National Geographic Embellishes Human Fossil Data
Confronting millions of homes around the world is National Geographic’s latest cover: a wide-eyed, fearful looking small human with black skin, flared ape-like nostrils, bloodshot eyes and disheveled hair – all make-believe. What was found are bones of a small human population that inhabited the island of Flores in Indonesia (see 10/27/2004 entry); the soft parts, skin color, nose shape, lips, hair and all the rest were reconstructed by an artist. The April 2005 cover was probably in production before the revelation earlier this month that the “hobbit” creature dubbed Homo florensiensis had an apparently advanced brain despite its smaller skull size (see 03/04/2005 entry).
Inside, the subtitle declares, “Diminutive hominins make a big evolutionary point: Humans aren’t exempt from natural selection” (emphasis added). The magazine is not claiming these beings were less than fully human, since true Homo sapiens fossils a hundred times older are represented on the evolutionary timeline. Furthermore, any natural selection acting on this population of humans only reduced their stature, not their complexity or ability to make tools. Nevertheless, the speculative artwork for which the magazine is famous abounds in this issue: a normal-size naked human white male hunting a naked black hobbit female in a cave, a hobbit male confronting a giant Komodo dragon, and naked specimens of the Dmanisi population of Homo erectus (see 08/01/2002 entry) fighting off hyenas from their prey.
The in-your-face attitude of National Geographic about evolution, with every claim getting sensational coverage more art than science, may be having a backlash (see 11/29/2002 entry); was this the last salvo by outgoing editor Bill Allen? (See 02/15/2005 entry). We already knew that National Geographic was playing fast and loose with this H. florensiensis fossil (see 12/01/2004 entry); they are perhaps the worst of all the lying reporters (see 11/29/2004 entry) because of their long track record of storytelling with artwork when the data does not justify it. A picture is worth a thousand blurs (see visualization in the Baloney Detector).
National Geographic is slow to mention various important points: (1) Fossils can be distorted by geology (see 03/28/2003 entry), especially these that were found in a delicate state “as fragile as wet blotting paper.” (2) The questionable dating of early-man specimens (see 02/16/2005 entry, for example) sometimes leads to absurd conclusions (see 02/18/2005 entry). (3) Variations among living humans (pygmy, Watusi, tall, short, thin, stout, etc.) could be enough to give paleoanthropologists a field day of classifying them into different species and evolutionary lineages if they were only known from skeletons; how much more so the flimsy remains of skeletons from the past, or the variations between Homo erectus (see 03/21/2002), Neanderthal (10/01/2004) and modern humans? (4) All fossil hominids could fit within the expected range of variation of a single species, according to one researcher (see 01/01/2005 and 05/24/2004 entries). Remember when Jeff Schwartz called Homo erectus a “mythical” classification? (5) Most paleoanthropologists base their work on flawed assumptions, warned Leslie Hlusko last year (02/19/2004). (6) Most of the early man artwork that disgraced earlier NG covers in the 60s and 70s has been debunked, and old assumptions have been replaced by new questions (11/05/2003). Have they learned anything? Apparently not much more than how to make even more realistic cartoons; teen voyeurs are sure to get a rush out of the current issue. How do they know these tribes didn’t wear fashionable dragon-skin robes as they talked philosophy and politics around the campfire?
Because National Geographic avoids these damaging points, and concentrates on art and storytelling more than data, they cannot be trusted as an impartial source. They are bent on spinning any skull into a yarn about evolution, even though human evolution has already been falsified (see 12/30/2004 and 11/18/2004 entries). Although they began asking some good questions about Dmanisi man back in 2002 (see 08/01/2002 entry), they made it look as primitive as possible this time. And they leapt upon the Hobbit find way too early, long before it has been subjected to critical analysis and peer review. Black people should be incensed over the racist representation of the smaller-than-normal population of human beings. It’s time for sensible people to flood NG again with well-written, cogently-argued letters to the editor. Don’t ask them to censor reports about fossils; insist, rather, that they present all the data, including the parts that undermine their favorite storytelling plots. Let the new editor Chris Johns know you expect accuracy in media.