It’s August 15th, 2008. You’re nine-year-old Matthew Berger, and you’re in Gladysvale, South Africa, looking for ancient human fossils with your paleoanthropologist dad, Lee Berger. “Okay, go find fossils!” says your dad. Only moments later, you find a hominid collarbone sticking out of a rock. Your dad curses in shock after seeing all the other hominid bones lying around it: a tooth and part of a jaw, among others. He goes on to spend years studying these fossils among his colleagues, and he names it Australopithecus sediba.
Fast forward: It’s August 15th, 2020, and you’re a 24-year-old woman with an interest in paleoanthropology. You’re writing a blog post about Australopithecus sediba for a series defending finds like the Bergers’ from the heinous claims of anti-scientists. Hours into your research, you see an article telling you that Matthew’s find was in fact made on this very day, twelve years ago. You don’t believe in coincidences or fate, but it makes you smile nonetheless.
Since Matthew found that first fossil, Australopithecus sediba has baffled us. It’s quite the curious creature. Researchers have often called it a mosaic of the traits of the genera Homo and Australopithecus. Unfortunately, even more baffling is the response to these discoveries by young-earth-creationist group Answers in Genesis. A species that appears to be a perfect transition in the human family tree does not sit well with those who don’t believe that such a tree exists at all. AiG likes to think that one can place all australopiths in the category of “apes” and all varieties of human species in the category of “modern humans.” So what do they do when presented with a species that appears to be, in a sense, split down the middle?
Sediba‘s Mosaic Qualities as Compared with afarensis and erectus (PDF from National Geographic)
They try their best to make sediba fit only into the category of Australopithecus, which to the folks at AiG is just “a species of ape.” Possibly the most frustrating part of all of this is that these creationists never define their terms, namely “human,” “ape,” “australopith,” or “species.” I went over this and the difficulties posed by it in my last post in this series, so I won’t go over it again. However, I highly recommend that you read that first, as it is paramount in understanding the fallacious nature of AiG’s arguments.
Being one person with limited time, resources, and patience for AiG’s shenanigans, there are only so many of their points that I can respond to. Perhaps if I did this in a different format, I would refute their 5,000-word posts line by line, but it is more cohesive and readable if I address only the points that are either the most egregious, populous, or salient in these Answers in Genesis articles. As I said in my last post on this, the ideas I’m responding to span across multiple articles; here are the articles containing the myths I’ll be addressing today:
- It’s an Ape . . . It’s a Human . . . It’s . . . It’s . . . a Missing Link! by David DeWitt, published September 2011
- Sediba with a Little Sleight of Hand by David Menton, Andrew Snelling, & Elizabeth Mitchell, published September 2011
- Should Sediba Sashay to the Throne for Oldest Human Evolutionary Ancestor? by David Menton, Andrew Snelling, & Elizabeth Mitchell, published April 2013
Myth #1: Australopithecus sediba is competing with Lucy for the spot of The True Transitional Species Between Apes and Humans
Answers in Genesis loves nothing more than confusing its audience by trash-talking their own self-assigned nemeses, “evolutionists,” in order to distract from their own unsupported claims. Here, AiG tries to pit Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus sediba against each other in a comical race to the headlines declaring it “The Missing Link.”
They do it several times, saying:
“Should sediba overshadow Lucy, or are both pretenders to the throne in human origins?”
“Will the latest series of analyses just published in the 12 April 2013 issue of Science finally enable sediba to supplant Lucy as the queen mother of human origins?”Should Sediba Sashay to the Throne for Oldest Human Evolutionary Ancestor?
“. . . the media headlines have already voted sediba another dose of public acclaim as Berger seeks to ‘confirm his controversial views about the role of southern Africa in hominin evolution.'”
“If Au. sediba is to vie for a position closer to Homo than Lucy’s, it must have arched feet.”Sediba with a Little Sleight of Hand
Not surprisingly, what AiG is saying here goes against everything that evolution means. If you’re truly looking for, and finding, “transitional species” between Homo sapiens and ancient apelike creatures, you would be considering dozens of species over millions of years. Scientists should, and do, conjecture about how species over varying times and places connect to each other, to our common ancestors with other living apes, and to us. As a matter of fact, Lee Berger addresses this mistake in his book Almost Human, where he describes the discovery of sediba:
“Science journalists sometimes treat human evolution like a horse race, describing how different fossil discoveries are jockeying for a position as the true ancestor of humanity. It is a tendency that goes back to the Taung Child discovery and even earlier, a mistake sometimes made by scientists as well as journalists.”Lee Berger, Almost Human, p. 100
Myth #2: Australopithecus sediba could not walk upright
It’s easy to see through AiG’s disgust at the sediba findings, to their true reaction to the discoveries: fear. Their self-described “in-depth articles” on the topic were both released within weeks of sediba‘s findings being published in Science Magazine in September 2011 and April 2013 (after making no findings of their own… ever). I think that AiG’s writers’ senses get so clouded with fear when they see incredibly transitional fossils like sediba that they grasp at whatever they can to try to refute it as a possible human ancestor. One of the biggest ways they do this in these articles is by deciding that Australopithecus sediba could not have been bipedal like all human species have been, and emphasizing the traits that seem at first glance to support their conclusion. This is especially ironic, considering that they constantly accuse “evolutionists” of being axiomatic in exactly the same way. Answers in Genesis has always been the poster child for deciding on a conclusion before bending one’s arguments to fit that conclusion—to the point of breaking.
