Memories of Peking Man at the American Museum of Natural History

Jon and I outside The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia of Drexel University, PA (photo by Don Frack).

While looking through some old photographs, for something else I am working on, I came across some snap shots I took back in 1998 when my friend Don Frack and myself flew back to the East coast to attend the DinoFest 98 symposium (a combination dinosaur fossil exhibition and gathering of dinosaur paleontologists) in Philadelphia, PA.

We figured that to really make going worth our while (and our money) we would make a couple of side trips. We planned to arrive a couple days early, rent a car and drive up to New York for a day and go to the American Museum of Natural History (we were joined on this leg of our journey by our friend Jonathan Woolf who we knew from back in the CompuServe forum CvE debates). We would then

A Triceratops skull and myself at The Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia, PA (photo by Jon Wolff).

A Triceratops skull and myself at The Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia, PA (photo by Jon Wolff).

return to Philadelphia and attend the three day symposium, after which Don and I would drive down to Washington D.C., go to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and fly home from there.

It was at once a fun, fascinating and frustrating trip, which I won’t get to much into now. Let’s just say the both of us a life-long Californians experienced a combination of a bit of culture and geography shock.

Anyway, since we were going to go to the American Museum, Don thought he might contact a couple of the scientists who worked there to see if we could go behind the scenes and get a closer look at some of the material in their collection that is of particular interest to those of us involved in the creation/evolution debate. In this case their casts of the original “Peking Man” (a.k.a. Sinanthropus pekinensis but now recognized as Homo erectus) material. The fossils represented a number of individual H. erectus‘, unearthed in China at a site known as Zhoukoudian (or Choukoutien) near Beijing in the late 1920’s and early 30’s.

The reason the Peking Man casts are so interesting is that creationists had long argued, through innuendo and implication, that the scientific mainstream’s characterization of Peking Man as a human ancestor was somehow fraudulent and that the original fossils found in China were actually those of some form of non-human ape or large monkey (Gish 1995).*

They were able to cast such aspersions because all of the original Peking Man fossil material (more was found later) was lost in the early days of World War II, when the Japanese were invading China, which of course means that the only evidence of Peking Man left to the world were casts made by deceitful evil-utionist scientists…

…and detailed descriptions, measurements and photographs (in both visible light and X-rays). Then there was the additional H. erectus material found at the same site, but who cares about the facts?   In any case, it is a fascinating story, and I will link to some articles on the interwebs and provide a couple references at the bottom of the page for anyone interested in looking into more deeply into it.

So, the paleoanthropologist in charge of the material (unfortunately I can’t recall his name) agreed to allow us to examine and photograph the Peking Man casts (and a few other surprises).

Unfortunately at the time I had only basic fixed focus/view finder camera with which to take snap-shots (this was before the days of cheap and easy digital), so I only have a handful of pictures of our trip in my possession. Don is the real photographer and I don’t know how many rolls of 35mm he burned on the trip. I am going to have to bug him about maybe getting copies of  some of those someday (at least if there are any with me in them)!  [Are you reading this Don?]

OK, without further adieu, my pics, such as they are:

The side (?) entrance of the American Museum.

The side (?) entrance (exit?) of the American Museum.

 This is actually were we exited the museum. We entered through the main entrance across the street from Central Park.

Looking out one of the AMNH windows onto Central Park.

Looking out one of the AMNH windows onto Central Park.

The city was socked in with fog all day and into the evening when we left, so despite having being to middle of Manhattan I never really saw any of its sky scrapers. All the taller building just disappeared into the low hanging clouds after about ten stories. I think we even drove right by the World Trade Center on our way out but never saw it.

My friend Jon Wolff and Don Frack waiting to see some of the material at the AMNH.

My friends Jon Woolf (left) and Don Frack (right) waiting to see some of the material at the AMNH.

Now that I think of it, this shot was actually in the mammalian paleontology collection (not paleoanthropology), where we saw one fossil tooth. I will get back to that later.

