Tell a tale, get media attention: did Lucy fall out of a tree, or did paleoanthropologists fall off an empirical limb?
“Lucy” serves a storytelling purpose. By giving a certain fossil a name, whether Lucy or Australopithecus (“southern ape”), Donald Johanson launched a storytelling empire. The interpretation of her bones continues to arouse debate between scientists, but the media love her. She is a folk hero around whom endless fables can be spun.
The latest fable is that she fell out of a tree. The media mostly treat this as a new fact, not an interpretation. It also gives them another opportunity to pound the drum of human ancestry from apes. Watch the level of certainty grow, while the meme about ancestry is constant:
- Did a Fall From a Tree Kill Lucy, Our Famous Ancestor? (National Geographic)
- Human Ancestor ‘Lucy’ May Have Died After Falling from Tree (Live Science)
- Cracking the coldest case: How Lucy, the most famous human ancestor, died (Science Daily)
- Early human ancestor Lucy ‘died falling out of a tree’ (BBC News)
The tree-falling tale is the child of John Kappelman (UT Austin) who observed tiny cracks in some of her bones using a CT scanner. These, he says, indicate falling from a height. So even if a fall had something to do with her death, why does it need to be a tree instead of a rock cliff? The reason: it fits the evolutionary narrative. Science Daily explains:
Kappelman conjectured that because Lucy was both terrestrial and arboreal, features that permitted her to move efficiently on the ground may have compromised her ability to climb trees, predisposing her species to more frequent falls. Using fracture patterns when present, future research may tell a more complete story of how ancient species lived and died.
From there, the storytellers go to work on the plot details. What was she doing in the tree? Was she trying to reach fruit? Wait; she must have been trying to escape a predator. The search goes on for a “provocative but plausible scenario” to explain the fractures. Kappelman began to see it all in a vision that stirred his emotions. Adam Hoffman quotes him for NG:
“At one point, I had all these bones out and this idea just finally crystalized—I could see the fall, the position of her body when she hit, the impact,” says Kappelman. “For the very first time, I saw her as an individual and this wave of empathy hit me. For the first time she was not just an isolated box of broken bones. I could actually picture how she died.”
Fortunately, Hoffman earlier quoted skeptics of the view, including Donald Johanson himself. Lots of primates fall out of trees all the time, so what does this explain? How do we know it was a fall from a tree? The tree wasn’t fossilized. How do we even know the cracks formed when she was alive? Maybe they formed during the fossilization process. Tim White and Donald Johansen criticized Kappelman for jumping to his own conclusion. Ewen Callaway at Nature added to the doubts. The headline writers, though, loved it. Their uncritical readers felt a twinge of empathy, mourning their poor ancestor’s untimely end.
Lucy was just an ape. Get over it. You can see a replica of the bones in the Creation Museum in Kentucky, with holograms superimposed on it showing two ways to portray the creature: one that makes her look like an ape, another enhanced to make her look like an evolutionary transitional form (see, for instance, the reconstruction on Live Science). Kappelman says Dead bones tell no tales, but living evolutionists sure do. For instance, when the Laetoli footprints looked like modern human prints, but dated (in the evolutionary scheme) to Lucy’s time, the response was, “Well, what do you know! Lucy had human-like feet!” There is no falsification in Darwin Fantasyland.
“Lucy is precious,” says David Ketcham, who did the CT scans. Every life is precious at some level, but we shouldn’t exalt this individual over all the other apes that fall out of trees today or have fallen in the past. Scientists who crawl out on a limb beyond the evidence risk their own fall from scientific credibility.