Answers in Genesis is Threatened by Human Fossil Discoveries

Happy Sunday and welcome to the latest installment in my series Creationists Don’t Understand Human Evolution! This week I will be responding to the three Answers in Genesis articles under their category “Hominids” in which the AiG authors contend with “the news” each time it “eagerly reports the discovery of another link in the supposed chain of hominid evolution.” In my opinion, this whole category seems pretty incomplete, as it only covers two fossil discoveries as well as an ongoing debate between paleoanthropologists. I don’t normally respond to each article separately, but the first of these three has virtually nothing in common with the other two, so I’ll have to tackle that one on its own. The articles are:

Hominid Fever: Yet Another Alleged Early Human Ancestor Unearthed by Peter Line on March 11, 2005

Dispute Over Largest Group of Human Fossils by Elizabeth Mitchell on June 16, 2012

“Homo” Diversity or “Homo” Ancestry? by Elizabeth Mitchell on December 22, 2012

The first article I’ll be looking at is Hominid Fever, even though the article is about two hominids and a hominoid. (The folks at AiG have already made it clear that they don’t grasp the difference between words like hominid and hominoid.) We know by now that the overall goal of the Human Evolution section of AiG’s website is to try and demonstrate that humans did not evolve from apes, they are not related to apes, they are not a type of ape, and they do not overlap with apes. However, the goal of this article is less clear.

New Fossils, Same Bad Logic

This article was written six days after the Associated Press announced a newly discovered collection of postcranial fossils in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 2005. Both articles were written before the fossils were classified, but my guess is that they were either Australopithecus afarensis or Australopithecus anamensis, which is thought to be afarensis‘s closest ancestor. The AP article isn’t much more than an announcement that they were discovered, as well as a short description of the bones, speculation about the creature’s bipedality, and excitement that it can hopefully shed some light on how hominids got around between the time of the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus and the (average) 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis.

With barely anything to respond to, Answers in Genesis revealed again just how nervous they get every time a new hominid discovery is made. I believe that the author, Peter Line, panicked when he heard about this, and decided that he had to make an article “debunking” it as quickly as he could before too many creationists started wondering how their young-earth beliefs could be true when there is yet another “missing link” found between humans and other apes.

I think Line is essentially grasping at straws here. After dismissing the new fossils’ “status as a missing link” because of their similarity to the somewhat chimp-like Ardipithecus ramidus, he tries to discredit the new discovery by disputing the bipedality of the famously bipedal Australopithecus afarensis using a little-known, distantly related ancient ape species: Oreopithecus bambolii.

© S. Bambi, Sistema Museale dell’Università di Firenze

Oreopithecus bambolii is significant because it is thought to have walked bipedally despite having lived before the split between humans and chimpanzees and not having been in the direct line of human ancestry. Although I found his line of reasoning disconnected and hard to follow, my understanding is that Line is saying that just because a creature is bipedal does not mean it is necessarily a human ancestor. He is trying to say that the new, unnamed pre-afarensis bipedal specimen is just another non-human ape like the ancient hominoid bambolii.

In AiG’s signature contradictory fashion, though, Line disputes even bambolii‘s ability to walk upright using nothing but his own incredulity, saying, “Apes evolving a form of bipedal locomotion once is difficult enough to believe or imagine; that it must have independently happened multiple times, in order to ‘rescue’ evolutionary theory, reveals to be a collection of just-so-stories that can be accommodated to almost any scenario, no matter how unlikely.” After this, he never revisits the topic of bambolii‘s bipedality or why he is skeptical about it other than its unlikeliness. I don’t know what this has to do with human ancestors evolving the ability to walk upright, but interestingly, a commenter on this Smithsonian article about bambolii proposed that it might be closely related to human ancestors after all. Regardless, it’s an interesting species that probably had a lot of unique features due to living on an ancient swampy island.

Line sways back and forth on whether or not he believes that bambolii or the new unnamed specimen were bipedal, probably because the morphological evidence indicates that they both were, but Answers in Genesis doesn’t allow him to imply that they were human ancestors. Thus, he spends the article essentially saying, “These creatures did not walk upright, but if they did, that doesn’t make them a human ancestor anyways.” If he doesn’t take a stand, then he can’t be accused of being wrong. (He is.)

He ends the article by saying “One should also be wary of claims that this or that skeletal feature ‘proves the creature walked upright’, as usually some other evolutionist fossil ‘expert’ will debunk or dispute the claim.” He names as examples two species whos bipedality is debated among scientists. I find this peculiar, because he thinks that it helps his case and hurts the evolutionary case when in fact the opposite is true.

