Countering Creationism, Part I

14 05 2007

Some time ago I posted about an article in the Creation Research Society newletter Creation Matters written by Paul Humber, the primary assertion of the piece being that God’s anger is literally manifested in radioactive elements in the earth’s crust, the decay of such elements reducing the lifespan of human beings after the Noachian Flood. Apparently the post came to the attention of Paul himself (who, I should mention, wrote Evolution Exposed*), and he sent me a previously-published list of 30 problems with evolution. The list has little new material in it; much of it I have seen before or has been recycled from various lectures/books/websites, but I thought I would take the time to go through some of Humber’s “problems” with evolution and tell the truth about them, something that many creationists seem incapable of doing. My good friend Chris Harrison (of Interrogating Nature fame) has already responded to many of these claims in a straightforward and concise manner, and I reccomend you read his informative (and hilarious) post, “Fisking Paul Humber“. For my own part, I’ll try to tackle one claim per day (give or take, depending on doing some research to make sure I’m up to date on everything), and I would hope that this series of posts will set the record straight on issues like Tyrannosaurus soft tissue and “Nebraska Man.” Anyway, without further introduction, here’s Part I of “Countering Creationism,” featuring one of my most favorite pseudofossils, Nebraska Man.

Paul Humber’s assertion:

Reason #16: We should not trust our origins to a pig’s tooth. Nebraska Man also became part of scientific literature, but it was a colossal, scientific blunder–based on a single, pig tooth. Sir Grafton Elliot, an anatomist, commissioned a painting of this “creature” which appeared in the Illustrated London News

Leave it to creationists to keep blaming scientists for a drama that was played out so long ago that it is no longer discussed, outside of creationist circles at least. I had never even heard of “Nebraska Man” until I picked up a copy of Duane Gish’s The Amazing Story of Creation last summer in an attempt to educate myself about creationist dogma. Gish’s treatment of Nebraska Man is relatively short, and reads as follows;

In 1922 a single tooth was discovered in western Nebraska. The tooth was shown to be one of America’s foremost fossil experts, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor at Columbia University. Dr. Osborn and other American experts were very excited by the appearance for this tooth. They declared that they could see, in that tooth, certain characteristics intermediate between ape and man. In fact, they weren’t quite sure whether it was from an ape-like man or a man-like ape. He was given the official name of Hesperopithecus, became popularly known as Nebraska Man, and was presented as evidence that man had evolved from apes. In 1922, the Illustrated London News published a picture of Nebraska Man, his wife, and the tools they were using-all based upon the discovery of one single tooth!

A few years after the discovery of the tooth, some additional bones of the creature were discovered and Nebraska Man turned out to be neither an ape-like man nor a man-like ape. He turned out to be a pig! That’s right-Nebraska Man was nothing more than a pig’s tooth!

Nebraska Man
The illustration of Nebraska Man that appeared in the London newspaper referenced by Gish and Humber.

If we are to believe that Gish and Humber have told us the entire story, then surely scientists made a huge mistake getting behind Nebraska Man. How could a hominid be dreamed up and so heavily endorsed based upon just a single tooth? Before the wealth of hominid fossils from Africa began to appear, everyone was hoping to find hominid fossils in Europe, Asia, and North America, many “civilized” areas hoping to lay claim on some part of evolutionary history (and so Piltdown Man was also conjured up, but we’ll discuss him at a later date). The question is, however, how accurately are Gish and Humber relaying the story of Nebraska Man’s “discovery” and fall from paleontological grace?

Luckily for me, I received a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus about the same time as Gish’s book, and tucked away towards the back is an essay entitled “An Essay on a Pig Roast.” This particular essay soon became one of my most favorite of Gould’s writings, and in it he reveals that the true origins of “Nebraska Man”. Gould does a far better job than I setting the scene for the story, but in considering the time period in which Hesperopithecus was found William Jennings Bryan (just a few years prior to his tirades at the 1925 Scopes Trial) was just beginning a legislative attack on evolutionary theory, and needless to say Henry Fairfield Osborn (head of the American Museum of Natural History) was no friend of Bryan’s. How gleeful Osborn must have been, then, to receive a tooth of what he believed to be a hominid from Nebraska, the very state that Bryan called home!

