Up (and Away) From the Apes

Up (and Away) From the Apes

In response to a widely publicized change in the Kansas standards for science education,1 Time magazine published a cover story touting human evolution. The August 23 (1999) issue reports “amazing new discoveries” that add to the already “convincing” evidence of humans’ evolving from an ape-like ancestor over the last 4 to 6 million years.2 The writers assert that man is nothing more than the latest ape “served up on the evolutionary palette,” and to support their assertion, they cite four recently discovered hominid “species.”

A closer look at the research findings, however, reveals a different picture. First, it shows that the Time authors exaggerated both the importance and the response of paleoanthropologists to these newly identified species. Second, this closer look shows that the discoveries present severe problems for the evolutionary paradigm.

As a case in point, the Time article describes the discovery of Homo antecessor, dated at approximately 800,000 years ago, as a pivotal breakthrough. This hominid has been presented as a new species, a key transitional fossil, an ancestor species for both Neandertals and modern humans.3-4 These grandiose claims rest, as it turns out, on a mere fragment of evidence: the partial face of a juvenile, the likelihood of delayed dental maturation, and a crude estimate of the creature’s brain volume.5-8

Many paleoanthropologists have expressed concern not only because Homo antecessor’s designation as species is based on just one partial skull, but also because it is based on a juvenile specimen. With so little to go on, researchers have insufficient information on potential variations occurring across the species and through the developmental process.9- 10 The possibility still remains, that this sample is actually a Homo erectus specimen. If it is not, J. M. Bermudez de Castro and others suggest, this finding adds additional support to the idea that Homo erectus does not belong as part of an evolutionary pathway leading to modern man and Neandertals, but rather should be viewed as a side lineage without descendents.11-12

Evidence is insufficient as yet to declare the divorce between modern humans and Homo erectus final. Even so, the significance of this possibility cannot be overstated. Neandertals and Homo erectus are the two hominid species that have the most fossil evidence associated with them. Morphological and DNA evidence have clearly severed the evolutionary tie between Neandertals and modern humans.13 Now the possibility that the same outcome awaits Homo erectus is very real. If Homo erectus is not part of the “evolutionary path” to modern humans, then nothing more than a few skull and jaw fragments connect modern humans with the australopithecines. This disintegration of proposed links hardly allows for the declaration that human evolution is fact. On the contrary, the theory explaining how it happened seems to be unraveling.

  1. Constance Holden, “Kansas Dumps Darwin, Raises Alarm Across the United States,” Science, 285 (1999): 1186-1187.
  2. Michael D. Lemonick and Andrea Dorfman, “Up from the Apes. Remarkable New Evidence Is Filling in the Story of How We Became Human,” Time, August 23, (1999): 50-58.
  3. Ann Gibbons, “A New Face for Human Ancestors,” Science, 276 (1997): 1331-1333.
  4. J. M. Bermudez de Castro et al ., “A Hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: Possible Ancestors to Neandertals and Modern Humans,” Science, 276 (1997): 1392-1395.
  5. A. Gibbons, 1331-1333.
  6. J. M. Bermudez de Castro et al ., 1392-1395.
  7. B. Bower, “Human Growth Displays Ancient Roots,” Science News, 155 (1999): 212.
  8. A. Gibbons, 1331-1333.
  9. Eric Delson, “One Skull Does Not A Species Make,” Nature, 389 (1998): 445-446.
  10. A. Gibbons, 1331-1333.
  11. A. Gibbons, 1331-1333.
  12. J. M. Bermudez de Castro et al ., 1392-1395.
  13. Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998): 112-114.