Don, doing what Don does, taking lots of pictures in this case of casts of the Peking Man fossils.

Don, doing what Don does, taking lots of pictures, in this case of casts of the Peking Man fossils.

Jon with several draws of casts.

Jon with several draws of casts.

One of the draws containing casts of the Peking Man material.

One of the draws containing casts of the Peking Man material.

These casts really are something to behold. They have a beautiful finish to them, including the Chinese writing from the 1930’s, and by knowledgeable accounts are very good representations of the original material. (Tattersall & Sawyer, 1996)

Two reconstructions of Peking Man, old and new.

Two reconstructions of Peking Man, old and new.

The reconstructed skull on the left is the one produced by Franz Weidenreich and Lucille Swan back in 1937. Weidenreich to over the management of the Peking Man fossils (and fossil site) after their original describer, Davidson Black, died suddenly in 1934. The newer reconstruction on the right is by by G. J. Sawyer and Ian Tattersall. Both reconstructions are composites which include material from multiple individuals (Tattersall & Sawyer, 1996).

Come to think of it maybe it was Tattersall who let us look at the material. [Don?]

Still nowhere near a monkey, something that anyone who had bothered to compare them to other known fossils of H. erectus would be able to discern easily. Creationists, apparently, didn’t bother (at least not until recently*). If they had the worst they could have argued, with regards to the Peking Man casts, was that they represented examples of fraudulent H. erectus fossils; and where would the sense be in that?

Another bit of fun that happened while we were checking out the Peking Man casts was when one of out hosts offered to bring out the AMNH cast of the infamous Eoanthropus dawsoni, a.k.a: “Piltdown Man“.

A cast of the "Piltdown Man" material in the collection of the AMNH.

A cast of the “Piltdown Man” material in the collection of the AMNH.

The fraudulent Piltdown Man material was “discovered” (or likely created) by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson in 1912, was actually part of a modern human skull and the lower jaw of an orangutang colored and otherwise modified to appear as if it might belong to a pre-human species. It was uncovered as a fraud in the 1950’s and has been used as a weapon by creationists ever since to try and cast doubt on pretty much all fossil material belonging to human ancestors.

This brings us back to the third picture above (the one with Jon and Don in it), that was taken in the fossil mammal dept., where we were waiting to see a fossil peccary tooth. However this was no ordinary peccary tooth, this was the peccary tooth that was infamously misidentified by paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn as a primate tooth and popularly called “Nebraska Man“.

The infamous "Nebraska Man" took in the collection of the AMNH.

My blurry P.O.S. picture of the infamous “Nebraska Man” took in the collection of the AMNH.

The "Nebraska Man" tooth from Gregory & Hellman (1923).

The “Nebraska Man” tooth from Gregory & Hellman (1923).

Found in Nebraska by Harold Cook (rancher/geologist) in 1917, the tooth was dubbed Hesperopithecus haroldcookii (the generic name literally means “Western-ape”), after its discoverer, in 1922 by Osborn who thought it might belong to a primate. The mistake was corrected in 1927 when a retraction was printed in the Journal Science announcing that the tooth probably belonged to a peccary (a type of pig) rather than a primate (Gregory, 1927).

This was a simple mistake to make considering the similarities be some peccary teeth and those of some primates (especially when the fossil tooth in question was significantly worn); an easy mistake that, once corrected, might have been forgotten if not for the fact that its discovery made it into the popular press especially in the form of this reconstruction published in the Illustrated London News:

Like the “Piltdown Man” fraud, the “Nebraska Man” mistake has been used by countless creationists since (and almost always illustrated by this one picture) to try and discredit all paleoanthropological finds.

After our trip to the American Museum I have since been able to say that I have held the Nebraska Man tooth in my own hands and examined it personally.