Osborn’s assertions were not universally accepted as Gish asserts or Humber implies, however; scientists differed as to whether the tooth came from a “lower” primate, a hominid ancestor, a bear, a rodent, a carnivore, etc. and in 1927 an expert in primate teeth named William King Gregory refuted Osborn’s hypothesis (although it should be noted that Gregory initially supported Osborn’s hypothesis, see the AMNH paper at the bottom of this post). In fact it was Osborn’s growing collection of Hesperopithecus teeth eventually did him in. You see, the original tooth was a bit worn, and as better preserved teeth were collected the seemingly primate affinites faded away to reveal the real bearer of the teeth was the peccary Prosthennops.

But did Osborn ever really assert human ancestry to just a single tooth? Perhaps his own words (from Gould) will illuminate this issue;

The Hesperopithecus molar cannot be said to resemble any known type of human molar very closely. It is certainly not closely related to Pithecanthropus erectus in the structure of the molar crown… It is therefore a new and independent type of Primate, and we must seek more material before we can determine its relationships.

Somehow, that part gets left out of most creationist diatribes on the topic. So too does the fact the Osborn found a similar tooth in the museum collection to compare to the one sent by Harold Cook (who ironically helped describe the peccary Nebraska Man turned out to be, warning not to confuse the hog’s molars with those of primates), but the older tooth was too worn to be of note until the second was found. As Osborn writes in the paper announcing Hesperopithecus (see update below for a link to the paper);

Since 1908 there has been in the American Museum collection from this same horizon another small water-worn tooth, discovered by Dr. William D. Matthew. The specimen belonged to an aged animal and is so water-worn that Doctor Matthew, while inclined to regard it as a Primate) did not venture to describe it. It now appears, from close comparison with the type of Hesperopithecus, to be closely related generically, even if it is not related specifically.

Still, how did a full reconstruction wind up in a newspaper in which Nebraska Man seemed to represent a kind of “missing-link”? As Gould rightly notes, Osborn and other scientists are unduly smeared in creationist literature for somehow supporting the rendering, but in reality it was an overzealous (and poorly researched) collaboration between G. Elliot Smith and artist Amedee Forestier. Said Osborn of the depiction;

Such a drawing or ‘reconstruction’ would doubtless be only a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and undoubtedly inaccurate.

Once Hesperopithecus was revealed to be a peccary, Osborn never mentioned it again and other scientists acknowledged the error; Nebraska Man no longer existed a mere 5 years after his discovery. Five years is a relatively short time for a new primate to be described and then overturned by scientific standards, and the process by which science worked to correct the error was swift. While Osborn may have bought into the idea of Nebraska Man for one reason or another, he did no go overboard with his descriptions or start exclaiming that it was THE missing link; for such a “huge” mistake he seemed to be awfully careful about its depiction until more information was found.

While creationists like Gish and Humber continue to try and exhume Nebraska Man as an example of how scientists are either ignorant, dumb, or deceitful, they are truly missing the point. As Gould rightly notes;

The story of Hesperopithecus was certainly embarassing to Osborn and Gregory in a personal sense, but the sequence of discovery, announcement, testing, and refutation-all done with admirable dispatch, clarity, and honesty-shows science working at its very best. Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not an immutable compendium of absolute truths. The fundamentalists, by “knowing” the answers before they start, and then forcing nature into the straightjacket of their discredited preconceptions, lie outside the domain of science-or of any honest intellecutal inquiry. The actual story of Hesperopithecus could teach creationists a great deal about science as properly practiced if they chose to listen, rather that to scan the surface for cheap shots in the service of debate pursued for immediate advantage, rather than interest in truth.

Keep in mind that Bully for Brontosaurus has been available since 1992, now costing a whopping $0.94 from Amazon.com. Either Humber is not interested enough in science to bother to read up on the subject of Nebraska man or he already knows the real story behind the myth and continues to be deceitful in his attempts to proliferate creationism. Neither is acceptable, and neither represent the actions of someone who truly loves science. Creationists often pay lots of lip-service to their supposed love for science, but is such an affection genuine? If they do not care to spend 15 minutes reading an essay that clears up their various misconceptions about a long-forgotten piece of paleontology, do they really enjoy what science is meant to be about? I don’t think so.

