Evolutionary Chain Resolved or Chain of Confusion?
Mainstream media have once again upheld their role as promoters and propagandists for the evolutionary theory. Never mind reporting the facts—after all, the truth might be boring or lead to poor ratings. Thus, when anthropologist Tim White announced a new discovery from the Middle Awash region, newspapers were quick to describe his discovery as completing the evolutionary chain for humans. Paul Ricon, staff writer for BBC News noted: “Fossil hunters have found remains of a probable direct ancestor of humans that lived more than four million years ago. The specimens of this ancient creature are helping bridge a long gap during a crucial phase of human evolution” (2006). The first sentence of Robert Sanders press release for the University of California, Berkeley, stated: “New fossils discovered in the Afar desert of eastern Ethiopia are a missing link between our ape-man ancestors some 3.5 million years ago and more primitive hominids a million years older, according to an international team led by the University of California, Berkeley, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico” (2006, emp. added).
The sensationalism centers around a paper that reported the discovery of 30 fossils (read that—mainly “teeth fragments”) which highlighted two different phenomena (see White, et al., 2006). Eight of those fossils are alleged to belong to Australopithecus anamensis. This finding was amazing, because prior to this report there were only a scant few fossils representing this group, and “the only known specimens of this species came from northern Kenya, about 1,000 kilometers to the southwest” (Dalton, 440:1100). The second intriguing point the authors imply is that this find places Australopithecus anamensis within walking distance of another site, where the team found fossils of an alleged earlier species called Ardipithecus ramidus, and also close to fossils of Australopithecus afarensis (the species to which Lucy belongs). Three alleged missing links all dated at different time periods. They felt like this discovery completed the evolutionary chain of life. But what is the truth?
A Little History
In 1994, Tim White (the lead author of this current study) and his coworkers described a new hominid species known as Australopithecus ramidus (White, et al., 1994, 371:306-312) that is allegedly over five million years old. The initial discovery in 1993 included seventeen fossils (mainly dental) found in this same Awash region. Later in 1994, a mandible and partial postcranial skeleton of a single individual was found. Tim White and his colleagues described the cranial fossils as “strikingly chimpanzee-like in morphology” (371:310)—an admission that has now been all but forgotten. They also stated that the pieces of arm bone were described as exhibiting “a host of characteristics usually associated with modern apes” (371:311). In a strange move, White completely reclassified this creature one year later. It is now known as Ardipithecus ramidus (1995, 375:88). Interestingly, White has never released the Ardipithecus monograph—meaning, for the last decade other scientists have been unable to evaluate completely his claims. This move did not stop Donald Johanson (the discoverer of “Lucy”) in the March 1996 issue of National Geographic, from admitting that Ardipithecus ramidus possessed “many chimp-like features” and that “its position on the human family tree is in question” (189:117).
A different creature that is alleged to be younger (and thus viewed as evolving from Aridipithecus ramidus) is known as Australopithecus anamensis. In 1965, a research team from Harvard University discovered a small piece of a left humerus in the Kanapoi region of East Lake, Turkana in Africa. It would be thirty years later before that bone was classified as a member of the Australopithecus anamensis group. Except for a single molar discovered in 1982, no further A. anamensis fossils were found until the early 1990s when Meave Leakey and her coworkers announced a new discovery. The latest fossils—which contain no postcranial material, and consist almost exclusively of teeth—are dated at 3.8-4.2 million years old. But what do we know about this creature that is made up almost exclusively of teeth? The respected Archaeologyinfo.com Web site explained: “The dental apparatus of A. anamensis is markedly ape-like,” and “in general, the dentition of A. anamensis is very primitive for a hominid.” Many evolutionists have described both A. ramidus and A. anamensis as twigs on the evolutionary tree of life—twigs that eventually died out. White’s latest paper is trying to solidify their position on the beloved evolutionary tree. In fact, he believes his discovery allows him to dictate what the evolutionary tree of life looks like.
Fast-Forward to 2006
So exactly what have Tim White and his team claimed? One of the co-authors of the Nature article noted: “We just found the chain of evolution, the continuity through time. One form evolved to another. This is evidence of evolution in one place through time” (Borenstein, 2006). That same article noted: “Until now, what scientists had were snapshots of human evolution scattered around the world. Finding everything all in one general area makes those snapshots more of a mini home movie of evolution” (Borenstein, 2006). As Rex Dalton observed: “The team suggests three species evolved as a single lineage between at least 4.4 million years ago and 2.9 million years ago” (2006, 440:1100).
A mini movie and the chain of evolution? These are enormous claims. Claims that would cause the average person to wonder just what kind of scientific evidence they possess to bridge this gap. After all, claiming to have put all of the missing links in place would—it would seem—require a great deal of fossil evidence. So exactly what do they actually have to back up their enormous claims? A close inspection of the original Nature article reveals that this entire controversy stems over several broken teeth and a few jawbones, and a thighbone. White, et al., noted:
Specimen ARA-VP-14/1 is a left maxilla with fragmentary crowns of I2 [incisor-BH] and M2-M3 [molar-BH], broken canine, premolar and molar roots, and adjacent palatal and lateral maxiallary surface. The right maxilla contains the broken P4 [premolar-BH] root and damaged molar crowns.... Associated dental rows ASI-VP-2/2 and ASI-VP-2/334 are from separate individuals. They definitely place the Asa Issie sample within expected ranges of Au. anamensis variation (2006, 440:885).