Ah, memories…

So anyway, this wasn’t meant as some new devastating critique of creationist arguments, this stuff has already been long and ably refuted (see links below), so I won’t be submitting it to my new Patreon account but I figured some might find the pics and my story interesting.

Notes

* After many decades of most prominent creationists arguing that many of the famous examples of Homo erectus were the remains of either large gibbons (“Java Man”) or monkeys (“Peking Man”), in the 1990’s some creationists switched to arguing that these and other H. erectus fossils were really just the remains of Homo sapiens variants (Lubenow, 1992)(Mehlert 1994). So depending on which creationist you ask H. erectus is either just a monkey/ape, or it is just a variation of a modern human. The one thing they all do seem to agree on is that H. erectus is not an intermediate form between earlier hominins and modern humans.  

Related links

Suggested Reading

Aczel, Amir (2007) The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man, Riverhead Books

Boaz, Noel Thomas & Ciochon, Russell L. (2004) Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age saga of Homo erectus, Oxford University Press, New York, NY

Jia, Lanpo (1975) The Cave Home of Peking Man, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, China

Jia, Lanpo & Huang, Weiwen (1990) The Story of Peking Man: From archaeology to mystery, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China / Oxford University Press, New York, NY

Shapiro, Harry L. (1974) Peking Man: The discovery, disappearance and mystery of a priceless scientific treasure, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY

Oosterzee, Penny van (2000) Dragon Bones: The story of Peking man, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1965) The Appearance of Man, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY

Weidenreich, Franz (1943) “The Skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis: A comparative study on a primitive hominid skull“, Palaeontologta Sinica, New Series D, 10:1–485

References

Gish, Duane T. (1995) Evolution: The fossils still say no!, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA

Gregory William K. (1927) “Hesperopithecus apparently not an ape nor a man“, Science, 66:579-81.

Gregory, William K. & Hellman, Milo (1923) “Notes on the Type of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii Osborn”, American Museum Novitates, 53:1-16

Lubenow, Marvin L. (1992) Bones of contention: A creationist assessment of human fossils, Baker Books

Mehlert, A.W. (1994) “Homo erectus ‘to’ modern man: evolution or variability?“, Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, 8(1):105-16

Tattersall, Ian & Sawyer, G. J. (1996) “The skull of ‘‘Sinanthropus’’ from Zhoukoudian, China: a new reconstruction”, Journal of Human Evolution 31:311–314

Biologists Confirm God Evolved From Chimpanzee Deity – The Onion

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Onion:

Biologists Confirm God Evolved From Chimpanzee Deity

BERKELEY, CA—Challenging long-held views on the origins of divinity, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, presented findings Thursday that confirm God, the Almighty Creator of the Universe, evolved from an ancient chimpanzee deity. [Continue Reading at The Onion]

Hilarious!

I am now on Patreon

I have opened a Patreon account and humbly beseech my readers to seriously consider becoming a patron of my work here at Playing Chess with Pigeons. Please, please, think about supporting me in my effort to produce substantive critiques of creationist propaganda.

I am not paid by any scientific institution or educational organization to write articles for this blog; something that often involves many hours, even days, of research and occasionally requiring me to travel to various university libraries or museums. Rather I have gladly done this for years without any remuneration beyond the knowledge I have gained in the process and the satisfaction I get from defending the truth and science education from ignorant and dishonest attack. 

However, I could use your help now more than ever since I have recently been laid off work and my wife and I were already struggling just to make ends meet. Even a small amount from a number of my readers could add up to making a very big difference in our lives.

It would also be a plus for my readers since it gives me added incentive to take the time to research and write more frequently (you only pay if I produce) without feeling like I am not contributing to our livelihood. Also, specifically for those who choose to become patrons, there are some added incentives and rewards (for example see the Patron Supporters page at the top of the blog).

And rest assured that only substantive articles, like my “Gill slit” article or my travelogue critique of Dinny the Dinosaur, will be submitted for patronage (not the quickie throw away stuff).

