Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BioLogos, Ken Ham and David Menton—A Response, Part IV

This is the fourth part of my response to David Menton's post on human origins.  Links to the first three appear below this post.  Menton continues his ham-fisted, ignorant attack on the human fossil record.

Point 8.  He writes:  
Many apemen are merely apes that evolutionists have attempted to upscale to fill the gap between apes and men. These include all the australopithecines, as well as a host of other extinct apes such as Ardipithecus, Orrorin, Sahelanthropus, and Kenyanthropus. All have obviously ape skulls, ape pelvises, and ape hands and feet. Nevertheless, australopithecines (especially Australopithecus afarensis) are often portrayed as having hands and feet identical to modern man; a ramrod-straight, upright posture; and a human gait.

The best-known specimen of A. afarensis is the fossil commonly known as “Lucy.” A life-like mannequin of “Lucy” in the Living World exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo shows a hairy, humanlike female body with human hands and feet but with an obviously apelike head. The three-foot-tall Lucy stands erect in a deeply pensive pose with her right forefinger curled under her chin, her eyes gazing off into the distance as if she were contemplating the mind of Newton.

Few visitors are aware that this is a gross misrepresentation of what is known about the fossil ape Australopithecus afarensis. These apes are known to be long-armed knuckle-walkers with locking wrists. Both the hands and feet of this creature are clearly apelike. Paleoanthropologists Jack Stern and Randall Sussman2 have reported that the hands of this species are “surprisingly similar to hands found in the small end of the pygmy chimpanzee–common chimpanzee range.” They report that the feet, like the hands, are “long, curved and heavily muscled” much like those of living tree-dwelling primates. The authors conclude that no living primate has such hands and feet “for any purpose other than to meet the demands of full or part-time arboreal (tree-dwelling) life.” 
Some background involving the Miocene apes. At the beginning of the Miocene epoch, apes had largely generalized skeletal structures, with few of the adaptations that we see in the modern apes, or in humans.  Toward the end of the Miocene, biomechanical adaptations are seen in many of the apes.  For example, Oreopithecus has developed a locomotor pattern seen in modern non-human apes (although it was mis-identified by Casey Luskin as bipedal).

Menton, having taken us through the differences between apes and humans, suggests that Ardipithecus, Orrorin, Sahelanthropus and Kenyanthropus all have “obviously ape skulls, ape pelvises, and ape hands and feet.”

  • Kenyanthropus consists of a single skull find that is so badly crushed that most researchers have pretty much written it off as being unusable in taxonomic reconstruction.
  • Sahelanthropus is also a single skull find that was also crushed and may, in fact, be a surface find.
  • Orrorin tugenensis is a collection of post-cranial remains, the most important of which is a partial femur, which showed clear adaptations toward bipedality. 
  • Ardipithecus ramidus consists of both cranial and post-cranial remains, including both hands and feet.  Here is what Owen Lovejoy and colleagues wrote about it in 2009:
The gluteal muscles had been repositioned so that Ar. Ramidus could walk without shifting its center of mass from side to side. This is made clear not only by the shape of its ilium, but by the appearance of a special growth site unique to hominids among all primates (the anterior inferior iliac spine). However, its lower pelvis was still almost entirely ape-like, presumably because it still had massive hindlimb muscles for active climbing.
How does Menton describe the locomotion of modern apes?  He writes:
These animals manage to keep their weight over their feet when walking by swinging their body from side to side in the familiar “ape walk.” 
Yet he calls Ardipithecus “merely” an ape. By his own description, Ardipithecus is clearly not “merely” an ape. Did he just miss this detail, or did he simply choose not to include it?

To recap this point,  he writes that all of the finds he mentions have “obviously ape skulls, ape pelvises, and ape hands and feet,” and yet we find that only one of the finds has those body parts preserved.  He, further, ignores critical morphology on the Ardipithecus remains to make it seem as if it has no hominin adaptations.  How are we to believe what he writes when he so incompetently describes the fossils he is denigrating?

Point 9: In quoting Stern and Susman, here, again, Menton picks and chooses what he wants to use and doesn't tell his audience other critical information that undercuts his position.  Menton writes as if Australopithecus afarensis were only an ape, yet Stern and Susman write, in their conclusion:
In our opinion A. afarensis is very close to what can be called a “missing link.” It possesses a combination of traits entirely appropriate for an animal that had traveled well down the road toward full-time bipedality, but which retained structural features that enabled it to use the trees efficiently for feeding, resting, sleeping, or escape. prior to the discovery of the Hadar remains, one could not have predicted precisely what combination of traits would be found in a transitional form such as A. afarensis.
These writers, who, unlike Menton, examined the remains directly, clearly did not conclude it was merely an ape but, in fact, a transitional form between the apes that came before, and the hominins that came after.

But worse, Menton completely ignores other characteristics of A. afarensis that don't just undercut his position that it is merely an ape, they destroy it. 

  • The first premolar in apes (or bicuspid if you prefer) is long and rotated toward the front of the mouth. This is so it can constantly sharpen the maxillary canine as the ape bites down. This is known as a "sectorial premolar". In humans, this tooth is rotated so that the cusp division is parallel to the tooth row and does not stick up beyond it. The maxillary canine is, correspondingly, short. In Australopithecus afarensis, this tooth is rotated HALF-WAY and partially sticks up from the tooth row. The canine is shortened as in modern humans.
  • The palate of the mouth in apes is shaped like a hard "U" with the back teeth parallel to each other. In humans, the palate is more "V" shaped. In A. afarensis, it is intermediate between these two shapes.
  • In apes, there is a distinct space between the canine and the first premolar, called a diastema. In humans, this space is absent. In A. afarensis, a diastema is present but it is remarkably reduced in size over the ape condition.
In other instances, some characteristics are completely ape-like and some are completely human-like. For example:
  • The digits (phalanges) on both the hands and feet are curved, as in apes. In humans, they are straight.
  • The pelvis is flared (wide from side to side) and short from top to bottom, as in humans.
  • The hole in the skull where the spinal chord exits the brain, the foramen magnum, is located on the bottom of the skull in Australopithecus afarensis, as in humans.  Having a hole at the base reflects a bipedal gait.
  • the knee joint, which preserves the bottom (distal) section of the femur and the top (proximal) section of the tibia shows that the femur is angled, as in humans. This is the "carrying angle" of which Menton wrote. The A. afarensis position, once again, reflects bipedalism.
These characteristics are exactly what you would expect to find in a transitional species: some characteristics transitional, some ape-like and some human-like. Most of the above information was taken from Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and Johanson et al. (1982) but can be found in most textbooks about this subject.  It is amazing that Menton went to no effort to locate this information before dismissing A. afarensis' transitional status without thought.    It is, further, amazing that Ken Ham would hold Menton's post up as being authoritative when it is so badly researched and written.

On to Part V

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