If you had trouble following all of those abbreviations then maybe the National Geographic account will sum it up better: “The new fossil find consists mainly of jawbone fragments, upper and lower teeth, and a thighbone” (Roach, 2006). That’s it—that’s all they found!
From those teeth, fragmented jawbones, and the thighbone they have a sequence of evolution? Hardly! So precisely what is the key feature that neatly links these fossils in an evolutionary chain? MSNBC staff writer Seth Borenstein quoted White, who observed: “‘This appears to be the link between Australopithecus and Ardipithecus as two different species,’ White said. The major noticeable difference between the phases of man can be seen in Australopithecus’ bigger chewing teeth to eat harder food, he said” (2006). The actual Nature article records: “Its masticatory apparatus appears better adapted to a more heavily chewed diet of tough and abrasive items” (White, et al., 2006, 440:888). Bigger chewing teeth and now we have the entire evolutionary chain filled in? Recall, this admission appeared in the same article which started with the first sentence: “The latest fossil unearthed from a human ancestral hot spot in Africa allows scientists to link together the most complete chain of human evolution so far” (Borenstein, 2006, emp. added). Such sweeping claims—all from some fragmented teeth!
Jawbone fragments, upper and lower teeth, and a thighbone complete the evolutionary chain? Not everyone is ready to crown Tim White’s team as having bridged the gap. Meave Leakey, the lead author on the paper describing A. anamensis, bluntly stated: “I don’t believe this. We do not have the specimens to fill the gaps” (Dalton, 2006, 440:1101). Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist from George Washington University noted that we “should beware coming out with a complete explanation when we don’t have all the evidence” (as quoted in Dalton, 440:1101). Good advice, especially considering Tim White was bold enough to speculate that in his discovery “we can see all three phases of human evolution” (Borenstein, 2006). This discovery does not document human evolution or phases of man. It demonstrates some larger teeth that were found in the Awash region. As Rex Dalton admitted: “Deciding whether our ancestors evolved as a single lineage may depend more on philosophy than fossils” (440:1101).
On Sunday, April 23, 2006, Charles Matthews reviewed Ann Gibbons’ latest book The First Human in The Mercury News. In his review, he noted:
In “The First Human,” Gibbons, who reports on human evolution for Science magazine, gives a lucid account of the science involved in finding fossils, establishing how old they are, and ascertaining whether they in fact belong to the ancestors of humankind. She also shows how difficult and sometimes dangerous the work of hunting for 7 million-year-old fossils can be. And that, like most humans, anthropologists are subject to such emotions as ambition and jealousy, especially when they’re Indiana Jonesing for the next big find (2006 emp. added).
White’s claims are simply a publicity stunt to try to make a name for himself. His assertions that they have uncovered three phases of human evolution and that they have completed the evolutionary chain are ludicrous given the paltry amount of fossils reported. Consider what the headlines would have read if he had not speculated and been “Indiana Jonesing” regarding this latest find: “A few large fragmented teeth found in the Awash region.” Maybe one day newspapers will report the facts. Until then, continue to expect to be chained up from the truth!
Borenstein, Seth (2006), “Fossil Discovery Fills Gap in Human Evolution,” MSNBC, [On-line], URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12286206/.
Dalton, Rex (2006), “Feel It In Your Bones,” Nature, 440:1100-1101, April 13.
Johanson, Donald C. (1996), “Face-to-Face with Lucy’s Family,” National Geographic, 189:96-117, March.
Matthews, Charles (2006), “Discovering Fossils Can Be Difficult and Dangerous,” The Mercury News, [On-line], URL: http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/entertainment/books/14410720.htm
Rincon, Paul (2006), “Fossils Fill Gap in Human Lineage,” BBC News, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4900946.stm.
Roach, John (2006), “Fossil Find Is Missing Link in Human Evolution, Scientists Say,” National Geographic, [On-line], URL: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/04/0413_060413_evolution.html.
Sanders, Robert (2006), “Ethiopian Fossils Link Ape-Men with Earlier Hominids,” [On-line], URL: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2006/04/12_fossil.shtml.
White, Tim, G. Suwa, and B. Asfaw (1994), “Australopithecus ramidus, a New Species of Early Hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia,” Nature, 371:306-312, September 22.
White, Tim, G. Suwa, and B. Asfaw (1995), “Australopithecus ramidus, a New Species of Early Hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia,” Nature, 375:88, May 4.
White, Tim, Giday WoldeGabrriel, et al., (2006), “Asa Issie, Aramis and the Origin of Australopithecus,” Nature, 440:883-889, April 13.