Please help me in the fight against the forces of ignorance that plague the world.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for reading and for your consideration!

Pigeons don’t play by your “rulez” man!

 

pigeons_drinking_saltwaterThey’re not bound by the dogmas of so-called “scientists” who say that drinking salt water is bad for them. That’s like, just a theory man!

Answering Creationist Questions

Someone named Stephen has asked some questions on my “creationist questions” page and I am moving my response up to the main page.

Hello Stephen!

Just to get a couple points of order out of the way I want to note that you asked three questions at once and only one (#3) touches on evolutionary biology, violating my question guidelines in multiple ways right off the bat. However, I said might grant some leeway and I will in this case.

Stephen: First, to clarify, I am a college student, almost through with my history degree (as a major), I have a minor in geology, and I have taken enough courses to almost have minors in philosophy and anthropology (just establishing that I am not an uneducated internet troll…. at least not completely). This does not make me an authority on the debate between evolution and creationism, but I have studied enough to be fairly well versed in the arguments that each side uses.

OK, good to know; as it would mean that there is no reason you should be making any glaring errors in those areas, yes?

Stephen: I was home-schooled by choice and was taught evolution and creation equally…

You were taught about a mature and productive scientific field and the relatively brief creation story from the Hebrew scriptures (backed up, no doubt, with the pseudoscience, misrepresentations and misinformation of “creation science”), “equally”?

You should understand that from my perspective that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Stephen: I studied the sides and decided to pick the side that, I believe, has the least number of holes in its arguments. I decided to become a creationist, but I still see both sides and am willing to keep my mind open to all possibilities.

Well then, my question would be what are some of the supposed “holes” in evolutionary theory? Please do not tell me they are of the sort usually put forward by “creation scientists”, I have a library full of those bogus arguments.

Again, from my perspective creationism is collection of long refuted empirical claims (young Earth, Flood geology) backed by a premise (“God did it”) that is fundamentally untestable and therefore scientifically useless.  

Stephen: Question 1: How do you define science (yes, I am talking about the AIG argument between “testable/repeatable science” and “historical/perceived science”)? I do mean you specifically, as different words mean different things to different people, and “standard definitions” do not always fully encapsulate this idea.

In the context you seem to be asking (that of Answers in Genesis’ idiosyncratic redefinition of science), I would say that science is a process wherein people derive coherent explanations about the state of the natural world which are testable by further, intersubjective, observations of the natural world. This holds regardless of whether the particular phenomenon under examination is something that occurred in the past or is currently ongoing.

In science, one does not have to be able to repeat the occurrence of something in order to explain it. What is necessary is that the observations that are made to test the explanation be repeatable by anyone who makes the effort, i.e. not subjective revelations knowable only to an individual or an elect few.

As with forensic science used against criminals, one need not repeat the crime in order to make observations (of finger prints, DNA, etc.) to build a case as to who the most likely perpetrator is.

The same is true when one is trying to explain the current state of nature be it biological, geological or astronomical. We do not need to repeat, in full, the processes that lead to the current state of affairs in order to piece together a case against the most likely “perpetrator”.

Of course, in practice, there is more to it than that but I am not writing a book on the philosophy of science.

Professional creationists want to muddy the waters on this because their explanations either have failed to hold up against observations of the natural world, or are simply not testable by such observations. In other words, their ideas are either failed science or non-science and so they try to tear down good science in an attempt to mislead people into believing that their ideas have merit.    

Stephen: Question 2: Why do scientific laws exist: gravity, thermodynamics, etc. if no one created them (yes it does seem like a silly question, but believe it or not, I have found this question to be helpful)?

This is a question about cosmology and is essentially asking why the universe is the way it is. My answer is, I do not know. Cosmologist are working on such questions and they may or may not be able to answer some or all of them someday, however I see no reason to assume that if they do find answers to them that they will include the idea that the universe was “created” by a conscious being of some sort.

