? It's anyone's guess, but Morris was asked this question. Does he think Palin read his book cover to cover? His response: "Somebody did."
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Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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