Fraud Alert

Science has always had to deal with frauds, and perhaps human evolutionary science more than any other. The biggest of such hoaxes in human evolutionary science was the infamous Piltdown Man case. Piltdown Man consisted of a lower jawbone of an orangutan and the skull of a modern human (pictured above). It was deliberately buried in Sussex, England and was forged by an unknown individual in the early 20th century. For nearly half a century paleoanthropologists debated the validity of the skull and jawbone. And before being revealed as a hoax in 1953, scientists debated whether Piltdown Man represented the common ancestor of all modern humans. This obviously had enormous implications, and was used by many early 20th century scientists to justify racism against non-Europeans.

Since then the science investigating our origins has encountered many more frauds, most of them identifiable, but no one quite as deceptive and troubling as Dr. Melba Ketchum. She is a veterinarian and the founder of DNA Diagnostics. However, the only reason she is being discussed within the scientific community is because of her ongoing claim that she has sequenced three nuclear genomes of a Sasquatch.

For those of you who don’t know, the Sasquatch is a mythical animal that 16% of Americans believe to be a giant ape-like creature roaming the Pacific Northwest. Although there is absolutely no evidence that the Sasquatch exists, the myth persists. Ketchum, for a reason unknown to me, is trying to confuse the uninformed and discredit evolutionary anthropology by claiming it exists.

Of course, scientists in evolutionary anthropology have found surprising ancient hominids before. One of the most shocking was the discovery of Homo floresiensis (Brown et al., 2004), a small hominin most likely related to Homo erectus, that lived on an isolated island in contemporary Indonesia until between 13,000-17,000 years ago. The discovery of Homo floresiensis has certainly forced scientists to reconstruct the phylogenetic history of our species and the evolution of the genus Homo in Asia. However, the scientists that discovered Homo floresiensis were transparent with their methods and submitted their results to peer-reviewed journals so that the rest of the scientific community could evaluate their claims. Since their discovery other scientists have been given access to Homo floresiensis remains and other teams of paleoanthropologists have worked at the Liang Bua cave site where the remains were found to conduct further research by testing hypotheses. This process, the scientific process, allows real factual knowledge to be produced and considered by the world as a whole. This process prevents frauds from gaining cultural credibility and allows our species to continually improve our understanding of the universe. Consequently, our knowledge of Homo floresiensis morphology, ecology, behaviour, and phylogeny has accumulated over the past 9 years and our understanding of human evolution is much improved.

In contrast, the methods and data of Dr. Melba Ketchum’s “discovery” have hoax written all of them. She claims that her and her team of geneticists have been sequencing the DNA of the Sasquatch for the past five years, and that her results reveal that Sasquatch is extant (still living), and is a hominin hybrid that arose 15,000 years ago. Furthermore, she claims that the Sasquatch has novel nuclear DNA, but identical mitochondrial DNA to humans. The implications of her research, if true (which they aren’t), would force us to reconstruct the narrative of early human migration and expansion in North America. Her claims would indicate populations of the first human women in North America interbred with a large currently unknown extinct ape species producing a hybrid population of Sasquatch that has been hiding in North America for thousands of years.

Here is the official press release from Ketchum’s abstract in DeNovo Journal of Science (more on this journal later) from February 13, 2013:

“A team of eleven scientists with expertise in genetics, forensics, pathology, biochemistry, and biophysics has sequenced three whole nuclear genomes from a novel, contemporary species of hominin in North America. The study, “Novel North American Hominins, Next Generation Sequencing of Three Whole Genomes and Associated Studies,” which analyzed DNA from a total of 111 high-quality samples submitted from across the continent, appears in the inaugural issue of Denovo: Journal of Science (http://www.denovojournal.com) on February 13.

The team, led by Dr. Melba S. Ketchum, DVM, of DNA Diagnostics in Nacogdoches, TX, sequenced the three whole nuclear genomes using the next-generation Illumina HiSeq 2000 platform at University of Texas, Southwestern from a tissue sample, a saliva sample, and a blood sample. The three genomes all attained Q30 quality scores above 88 on the Illumina platform, significantly higher than the platform average of 85, indicating highly-purified, single-source DNA with no contamination for each sample. The three Sasquatch genomes align well with one-another and show substantial homology to primate sequences.

In addition to the three nuclear genomes, Ketchum’s team also sequenced 20 whole and 10 partial mitochondrial genomes from the Sasquatch samples. In contrast to the nuDNA results, the Sasquatch mtDNA was fully modern Homo sapiens, indicating that the species is a hybrid cross between modern Homo sapiens in the maternal lineage and an unknown hominin male progenitor.”

Well that all seems legitimate doesn’t it? She worked with a lot of scientists, sequenced genomes from biological samples, and published her results in a scientific journal. So why am I calling her a fraud?

Science is concerned with facts and reality, so if her methods and data were sound, any scientific journal would jump at the opportunity to publish such an earth-shattering discovery. Unfortunately for Ketchum, no scientific journals are actually biting. DeNovo Journal of Science is a journal that mysteriously just came into existence. There is currently one edition of DeNovo with one scientific study (Ketchum’s “Sasquatch study”). Apparently Ketchum acquired the rights to this journal, but no one really knows how, and no one knows who peer reviewed the paper. Dr. Sharon Hill has called Ketchum out on her bullshit on Doubtful News and claims: “It looks suspicious. This is not how science works.”

The reason Ketchum couldn’t get through an actual peer review process in any scientific journal was because no one knows how or who collected the samples of ‘Sasquatch tissue, blood, and saliva.’ And there is no genetic database of Sasquatch DNA with which to compare and confirm the fact that those samples were from a Sasquatch. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence of a large ape from anytime in the natural history of North America.

To make matters even more ridiculous, Ketchum issued a statement to the United States government to recognize Sasquatch as:

“An indigenous people and immediately protect their human and Constitutional rights against those who would see in their physical and cultural differences a ‘license’ to hunt, trap, or kill them.”

She also claims:

“[We] have at our disposal, high-def footage, that will not be released until which time the publication finished, high-def video of the Sasquatch. It’s quite remarkable.”

If such footage actually existed, it is hard to figure out why she wouldn’t release it now, since it would potentially erase credibility issues regarding the collection of the samples she claims to have analyzed. Ketchum’s behaviour throughout this whole process has to make me wonder if she is psychologically stable. And if she is, that brings me to my biggest question: Why? Why is she doing this?

Her methods and data are so clearly fraudulent. Any educated individual would realize that something so methodologically flawed would not trick a 21st century scientific community. She is an actual geneticist, and as a result has nothing to gain from this and everything to lose. This whole debacle will only result in her marginalizing and discrediting herself. Why is she doing this? The only possibilities I can think would be to gain some measure of fame within fringe Sasquatch-believer groups. Perhaps as a result of that fame and notoriety she could make money from people coming to her with random animal samples that they want tested?

I’m not sure. Either way she is bad for science. And in my opinion, some science and most general news sources are treating this case fairly neutrally. I think that is bad for science as well. The science is either fraudulent or it isn’t. In the case of Ketchum, she is either trying to create a Piltdown Man for the 21st century, or she is psychologically imbalanced.

Want more evolution in your life?  Follow Cadell Last on Twitter!

Also posted via Svtble:

References:

Brown, et al. 2004.  A new small-bodied hominin from the Late
Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature, 431: 1055-1061.

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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