Hominid Claim Is More Philosophy Than Fossils
Two weeks ago, the media had a feeding frenzy over Tim White’s claim that his team found bones in Ethiopia from three hominid species lined up in a vertical row, showing a clear progression toward humans. Now, the fine print has come out. A review in Nature1 begins, “Deciding whether our ancestors evolved as a single lineage may depend more on philosophy than fossils” (emphasis added in all quotes).
Rex Dalton wrote some juicy lines in his article that creationists will love, and evolutionists will insist are taken out of context (because evolution is a fact). You be the judge:
- The team suggests three species evolved as a single lineage between at least 4.4 million years ago and 2.9 million years ago – an era when humankind refined its ability to walk upright while developing new ways to live (see timeline below).
The idea is one of the most contentious in palaeoanthropology. The fossil trove, reported earlier this month (T. D. White et al. Nature 440, 883-889; 2006) has confirmed [sic] some important aspects of the trail towards the genus Homo, which appeared around 2.3 million years ago [sic]. But experts are still bickering over the relationship between the species that have been found.
- Experts have squabbled over the relationship between Ar. ramidus, Au. anamensis and Au. afarensis ever since they were discovered.
- This month’s Nature paper makes a bold argument, and shows the Awash team seeking to put its mark on the record. Others in the field are impressed. “When you find 30 new hominid fossils, you are allowed a certain amount of conjecture,” says Bernard Wood, a palaeoanthropologist at George Washington University in Washington DC. “As always, they have done a fantastic job.”
But he and others are unconvinced by the Awash team’s conclusion: “This is only the first half of the rugby match,” says Wood.
- Meave Leakey, lead author on the Au. anamensis discoveries in Kenya, is more blunt. “I don’t believe this,” she says. “We do not have the specimens to fill the gaps.”
- The existence of other species would cloud or eliminate the argument for a direct lineage. “My prejudice is there are more lineages rather than fewer – more diversity,“ says Wood. “I have to concede these new data are dramatic. But we should beware coming out with a complete explanation when we don’t have all the evidence.”
- This argument frustrates White. “There were Martians there back then too,” he says. “And spacecraft all over the Pliocene – we just haven’t found them yet.”
- Similar arguments run for various phases of hominid evolution, for example whether Homo ergaster evolved into H. erectus, or whether they were two coexisting lineages – White advocates the former. But ultimately, the argument comes down to the point that more fossils could always be found, so it is unclear that the two sides will ever agree.
One of Dalton’s subtitles is, “Theory of Relativity.” The context is the lineage of these fossils, but the subtext is the differing interpretations about their relevance to the human story. Everyone in this rugby match, however, can agree on one thing. The Ethiopian National Museum, which has the new fossils, is a nice place for the stadium. Dalton ends, “This strengthens the museum as an ideal centre to study human evolution.”
1Rex Dalton, “Feel it in your bones,” Nature 440, 1100-1101 (27 April 2006) | doi:10.1038/4401100a.
Didn’t we foretell this? Go back to April 12 when all the news media were slain in the spirit over White’s holey relics. We warned that “the field of evolutionary paleoanthropology is filled with rivalry, contradiction, deception, exaggeration and outright fraud.” Notice that Dalton’s depiction of rivalry applies not just to this case, but to “various phases of hominid evolution” – indeed, all of them.
We also said, “Too bad the news media are all dupes; they think this is science instead of mud wrestling.” Our only mistake was getting the sport wrong. We should have known that rugby is more bloody.