The entire point of science is debating people, challenging your own assumptions, and changing your beliefs when they don’t line up with the latest evidence. Science is about discovering new things, which requires constantly throwing out outdated information in place of new information that takes into account what you just learned. Science boasts room for uncertainty and debate where creationism does not. Creationism makes claims that are too big, too unsubstantiated, and worst of all, too sure of themselves. It doesn’t allow anything to be deemed unknown or prone to change. Everything must be (literally) scripturally true and fit into perfect categories of this or that, which is then awkward when you realize that creationists cannot practice what they preach by agreeing on exactly which species are human and which are apes. (In the diagram, Line himself is entirely at odds in his classifications against fellow AiG creationist Jack Cuozzo.) In reality, the gray area where scientists disagree shows just how “transitional” some species are, because they exist so close to the line between human and ape.

Projecting Biased Thinking

The other two articles from this section of the Answers in Genesis website, both authored by Elizabeth Mitchell, operate based on this inability to sit comfortably with the idea of a gray area where species overlap. The article Dispute Over Largest Group of Human Fossils is Mitchell’s commentary on the controversy surrounding ancient human fossils from Sima de los Huesos (or “Pit of Bones”) in Spain. First excavated in 1964, Sima was the greatest collection of ancient human fossils to be found to date, paralleled only by the discovery of Homo naledi in Rising Star Cave in 2013.

Mitchell’s difficulty with Sima de los Huesos is that anthropologists are debating whether its fossils are Homo heidelbergensis or Homo neanderthalensis. To make it more confusing, the next article deals with Homo antecessor, which is another species from around the same time period as the other two. Her article on that is a response to this one from Smithsonian Magazine, where the author explains how scientists don’t have enough evidence yet to know for sure whether Homo antecessor is the common ancestor of Homo sapiens, heidelbergensis, and neanderthalensis, or if it is not our direct ancestor at all.

Mitchell doesn’t say much in these two short articles, but in both she takes great issue with the following quote from paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer: “If we cannot correctly fix the age and identity of the remains then we are in trouble. Getting that wrong even affects how we construct our own evolution.” The quote’s context is the great debate about the fossils from Sima de los Huesos; essentially, the classification difficulty arises from the fossils having Neanderthal characteristics but being dated to a time before Neanderthals were known to have existed (hence the new species name Homo heidelbergensis).

It’s true that the scientists are fighting against both their own and each other’s biases. I believe personally (well, after reading the works of Ian Tattersall) that if the fossil in front of you clearly has attributes of a certain species, but the date contradicts the date you believe that species to have existed, then maybe your belief on its date is wrong. Perhaps all this means is that Neanderthals evolved earlier than we had previously thought.

Despite this, there is nothing that creationists love more than taking quotes out of context. Mitchell extrapolates this quote to mean that the entire theory of evolution is a mere assumption based on the “evolutionist” worldview. It’s a classic case of projecting—and narcissism—with Mitchell accusing scientists of beginning their work with a conclusion (apparently the conclusion that “God’s Word is not trustworthy”) and working their way backward to “construct” evidence. Of course, it goes without saying that this is AiG’s whole business model. Besides, it takes a mighty persecution complex to think that the entire field of paleoanthropology exists only to fulfill an anti-Christian vendetta. Some of the greatest paleoanthropologists have been Christians, and most others either pay creationism no attention or even go out of their way not to “offend” creationists’ “religious preferences”.

Squeezing History

Since all this was very frustrating to get through, at least for me, I want to share with you something that made me laugh. Most of the Answers in Genesis articles that I have ever read and responded to, especially the ones about Neanderthals, bring up AiG’s own novel idea of the early human timeline. I’ve always considered it outside of the scope of my series debunking their claims using those of real scientists. I haven’t given their theory the time of day, because it in no way even overlaps with any part of actual geology, history, or paleontology.

But apparently, according to the above diagram from Answers magazine (and shared in one of the Mitchell articles), Answers in Genesis has decided to condense the actual almost-two-million year history of human migration (using real dates, that I thought they said weren’t accurate, to determine the order of events) into only 250 years. In their view, the Lower Pleistocene began around 2250 BC (not 2,580,000 BC) with the fall of the Tower of Babel, and the Upper Pleistocene ended in only 2000 BC (not 9000 BC) with the birth of Abraham. If I’m understanding them correctly, that means that they believe that everyone alive before ~2000 BC was Homo erectus… including Adam and Eve.

This might be the greatest stretch I’ve ever seen, and I am fairly certain that barely anyone even at Answers in Genesis (let alone any other creationist) would agree with this timeline. It would probably be easier for them to just declare that Homo erectus and all the other human species never existed. Instead, they’ve tried so hard to construct a narrative that is roughly inspired by Genesis and that sometimes takes into account our ever-changing understanding of the fossil record that this hilarious fantasy ends up being a real thing that they want you to believe.

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