So there you have it; rather than being an Achilles’ Heel for evolutionary scientists, the tale of Nebraska Man serves as a valuble example of how science should be done. Great care should be taken with hypotheses, and corrections should be swift and forthright (even if Osborn wasn’t the best at this aspect of the process). Science has changed so much in my lifetime, even moreso in the past hundred years (and so forth throughout history), we would be fools to think that every new paper or discovery holds an instant and permanent truth; if we believe as such then we are no better than the creationists. The great strength of science is how it not only allows for mistakes, but thrives on their correction, and there is no blasphemy or sacrilege in questioning what has come before.

Update: But wait, there’s more! I initially wrote this post late last night and didn’t think to search the AMNH archives for papers about Hesperopithecus. When I ran a search earlier today, however, I came across a paper entitled “Further notes on the molars of Hesperopithecus and of Pithecanthropus. (With an Appendix Entitled
NOTES ON THE CASTS OF THE PITHECANTHROPUS MOLARS) Bulletin of the AMNH ; v. 48, article 13.
“, written by William K. Gregory, Milo Hellman (primary article), and Gerrit S. Miller (appendix). At the end of their paper, Gregory and Hellman report that the exact affinities of Hesperopithecus are still up in the air, and a case could be made for a closer relationship to humans or to chimpanzees and gorillas. The authors do make it clear, however, the the molar is not from a carnivorous mammal (as some other scientists had proposed), and note that Osoborn’s hypothesis about the molar were not universally accepted. Gregory and Hellman write the following in the conclusion;

6. Professor Osborn’s determination of the type of Hesperopithecus
as a new genus of anthropoid apes has not been universally accepted.
The following possible identifications of the type have been made by
various persons.
(1) Upper molar of an anthropoid ape, probably a new genus
(American Museum staff).
(2) Lower molar of Hyarnarctos or allied genus of ursid.
(3) Upper molar of the same.
(4) A “bear’s tooth.”
(5) A molar of an otherwise wholly unknown type of carnivore.
(6) An upper or lower molar of some carnivore allied with
Liluropus.
(7) An upper molar of a gigantic relative of the procyonid
canivore Potos.
(8) An upper molar of a gigantic relative of such South American
monkeys as Pithecia and Lagothrix.
(9) The first upper deciduous premolar of a Pliocene horse.
(10) An incus bone of a gigantic mammal.
We have considered each of these with unbiased minds and compared
the type with the various specimens suggested, as well as with
many others, but have returned with more confidence to the conclusions
set forth above [viz. (1)].

If you are so inclined, Osborn’s original paper “Hesperopithecus, the first anthropoid primate found in America. American Museum novitates ; no. 37” is also available online for your perusal. The AMNH is awfully gracious in allowing the public access to what personally hold to be intellectual treasures; they may not be considered accurate today, but they are invaluable in tracing the history of science and evolution of ideas involving paleontology.

*I would have liked to go into this series of posts objectively, but upon reading the synopsis of Humber’s book on Amazon.com I have to admit my ire was raised. At the end of the summary, a one-line quote from Dr. Mary Schweitzer (who discovered remnants of Tyrannosaurus rex soft tissue, and actually was kind enough to respond to some of my questions personally) is used to somehow endorse Humber’s book. It says;

Dr. Mary Schweitzer wrote to the author: “Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted what we found.” Soft, flexible dinosaur tissue was extracted from this Tyrannosaurus rex bone

Indeed, it seems that the summary was truncated for one reason or another, but nevertheless I find it disingenuous that Humber (or his publisher, in which case he was complacent) mentions Schweitzer as if she’s in support of Humber’s views. Various news reports have been clear that Dr. Schweitzer does not support Young Earth Creationist views.