In this manner, AiG claims that in the aforementioned Science articles (which AiG’s audience won’t bother reading for themselves, as I just had to pay $25 for an AAAS membership to do so), “the researchers conclude that this animal walked bipedally in a unique and awkward way unseen in any other known animal, extant or extinct, and certainly very different from the bipedal gait of humans” “in an effort to reconcile several inconsistencies related to the claimed bipedal locomotion.” Of course, that’s not how science works, and it’s not the case.
If the researchers had entirely made up the idea that sediba had a uniquely shuffling, but nonetheless bipedal, gait, to fit their evolutionary agenda, then they could have saved themselves a lot of time, money, and work. Instead, there are entire (actually technical) Science articles dedicated to sediba‘s foot, spine, pelvis, and knee, all of which point towards this hyperpronated, swaggering gait. The article on the lower limb states, “These bipedal mechanics are different from those often reconstructed for other australopiths and suggest that there may have been several forms of bipedalism during the Plio-Pleistocene.”
The AiG authors propose several seemingly inconsequential reasons as to why this evidence-based conclusion does not make sense… to them. They think sediba could not have been bipedal because it would be “unnatural, unstable, and awkward,” “like trying to walk on ice skates.” Even when acknowledging one piece of evidence on the knee that does support bipedalism, the AiG authors suggested that perhaps, by coincidence, only the animal whose fossils they found walked upright, even if it wasn’t typical for the species. They proposed that this one did so because it was injured, although why an animal that normally walks on four legs would resort to using only the back two and walk completely upright when injured seems counterintuitive to me.
I don’t think that Australopithecus sediba‘s bipedalism is even a hill worth dying on for Answers in Genesis. This is primarily because no one thinks that sediba was strictly a two-legged walker to begin with. The scientists are open about the fact that sediba was mostly likely comfortable, to some extent, both in trees and on land. In describing why he assigned sediba to the genus Australopithecus and not Homo in the first place, Berger said “The lists [of sediba‘s Homo and Australopithecus attributes] were nearly equal in length, but we could all see that this hominin was not a long-distance walker, and its long arms appeared to be adapted to climbing” (Almost Human, p. 96). AiG claimed that if sediba didn’t walk exactly as we sapiens do, it didn’t walk at all, but this is just not true.
Myth #3: Australopithecus sediba can’t be a human ancestor because evolution would have had to go backwards
Saying things like “evolution went backwards” is so ignorant of how evolution actually works that it’s normally not worth addressing, but I’ll give it the time of day since I understand why it could be confusing for someone unfamiliar with the process of natural selection. Surely evolution can “go backwards” if you believe that evolution is just organisms gaining more complex features over time or, in the case of human evolution, hominids evolving to look more like Homo sapiens.
In reality, organisms can evolve in any way that better suits them to their environment. We do, in fact, see this in nature. The distant ancestors of whales lived in water, left the water and eventually evolved into mammals, and re-entered the water, being a sea-creature that is still a mammal. Likewise, the blind mole rat evolved to lose its eyesight when it no longer needed to see in its dark underground environment, and a species of flying ant queens evolved to lose the wings they once had when it became too dangerous for them to fly in an environment that was increasingly becoming more desert-like.
Admittedly, at first glance, Australopithecus sediba does seem to be a bit out of place on the human-ancestor timeline. The most precise date for the age of the sediba fossils we have is 1.977 million years—just under two million. It begins to seem backward when you consider sediba‘s small brain and its awkward transitional gait which shows that it wasn’t entirely comfortable walking on two legs. We have Australopithecus afarensis (the species of Lucy), a 3.5-million-year-old creature that evidently walked upright, and the famous 3.66-million-year-old Laetoli footprints that could possibly have been made by afarensis or something quite like it. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Homo erectus, a much more “modern”-looking creature with a much larger brain than sediba, which starts showing up in the fossil record at about the same time that sediba did.
The following video (in a wholesome and educational series by Lee Berger himself) gives a great explanation of how you could see something so seemingly primitive in what looks like the wrong place in time. To sum it up, though, Australopithecus sediba certainly did not exist only at 1.977 million years ago. That’s just when our fossil specimens lived. Consider Homo erectus: we have fossils from this species dating from 1.89 million years ago all the way up to 110,000 years ago. Their species lived for 1.78 million years. That’s almost nine times longer than Homo sapiens have been around.
To put it into perspective, we have Homo sapiens fossils dating back to almost 200,000 years ago. If you had only a Homo erectus fossil from 100,000 years ago and a Homo sapiens fossil from 195,000 years ago, you might think that the sapiens species was older and that it evolved backwards to become the comparatively more primitive Homo erectus. But if you’re alive and reading this today, you know that this is not the case. Only since the extinction of the Neanderthals has there been one sole hominid species on the Earth. Before 40,000 years ago, there was a plethora of hominid species living at the same time, for up to millions of years each.
Alas, AiG’s investment in these ages is questionable if for no other reason than that they don’t believe any of it. It’s easy to forget when reading their articles that they don’t believe any dates that exceed six thousand years. When discussing this seven-million-year evolutionary drama, the AiG authors will occasionally add in parentheses, “by evolutionary reckoning.” But if they truly believed in their young earth view, they wouldn’t bother with any of these hominid timelines. It’s clear that they pick and choose what’s true for them whenever it is convenient, and they throw it out when it begins to conflict with other biblical claims.