Lee Berger’s New Hominid Is a Non-Starter
Yet Another New Discovery Shakes up the Human Family Tree
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
The human family tree has been shaken up at least four times this year alone, a fact that indicates how fragile and problematic the evidence for human evolution is. Having just completed editing a 400-page book on human evolution, documented with several thousand endnotes, this topic is very much on my mind. The Oct. 14 report in New Scientist opined
Humanity’s ancient family tree is set to be shaken up by fossil skeletons found embedded in rock at a site near Johannesburg, South Africa. They could be from another long lost human cousin. “We have another major hominin discovery,” said Lee Berger at New Scientist Live on Saturday. In the past decade, Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and his team has [have] discovered not one but two new species of human ancestor.
Based on past trends, more discoveries have generally not added to anthropologists’ conceptions of human evolution. Instead, they have have muddied the waters and created new challenges to the original human evolution narrative. This has been true from the time when Darwin proposed details of his own theory of human evolution, twelve years after his 1859 book On the Origin of Species was published. He proposed his theory in his 1871 treatise titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. The word “descent” turned out to be accurate, but was not what Darwin intended to say.
Darwin intended in this book to document man’s evolution upward from some unknown primate ancestor to modern humans. In other words, he attempted to support what he believed was The Ascent of Man – not man’s descent downwards. We know, however, that genetic degradation is happening due to the accumulation of mutations, as documented by Cornell geneticist, John C. Sanford. The accumulation of mutations causes the descent of humans – i.e., devolution. In his book, Genetic Entropy, Sanford documents the empirical evidence showing that the Darwinian concept of mutation and natural selection cannot create the enormous new amount of genetic information required for macroevolution to occur, much less keep the genome from gradually decaying to the point of species extinction. “Mutational load” is a problem for all species. Could this be part of reason many ‘hominid’ fossils appear to be deformed humans? Instead of being upwardly-progressing primitive human ancestors, could some be deformed humans suffering from an accumulation of mutations that was leading to genetic meltdown and the eventual extinction of that genetic line?
Australopithecus sediba, 2010
Lee Berger had made previous sensational finds. One that occurred in 2010 made international headlines after his then 9-year-old son discovered the remains of what they called “a new species of human in the hills north of Johannesburg. This was Australopithecus sediba, which [the Darwinists asserted] lived around 2 million years ago and appears to be our closest ape-like ancestor.” To call it a “new species” is presumptuous. It must be admitted, though, that this find was remarkable. Instead of a few bone fragments as is typical, they found fossil skeletons from the
Malapa cave are so complete that scientists can see what entire skeletons looked like near the time when Homo evolved. Details of the teeth, the length of the arms and legs, and the narrow upper chest resemble earlier Australopithecus, while other tooth traits and the broad lower chest resemble humans.
The possibility that the individuals suffered from disease or devolution should at least be considered. That would make it a malformed Australopithecus instead of a new species as Berger claims. This “Missing link found in ascent of man,” which experts say “could rewrite the story of human evolution” has already been problematic, partly due to Berger’s rush to judgment. Negative opinions were voiced by some of his colleagues. For example, Tim White, the renowned paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, savaged Berger’s writing in his book, The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind. White complained that the book was “in many ways worse than useless, given the astonishing density of errors and misleading statements [and its] …pattern of fabrication.” His criticism got personal when he said,
Berger’s rise to prominence signals a new era: one of smoke and mirrors, in which style triumphs over substance. In his short career, Berger has not in fact found very much but shows a remarkable ability to inject himself, via funding and publicity, into discoveries made by others.
Concerns about Berger’s work go beyond just ignoring the possibility of mutations causing some of the details in the fossils. Admittedly, mutational effects are not easy to determine, given the absence of ancient DNA in old fossils for genetic comparisons, but this difficulty hits both ways. Mutations cannot be easily proven, but they also cannot be easily disproven. What is observed is morphological variation that is influenced by reconstructions from bone fragments, which are often found in disarray. The source of the variations, though, could be due to multiple causes. This could be due to inter-species differences, or intra-species differences: i.e., individual variations, as shown by the fact that all modern humans vary – some greatly. Additionally, some of the variation could be due to mutation-caused abnormalities. One solution would be progress in techniques to find evidence of DNA. Ancient DNA has been found in some Neanderthals and Denisovans, but so far, attempts to extract DNA from Berger’s skeletons have not succeeded. Fortunately, research in this area is ongoing and may help reveal where the fossil finds fit into some known species family.
