Sunday, October 11, 2009

New ABC Article on Ardipithecus Draws Fire

A new ABC article by Russell Goldman on Ardipithecus appears to give credence to the arguments of creationists, who argue that the discovery is nothing more than an ape, a statement that is easy to dispense with but, for some reason, Goldman can't do. Goldman is a reporter who has had his share of accuracy complaints leveled at him. This appears to be more a problem with sensationalism than with acceptance of a clearly non-scientific position. He writes:
In one camp are evolutionary scientists who last week published and hailed the discovery of an upright walking ape named Ardipithecus ramidus, or "Ardi" for short, who made Ethiopia her home nearly 5 million years ago.

But despite the excitement from the paleontology community, another group of researchers, many of them with advanced degrees in science, are unimpressed by Ardi, who they believe is just another ape -- an ape of indeterminate age, they add, and an ape who cannot be an ancestor of modern man for a range of reasons, including one of singular importance: God created man in one day, and evolution is a fallacy.
This is highly misleading. Very few of the "researchers" have advanced degrees from universities where mainstream geology and palaeontology are taught or have degrees relevant to the study of palaeontology or geology. Most have published few to no articles in mainstream science journals and their positions on matters of astronomy, geology, biology and palaeontology are far outside the mainstream for all of these and other disciplines. Goldman continues:
"What creationists believe about human origins we get from the Bible," said David Menton an acclaimed anatomist and also a creationist. "The creation of the world takes place on page one of the Bible. If you throw out the first page of the Bible you might as well throw out the whole thing. If you can't live with the first page then pitch out the remaining thousand pages."
Quoting David Menton here is slightly unusual. He is the exception to the norm in creationist circles. Is he an acclaimed anatomist? Web of science lists 37 publications dating back some twenty years and he did teach at the Washington University School of Medicine, which is a mainstream university (he is now emeritus) but his expertise is the organization of cells, particularly the dermis and epidermis, rather than comparative anatomy. When he does mention the anatomical evidence, he is quoted as saying:

Menton said Ardi's skull and feet are exactly the kind of skull and feet you would expect an ape to have and have none of the features of modern humans.

"Evolutionists want to call Ardi 'ape-like.' This creature is ape-like, because she is an ape. Just call it an ape," he said.

The biggest problem Menton has with Ardi is her estimated age. The Earth, he says, is no more around 5,000 years old, a number creationists have estimated by counting the generations of man named in the Bible from Adam to Jesus.

"Evolution is supposedly based on science, but the science does not prove what they want it to. Creationism is not based on scientific observation but on God's word. God created everything in six days, and that's it."

Even eyeballing the evidence, I can tell that there are transitional traits and that the remains don't resemble an ape. This is not the first time a creationist has looked at a fossil human and proclaimed it to be an ape. On pages 112-113 of Of Pandas and People, Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon write:
Darwinists are convinced that Homo erectus was nearly human and directly ancestral to man. Design adherents, however, regard Homo erectus, as well as the other hominids discussed in this section, as little more than apes, and point instead to the abrupt appearance of the culture and patterns of behavior which distinguish man from the apes.1
The first skull shown here is a chimpanzee skull. Below that is the Homo erectus skull from the Kenya National Museum found in East Rudolf, catalog number 3733

The anatomical differences are obvious and striking. Measurements have been taken on fossil material and compared to known apes. The results clearly indicate that Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Homo habilis and Homo erectus specimens bear no resemblance whatever to apes. Regarding Ardipithecus, is Menton's grasp of anatomy that bad that he cannot tell the difference between an ape and a human, or is he just being dishonest?

It is nothing short of amazing that Goldman chooses to end his article with the quote from Menton. It completely refocuses the attention on the creationists and away from the importance of the fossil find. It also gives no room for rebuttal to his statements, quoting one of the discoverers, Owen Lovejoy, only once. Such treatment is irresponsible and offensive. The article should have ended with a comment on David Menton's quotes, which might read something like "Sadly, there are no mainstream geologists, astronomers, astrophysists, geochemists, geneticists, palaeontologists, palaeobotanists, or anthropologists that agree with Dr. Menton's position."

1Davis, Percival, and Kenyon, Dean. (1993) Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Foundation for Thought and Ethics

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  1. Anonymous5:48 AM

    I particularly like the part about Kenyon and Davis arguing about Homo erectus being "little more than apes", as if one goes to answersingenesis - - we find their article says "The morphological differences within all erectus specimens and between erectus, Neanderthal, and all Homo sapiens are so small that there is not the slightest reason to doubt that every form should be classified in a single human species, as we have already seen advocated."
    Of course listening to creationists argue about which hominid fossils are '100% human' and which are '100% ape', with no possibility of any degree of variance, is great entertainment and in itself evidence for the transitional nature of these fossils.

  2. I'm a freelance journalist and when I read the article I was struck by how badly it was written. It's not structured well. Some of the quotes are just confusing, like the ending quote you mentioned:

    "Evolution is supposedly based on science, but the science does not prove what they want it to. Creationism is not based on scientific observation but on God's word. God created everything in six days, and that's it."

    So evolution is bad because it's bad science, but creationism is good because it's not science at all? I've never heard that argument before. It seems like bad reporting from someone who has never heard creationist arguments before and therefore weirdly mixes up the "Evolution is bad science, while creationism is good science" and "The Bible is God's word so everything, also the science, it says is inerrant" argument.

    The reporter also doesn't seem to know much about science, since he calls Ardi a "long-sought 'missing link'". Excuse me? Yes, Ardi's a link and until it was found we didn't know about it, but the missing link myth is, well, a myth. As Dawkins says, even if we had no fossils evolution would still be perfectly obvious.

    I know the article is about creationist reactions to Ardi, but the article feels a bit off balance. Maybe it's the relatively bad presentation of the science in the article. There should have been comments from an evolutionist or two who knew what they talked about (and the stock quote from Lovejoy doesn't count).

    One thing I did like about the article is how it quotes Menton as saying the he thinks it's a conspiracy that they revealed Ardi this year, with the 200th and 150th anniversaries. Typical creationist thinking about publicity instead of actual scientific work.

  3. Anonymous, that's the problem. When they don't know what they're talking about, they say contradictory things. And they say stupid things. Interestingly, Jim Foley has a great chart that lays out what different creationists think about different fossils. It is here.

  4. Arni, thanks for the insight. What really struck me was, as you pointed out, the unbalanced nature of the report. At least the NYT would have gotten someone who knew something about the find, like John Noble Wilford.

  5. I liked the skulls.

  6. Kinda drives the point home, doesn't it?