Publication's latest evolution contention
By James Perloff
July 24, 2001
There is great danger in basing conclusions on a single bone. In 1922, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, an ardent evolutionist, was shown a single tooth found in Nebraska by geologist Harold Cook. After examining it, Osborn declared it belonged to an early ape-man, whom he named Hesperopithecus haroldcookii in Cook's honor. Popularly, it became known as "Nebraska Man."
However, further excavations at Cook's site revealed that the tooth belonged neither to ape nor man, but to a peccary, a close relative of the pig.
But what did the Piltdown Man actually consist of? A very recent orangutan jaw, which had been stained to look old, with its teeth filed down to make them more human-looking, planted together with a human skull bone, also stained to create an appearance of age.
However, the assumption that two-footed mobility establishes human kinship is groundless. Gorillas occasionally walk bipedally; Tanzanian chimpanzees are seen standing on two legs when gathering fruit from small trees; Zaire's pygmy chimpanzee walks upright so often that it has been dubbed "a living link." Science News reports of the latter: "Like modern gorillas they tend to be knuckle-walkers on the ground, yet they seem to be natural bipeds, too, frequently walking upright both on the ground and in the trees." So even if a fossil creature did have some limited ability to stand on two feet, it doesn't make it man's ancestor any more than these modern apes. And man is not the only bipedal creature. Birds are bipedal; so was the T. rex. Therefore, are they human ancestors?
Time refers to "fossil discoveries as far back as Java Man in the 1890s" as validating the relationship between man and ape. But Time does not relate much of what is known about those finds.
One of Haeckel's students, Eugene Dubois, became determined to find Pithecanthropus. Haeckel believed men might have separated from apes somewhere in Southern Asia. So in 1887, Dubois signed up as a doctor with the Dutch medical corps in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), intending to hunt for fossils during all his spare time. Dubois, it should be noted, had no formal training in geology or paleontology at the time, and his "archaeological team" consisted of prison convicts with two army corporals as supervisors.
Years of excavation produced little of significance. Then, in 1891, along Java's Solo River, the laborers dug up a skullcap that appeared rather apelike, with a low forehead and large eyebrow ridges. Dubois initially considered it from a chimpanzee, even though there is no evidence that this ape ever lived in Asia. However, the following year, the diggers unearthed a thigh bone that was clearly human.
Dubois, like Piltdown's discoverers, presumed that an apelike bone somewhere near a human bone meant the two belonged to the same creature, constituting Darwin's missing link. Haeckel, who had not even seen the bones, telegraphed Dubois: "From the inventor of Pithecanthropus to his happy discoverer!"
In 1895, Dubois returned to Europe and displayed his fossils. The response from experts was mixed, however. Rudolph Virchow, who had once been Haeckel's professor and is regarded as the father of modern pathology, said: "In my opinion, this creature was an animal, a giant gibbon, in fact. The thigh bone has not the slightest connection with the skull."
The circumstances of Dubois' find were unorthodox. He had apparently been absent when the convicts dug up his fossils. Maps and diagrams of the site were not made until after the excavation. Under such conditions, a modern dig would be disregarded.
In 1907, an expedition of German scientists from various disciplines, led by Professor M. Lenore Selenka, traveled to Java seeking more clues to man's ancestry in the region of Dubois' discovery. However, no evidence for Pithecanthropus was found. In the stratum of Dubois' find, the scientists found hearths and flora and fauna that looked rather modern. The expedition's report also noted a nearby volcano that caused periodic flooding in the area. Java Man had been found in volcanic sediments. The report observed that the chemical nature of those sediments, not ancient age, probably caused the fossilization of Pithecanthropus.
Nevertheless, the Selenka findings and various deficiencies of Dubois' work were largely ignored, and Java Man became one of evolution's undisputed "facts."
The main substance to the claim that australopithecines are our ancestors is some evidence suggesting that the famed "Lucy" and her peers may have walked upright. But as noted, limited bipedality does not prove human ancestry, and a number of scientists – contrary to the impression created in Time – have disagreed that australopithecines are man's relatives.
Britain's Lord Solly Zuckerman, who was raised to peerage for his scientific achievements, was a leading authority on australopithecines, having subjected them to years of biometric testing. He stated:
For my own part, the anatomical basis for the claim that the australopithecines walked and ran upright like man is so much more flimsy than the evidence which points to the conclusion that their gait was some variant of what one sees in subhuman primates, that it remains unacceptable.