To assume the differences are due to evolutionary “ascent” towards modern humans, as assumed in this case, is irresponsible and another example of seeing the world through evolution-tinted glasses. These “new species” could be either another normal variation of the ape-like Australopithecus or might be, indeed, truly entirely new species. When reading accounts of fossils found in caves, as I hear them relating that some parts look very human and others very ape-like (similar to Australopithecus), my reaction was that maybe some bones found in one general location were human and others were Australopithecus. This possibility, though, is deemed unacceptable, because the Darwinian presupposition blinds most researchers from even considering it. Similar concerns could be raised not only with Australopithecus sediba, but many if not most of the recent ‘mosaic’ fossils that, the finders say, will require rewriting the textbooks.
Homo naledi (2013)
The next discovery by Berger that he says will force the rewriting of textbooks was described as follows:
in 2013, Berger hit the fossil jackpot again, with the remarkable discovery of thousands of bones deep inside the Rising Star cave system also near Johannesburg. These turned out to belong to a new species of tiny, small-brained hominin called Homo naledi. This fossil hominin is transforming our understanding of human evolution, not least because H. naledi lived very recently, around 250,000 [Darwin] years ago, and has a strange mix of modern and archaic features.… The new fossil hominin remains he has discovered … haven’t yet been excavated due to the challenging nature of their location. “It’s a difficult site” … [because] the fossils are embedded in very hard rock.
Once again, the mix of modern and ancient characteristics indicates the possibility that the find was a mixture of modern man with some simian creatures. Although finding “thousands of bones” may reduce the likelihood of the concern that the find is a single abnormal individual, it also raises the possibility of a contamination of modern humans with some ape primate. Berger’s assessment that “The large size of the jaw and teeth means that the skeletons don’t belong to the diminutive H. naledi, and they are not A. sebida either,” ignores the possibility that some of the remains may include an abnormally large H. naledi, or A. sebida. Another possibility, as already stated, is that they are another species of the ape-like Australopithecus, or are an entirely new species, and not some ape-human link.
The Major Problem in Interpreting Old Bones
Dr. Solly Zuckerman, head of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Birmingham in England, and a scientific adviser to the highest level of the British government, studied Australopithecus fossils for 15 years with a team of scientists. He concluded, in blunt British style “They are just bloody apes.” As a result of his long-term research in this area, Zuckerman’s “scorn for the level of competence he sees displayed by paleoanthropologists is legendary.”
Consider the problems of interpreting finds like this. A large number of shattered bone fragments, possibly from different animals or even different species, often distorted by the forces of their burial environment, must be removed from their internment, at times their stone encasement, and then reassembled into some meaningful order. Each step in the process is heavily influenced by the evolutionary presumptions of their assembler. That’s why Zuckerman wrote, “the evolutionary inferences we base on structural comparisons are in the end only speculations.” This wise observation—although made almost 50 years ago—is more true today than when it was originally made.
 George, Alison. 2019. Lee Berger: We have made another major discovery about early humans. New Scientist, October 14.
 Sanford, John C. 2014. Genetic Entropy, New York, NY: Feed My Sheep Foundation, Incorporated.
 George, Alison. 2019.
 Australopithecus sediba. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/australopithecus-sediba
 Berger, L.R., D.J. de Ruiter, S.E. Churchill, P. Schmid, K.J. Carlson, P.H.G.M. Dirks, J.M. Kibii. 2010. Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa. Science, 328(5975): 195-204, April.
 Thom, G. 2010. “Missing link found in ascent of man.” Herald Sun, p. 17, Friday, 9 April.
 Thomas, H. 2010. “Fossil warriors won’t call a truce for Sediba.” The Weekend Australian, p. 13, 10–11 April.
 George, Alison. 2019.
 George, Alison. 2019.
 Quoted in Lewin, Roger. 1987. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 164-165.
 Zuckerman, Solly. 1970. Beyond the Ivory Tower. London, UK: Taplinger Publishing Company, p. 74.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.