Evolution in the News - October 2015
by Do-While Jones

Homo Naledi

Homo naledi tells us more about paleontologists than evolution.

In this month’s feature article we tried to show that, in general, “Big Science” drives scientific research. In this column, we will give you a specific current example.

It was hard to miss all the publicity about Homo naledi, the new “human ancestor” discovered in South Africa. It was the subject of a Nova TV program, 1 and on the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine. 2 In case you missed it (as hard as that is to believe) here’s our short version of the story.

Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were exploring the Rising Star cave 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. They are both very skinny and managed to get through a very small passage, entering a chamber filled with bones. They took some photos and contacted Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who had previously asked cavers to keep an eye out for fossils.

Berger is famous for his previous discovery of Australopithecus sediba. National Geographic says this about that discovery:

Berger decided the skeletons were a new species of australopithecine, which he named Australopithecus sediba. But he also claimed they were “the Rosetta stone” to the origins of  Homo. Though the doyens of paleoanthropology credited him with a “jaw-dropping” find, most dismissed his interpretation of it. A. sediba was too young, too weird, and not in the right place to be ancestral to Homo: It wasn’t one of us. In another sense, neither was Berger. Since then, prominent researchers have published papers on early Homo that didn’t even mention him or his find. 3

We must note in passing how fleeting fame is—but more important than that, note that Berger “wasn’t one of us.” Academic prejudice is fierce, as we have already stated, and as you will soon see again.

Berger hired a bunch of skinny people to go back into the cave and get the bones out. There turned out to be lots of bones!

There were some 1,550 specimens in all, representing at least 15 individuals. Skulls. Jaws. Ribs. Dozens of teeth. A nearly complete foot. A hand, virtually every bone intact, arranged as in life. Minuscule bones of the inner ear. Elderly adults. Juveniles. Infants, identified by their thimble-size vertebrae. Parts of the skeletons looked astonishingly modern. But others were just as astonishingly primitive—in some cases, even more apelike than the australopithecines. “We’ve found a most remarkable creature,” Berger said. His grin went nearly to his ears. 4

That’s a lot of fossils! But how do you make a buck with them? You could sell them, but you probably couldn’t get that much for them. You can get lots more money by selling the story.

He was paid by National Geographic, and we assume also from the Public Broadcasting System for the Nova program. National Geographic and PBS in turn made money by telling Berger’s story.

PBS is a taxpayer-funded, nonprofit corporation. But it costs lots of money to produce TV programs. They have to pay their employees every month. They need to produce stories which keep the government and the private sponsors happy. Nova keeps the money flowing.

National Geographic tried to sell magazines by printing “A NEW ANCESTOR SHAKES UP OUR FAMILY TREE” on the cover. A common refrain on the Nova program was, “We now know …” that something else previously believed about human evolution was wrong. PBS and National Geographic were telling a new and different story about human evolution. New stories sell better than old ones.

Despite the sensational claim on the cover of their magazine, the National Geographic article ended with these words:

When a major new find is made in human evolution—or even a minor new find—it’s common to claim it overturns all previous notions of our ancestry. Perhaps having learned from past mistakes, Berger doesn’t make such assertions for Homo naledi—at least not yet, with its place in time uncertain. He doesn’t claim he has found the earliest Homo, or that his fossils return the title of “Cradle of Humankind” from East to South Africa. The fossils do suggest, however, that both regions, and everywhere in between, may harbor clues to a story that is more complicated than the metaphor “human family tree” would suggest.

“What naledi says to me is that you may think the record is complete enough to make up stories, and it’s not,” said Stony Brook’s Fred Grine. Maybe early species of Homo emerged in South Africa and then moved up to East Africa. “Or maybe it’s the other way around.”

Berger himself thinks the right metaphor for human evolution, instead of a tree branching from a single root, is a braided stream: a river that divides into channels, only to merge again downstream. Similarly, the various hominin types that inhabited the landscapes of Africa must at some point have diverged from a common ancestor. But then farther down the river of time they may have coalesced again, so that we, at the river’s mouth, carry in us today a bit of East Africa, a bit of South Africa, and a whole lot of history we have no notion of whatsoever. Because one thing is for sure: If we learned about a completely new form of hominin only because a couple of cavers were skinny enough to fit through a crack in a well-explored South African cave, we really don’t have a clue what else might be out there.  5

Yes, they really don’t have a clue—but at least they have a story they can sell! And, as a bonus, they have set the stage for a sequel! The sequel will be “a story that is more complicated than the metaphor ‘human family tree’ would suggest.” Watch for it to appear in a magazine stand soon near you!

Peer Reaction

Let’s face it. National Geographic and Nova are nothing more than science tabloids. The only difference is that one is sold in grocery stores, and the other invades your home through your TV. They are just science gossip mongers. What do the real science journals say?

You might be surprised to learn that Science and Nature both paid very little attention to this truly remarkable discovery of such a large cache of undisturbed fossils. We believe this is because the fossils weren’t discovered by someone named Leakey, Johanson, or Tattersall. Berger isn’t a member of the club, so nothing he found can be of any importance (in their eyes).

Furthermore, the excavation was done by a bunch of skinny amateurs found on Facebook! That really angered the establishment paleontologists so much that they were reluctant to give Berger the credit he is due. Science began their review by saying,

From the moment in 2013 when paleoanthropologist Lee Berger posted a plea on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills,” some experts began grumbling that the excavation of a mysterious hominin in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa was more of a media circus than a serious scientific expedition. 6

Science didn’t like the way Berger assembled his team by using social media! How could anyone take anything produced by this media circus seriously?

Nature, in an article with “Crowdsourcing” (but not Naledi) in the title, said,

John Hawks, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who helped to coordinate the Rising Star dig and workshop, says that the team took flak for its unorthodox approach. “There’s a lot of the field that really believed we’re just a couple of cowboys who don’t know how things should be done,” he says. 7

Both journals were rather dismissing of the find, saying that they don’t mean anything without accurate dating.

We say no other Homo or Australopithecus has a more complete set of fossils. Naledi certainly is the most significant fossil find of the 21st century. These fossils tell us more about the physical characteristics of Homo naledi than Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Homo anything-else-except-sapiens.

But knowing what it looked like, or when it lived, doesn’t tell us anything about its ancestry. So, it doesn’t prove anything about human evolution. It merely gives evolutionists another character for their fairy tale.

What it does prove is how snobbish and close-minded the establishment paleontologists are. If you aren’t in the club, your discoveries don’t matter, no matter what they are.

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Footnotes:

1 Nova, 16 November 2015, S42|E13 “Dawn of Humaity”
2 Jamie Shreeve, National Geographic, October 2015, “Mystery Man”, pp. 50-57, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/
3 ibid. page 39
4 ibid. page 42
5 ibid. page 56
6 Gibbons, Science, 11 September 2015, “New human species discovered”, pp. 1149-1150, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6253/1149.full?sid=8c719d3f-9726-4c2c-abfe-8d780ff17e1d
7 Ewen Callaway, Nature, 14 September 2015, “Crowdsourcing digs up an early human species”, http://www.nature.com/news/crowdsourcing-digs-up-an-early-human-species-1.18305