Any explanations that cosmologists do come up with will have to be testable by observations of the natural world in order to be scientific. “God did it” does not meet that criterion.

Stephen: Question 3: How do you believe that things such as a conscience, idea of self-awareness, and the ability to fully reason came to be? Yes, this is a philosophical question, because philosophy is the first “science” and was the root of all the other disciplines.

I don’t know if the ability to “fully reason” actually exists and I would quibble with you that these are necessarily philosophical questions. I would say that the evidence suggests that these things are evolved characteristics as we see them in a continuum in the animal world with humans merely being at one end of the spectrum.

Stephen: In addition, evolution influences much more than biology, geology, and physics (to name a few of the traditional sciences) in its scope, and all aspects of the theory need to be considered.

I disagree. Biology, geology and (to a lesser degree) physics influence evolutionary theory but not the other way round. Evolutionary theory had to be consistent with the facts of biology (obviously) but also geology and physics in order to be considered successful. Theories of geology (plate tectonics etc.) or physics (relativity etc.) do not need to factor in evolutionary theory but rather stand or fall based on observations from those fields.

If inconsistencies between evolutionary theory and say, plate tectonics, were discovered, then those would have to be worked out, but physical geologists who are trying to solve geological problems do not sit around worrying about how their findings might affect those of biologists. They find what they find and it is up to the biologists to figure out whether their own theories can be made to fit with the new data or must to be scrapped in favor of new ones.

What you are talking about reflects the conspiracy theory thinking of creationists, wherein all of modern science is some sort of evolutionist plot to discredit the Biblical account of creation, it isn’t.

The actual problem is that the facts of nature, biological, geological and physical, simply are not consistent with creationism and creationists have adopted this conspiracy idea as a way to avoid facing that fact.

Stephen: Especially since the idea of “origins” is one of the three fundamental questions of philosophy (IE: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?).

“Where did I come from?” is an empirical question answered by science; proximally by reproductive biology and evolutionary theory more distally by astronomical and cosmological theories. You would have to be more specific to get answers that are more specific.

“Why am I here?”—assuming it is not merely a rephrasing of the previous question—is a question that assumes something not in evidence, that there is some externally imposed purpose to our existence. It could be that there is no “why” and therefore the question is incoherent.

“Where am I going?”, again this assumes that you are going anywhere. Barring evidence that anyone is going anywhere this question is also incoherent.

Stephen: By the way, I have heard your comparison of “playing chess with pigeons” before (in relation to evolutionists). Is that saying original (to you) or did you get it from elsewhere? If so, where?

The answer to that may be found in the tab at the top of my blog titled “Playing Chess with Pigeons?“. It is taken from something first written by Scott Weitzenhoffer in reference to creationists; so if you have seen it being used in any other way it was pilfered directly or indirectly from him.

 

I’m now on LinkedIn

Here is a link to my profile. Since my current employment is on shaky ground (I am looking at a possible lay-off in the near future due to slow business), I am currently trolling for connections and endorsements, especially from, but not limited to, sciencey types. So if you’re on LinkedIn and have found my dissections of creationist propaganda informative and or entertaining, please consider giving me a few mouse clicks for support. Thanks!

P.S. if LinkedIn suggests “skills” that are not already listed in my profile, please do not endorse them. It keeps giving people the idea that I have skills that I don’t actually have (honesty is a harsh mistress) and thanks again.

Halloween 2014 (retrospective)

I tried to keep things a little less complicated this year… I think I succeeded, at least I didn’t feel as stressed at sunset this year. Here are a few pics in more or less the order one would see things as they approached the house.

med_skel_2014med_front-house_2014sm_walkway_2014door_ghost_2014We had an OK number of trick-or-treaters, though I had hoped for more on a Friday night. It was threatening to rain so that might have kept the numbers down a bit. Here is a video taste of how I greeted them (got a fair amount of scares in):

Next year Halloween falls on a Saturday, so I am hopeful for a better showing then.