Charles Oxnard, former director of graduate studies and professor of anatomy at the University of Southern California Medical School, subjected australopithecine fossils to extensive computer analysis. Stephen Jay Gould called him "our leading expert on the quantitative study of skeletons." Oxnard concluded:
The australopithecines known over the last several decades are now irrevocably removed from a place in the evolution of human bipedalism, possibly from a place in a group any closer to humans than to African apes and certainly from any place in the direct human lineage. All of this should make us wonder about the usual presentation of human evolution in introductory textbooks, in encyclopaedias and in popular publications. In such volumes not only are australopithecines described as being of known bodily size and shape, but as possessing such abilities as bipedality and tool-using and -making and such developments as the use of fire and specific social structures. Even facial features are happily (and non-scientifically) reconstructed.
Because 99 percent of an organism's biology resides in its soft anatomy, it is very easy to invest a bone with imagination. For this reason – despite the protests of Darwinists – evolutionary anthropology is not a science like physics or chemistry. The laws of physics and chemistry can be demonstrated in a high school laboratory. Evolutionary anthropology, on the other hand, consists of speculations about unobserved events that supposedly occurred millions of years ago. Science cannot observe the past with the same authority as the present. As Lowenstein and Zihlman noted in New Scientist:
"The subjective element in this approach to building evolutionary trees, which many palaeontologists advocate with almost religious fervor, is demonstrated by the outcome: There is no single family tree on which they agree."There was a wealth of evidence concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy: hundreds of eyewitnesses interviewed by the Warren Commission; the Zapruder movie that caught the actual slaying; the autopsy; fingerprint evidence; ballistics evidence.
Nevertheless, controversy has never stopped raging about what actually took place. Scores of books challenged the evidence, offering widely differing explanations as to who killed Kennedy, from what angle(s) he was shot, etc. Even the autopsy results were challenged in a best-selling book.
Granted, the Kennedy assassination was a politically charged event. Nonetheless, if that much disagreement can occur over something that happened just 38 years ago, how can a paleontologist pick up a fragment of bone, supposedly 5 million years old, and declare its meaning with a high degree of certainty? Unlike the Kennedy assassination, there are no eyewitnesses who saw this creature, no Zapruder movie of it, no soft tissues to examine.
Time refers to the "astonishingly complete skeleton of Lucy"– but those words belie the fact that about 60 percent of Lucy's skeleton, including most of the skull, was missing.
Time also neglects the fact that species vary widely within themselves. Darwinian anthropologists use cranial capacity (skull size) to judge the evolutionary status of our supposed ancestors, but even in modern humans, cranial capacity ranges from 700 to 2200 cubic centimeters, and has no bearing on intelligence. People's bone structure varies greatly, based on heredity, age, sex, health and climate. Some are big-boned, some small-boned. There are sumo wrestlers and pygmies. Doubtless, our ancient forebears were also diverse in their looks. How, then, can one assign a single fossil bone to a distinct place in human history? Apes vary widely, too; australopithecines may simply be a type that became extinct. Science journalist Roger Lewin, though an outspoken evolutionist, has noted:
It is an unfortunate truth that fossils do not emerge from the ground with labels already attached to them. And it is bad enough that much of the labeling was done in the name of egoism and a naive lack of appreciation of variation between individuals; each nuance in shape was taken to indicate a difference in type rather than natural variation within a population.
Another oddity surfaces in Time's diagram of the evolution of humans, chimps and gorillas. Human ancestors are shown going back almost 6 million years. But no chimpanzee or gorilla ancestors are depicted before a million years ago. If chimps and humans really diverged about 7 million years ago, as Time asserts, then where are all the fossils of chimpanzee and gorilla ancestors? Why does every bone fragment turn out to be a human ancestor?
Perhaps that question was answered by Dr. Tim White, anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Though quoted in Time, and noted as Haile-Selassie's thesis adviser, he has previously stated: "The problem with a lot of anthropologists is that they want so much to find a hominid that any scrap of bone becomes a hominid bone." As creationist Marvin Lubenow notes, "No one will care if you discover the oldest fossil broccoli, but if you are fortunate enough to discover the oldest fossil human, the world will beat a path to your door."
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