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10 responses

15 05 2007
utenzi

There’s little point in arguing with people who base their world view on Faith. Reason just doesn’t cut it with those folk. I guess you could say that the arguments against ID are needed to convince fencesitters, but there just doesn’t seem to be many of them.

15 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment utenzi. I agree that I’m not likely to convince Paul Humber, Kent Hovind, Ken Ham, or anyone else already convinced they are right. There are many people, whoever, who have never really investigated the subject of evolution and don’t bring it up among church-friends because it’s such a loaded issue. Posts like this are really for those kinds of people, people who generally don’t know very much about the debate or what goes into creationist claims (I actually had some great conversation with a group of about 8 people last night about evolution).

Posts like these are also for geeks (like me) who like to unpack the history of science and are interested in errata, but hopefully it can prove to be a resource for people who don’t know what to make of such issues yet. Given the amount of hits my blog gets from search engine terms, I think it’s reasonable to hope that such a post will eventually be of use to someone.

Still, you’re right in that it’s difficult to combat preconceived notions based on faith. There are people in the middle, however, and I hope that scientists continue to engage them in conversation because I think there is much reason to hope that they can come around to good science and better understanding of subjects like evolution.

15 05 2007
TheBrummell

I really enjoyed this post. I like the way you write, and the way you are able to provide a very solid, excellent example of the oh-so-common cretinist tactic of taking a cheap shot at some error and completely omitting the rest of the story.

I’m looking forward to more of the same.

15 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks Martin! I am utterly shocked by how little effort cretinists put into their arguments; it seems like picking up a book (other than the Bible, of course) is just too much for them to handle. I started working on my “Zinjanthropus” post when I discovered that the fossils has been known as Paranthropus for some time; Humber couldn’t even be bothered to find out the right name for the fossil he was talking about.

I may mention this in the next post as well, but in case I forget I’ll mention it here; the editors/writers of “Creation Matters” have a terrible habit of using ambush/selective journalism. They have run rather nasty articles about Ken Miller and Carl Zimmer in the recent past, using snippets of e-mails to try and debase evolutionary views and the credibility of the scientists in question. Really mature, right?

15 05 2007
Laelaps

[…] Countering Creationism, Part I […]

23 05 2007
Four Stone Hearth at Greg Laden

[…] provides an extensive and intensive must read piece on Countering Creationism. Be sure to read both Part I and Part II. He ties this into anthropology in interesting ways. […]

11 08 2007
Homo sapiens: The Evolution of What We Think About Who We Are « Laelaps

[…] him a good apologist. Still, creationists continue to bring up historical mistakes like “Nebraska Man” as if such errors were to strike terror into the hearts of scientists everywhere. Outside of […]

27 11 2009
Edwin Taraba

Running parallel to pro and con sientific investigation into one fossil find or the other is the media, the big splash on front pages promoting fossil finds. This is propaganda which has successfully conceived the myth of the “Caveman” and emblazoned it into the minds of the general populace. Artistic renderings based on such meager bone fragments are not science yet our scientists encourage their dissemination instead of squashing them. People outside the scientific community have no idea as to the fraud behind artistic renderings. These renderings have been glibly and happily emblazoned into the minds of the average person not by “all scientists” but by an irresponsible group of scientists who have pre-conceived beliefs of early man that will remain in their own minds until their own deaths, regardless of any evidence past, present or yet to be found. This group of scientists does not represent the entire scientific community. There are many who have gone on record with their disagreements for the last 150 years.

15 03 2010
Pletchman

Interesting article. I am a creationist and do believe the Biblical account of creation literally. Both creation and evolution are based on faith and not fact…no one has observed either taking place. The way I see it, creationists have not changed their views for the past 4000 years, but how many times have evolutionists had to change their viewpoints. By the time a new science book comes out, many of the evolutionary viewpoints have changed. In order to combat the pseudo-science portion of evolution, a creationist would spend their entire time just reading all the new theories. Many will laugh at me for being a creationist, but I’ll stick with the Bible that has stood the test of time (without changing); I’ll stand with other men of science such as Isaac Newton, Galileo, Johann Kepler, Robert Boyle, Albert Einstein, and many more who believed in God as Creator.

19 09 2016
friv

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