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 make going really 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 Woolf).

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 too 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. In this case material that is of particular interest to those of us involved in the creation/evolution debate, namely 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.

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22 Answers to 22 messages from creationists

File this under: better late than never.

In the wake of the Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation/evolution debate BuzzFeed writer Matt Stopera had some of the people who attending the debate, and who were creationists, write down questions or comments to those of us who accept evolution.

 The following are the questions they wrote down and my quick and dirty responses.

 1) Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

Obviously I cannot answer for Bill Nye but I would say yes he is, by helping to popularize science.

2) Are you scared of a Divine Creator?

No. If one exists and is worthy of admiration, let alone worship, it would not want its creations to fear it.

3) Is it completely illogical that the Earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings… Adam created as an adult.

Illogical based on everything we think we know about existence via science. However, if an all powerful being existed it is certainly possible it could have done this. Likewise under that scenario the entire universe, including all our memories of the past could have been created last Thursday and there would be no way to know. The evidence all points towards the Earth being 4.5 billion years old (and the rest of the universe more than double that) remains the same, so if it is not actually that old then that would seem to make the creator a cosmic liar.

4) Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?

No, in fact life as we know it, which includes the ability to evolve, could not exist without the 2nd Law. You see the 2nd Law is essentially about energy flow from more coherent, usable states, to less coherent, unusable states. The obvious and most relevant example being the flow of energy from the Sun into space, where a tiny fraction of its energy is intercepted by the Earth. Life on Earth is only possible because of this energy flow (with the exception of life that lives off the energy flowing from the interior of the Earth itself at hydrothermal vents).

The effects of the 2nd Law can be seen reflected in the so called ecological pyramid, with each level able to extract less and less usable energy from the environment (and this is simplified of course). At the base we find plants are the most abundant and they absorb energy from the sun (“producers”). Next up there are herbivores that live off the plants (“primary consumers”). Then there are the omnivorous and/or small carnivorous animals (“secondary consumers”). Finally the apex predators (“tertiary consumers”), which are found in the fewest numbers of any ecosystem. Underlying all of these are the decomposers that make a living on the energy left over in dead plants, animals, and animal waste. energy pyramidSee: Ecology/Energy in ecosystems

I cannot even imagine what living things or ecosystems would look like without the 2nd Law in operation.

5) How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God?

Seriously? This is a “the tides go in, the tides go out, with never a miscommunication” sort of question. The Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hrs. creating the illusion (from the POV of an Earthbound observer) of the Sun moving across the sky from sunrise to sunset.

6) If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, who do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?

No, see answer #4.

7) What about Noetics?

What about it?

8) Where do you derive objective meaning in life?

I don’t know that there is such a thing or that it is even possible. We do have subjective and inter-subjective meaning however and that is good enough for me.

9) If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By Chance?

It likely did not occur by chance, in the sense of purely random actions of matter, rather it would have happened in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry.

10) I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said it and BANG in happened!

Cute, however “god did it” is not a scientific explanation.

11) Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their [sic] being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terestrial [sic] sources?

First “evolutionist”, i.e. one who accepts evolution, does not equate to being an atheist (“non-God believer”). There are plenty of Christians and other types of theists who accept evolution.

As for evolutionists in general I would say they do not “embrace” any such thing. I can only guess this comes from the disingenuous questions put to Richard Dawkins in the intelligent design creationism propaganda film “Expelled”.  Here is a video where Dawkins discusses this and says exactly what his views are on the likelihood of intelligent design by ETs.

12) There is no in between… The only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccssary [sic] for an “official proof”.

hominids2_bigYou were saying?

13) Does metamorphosis help support evolution?

I am not entirely sure what is meant by this question or even what sort of metamorphosis is being asked about. Insect metamorphosis? Amphibian metamorphosis? There is a creationist meme out there that insect metamorphosis (usually in reference to monarch butterflies) is somehow a problem for evolution, however as with most creationist memes, it is based on misinformation.

14) If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.

It is, or should be, taught as an extremely well substantiated theory, i.e. a rigorously tested, fact-based explanation. Neither creationism nor the Biblical creation account it is based on, even begins to qualify as such.

15) Because science by definition is a “theory” – not testable, observable, nor repeatable why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?

Science is not a theory; the development of testable—by observation and experiment—theories are part of doing science. In fact, one could say it is the very aim of science to develop such theories. Creationism—of which intelligent design is a subset—is made up of components which are either untestable or which have already been tested and falsified.

16) What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

Part of the answer was in the question; mutation and especially gene duplication.

17) What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

Our purpose is whatever purpose we choose for ourselves and frankly, I do not see the how the idea of some supposed purpose imposed from on high is somehow more attractive or fulfilling.

18) Why have we found only 1 “Lucy”, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?

Actually, there are fossil remains representing over 300 individuals of Australopithecus afarensis. “Lucy” is just the most famous specimen of this species. As for more than one of anything else, there is for example Homo erectus, the remains of which have been found in Africa all across Eurasia and into islands in the Pacific (Indonesia). The fun thing about H. erectus is that creationists used to (some may still) argue about whether they were “just apes” or “fully human”.

19) Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith”?

Yes, as the theory is based on repeatable observations and is testable against further observations.

20) How can you look at the world and not believe someone Created/thought of it? It’s Amazing!!!

You are absolutely right, it is amazing, however there is no compelling evidence that “someone” created it.

21) Relating to the big bang theory… Where did the exploding star come from?

The Big Bang has nothing to do with a star exploding. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t have to do with anything “exploding” in the normal sense of the word. Rather it is about space expanding.

22) If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

For the same reason that both you and your cousin can exist when you both descend from your grandparents. Humans and the other living apes descend from a common ancestor with the living monkeys. That ancestor was probably more monkey-like than ape-like, but was not one of the current species of monkeys living today.

These questions, at least the ones regarding science—and which were coherent—were not particularly difficult and these people could easily have found the answers with a few Google searches. However, that would require actual curiosity and a willingness to learn. Sadly, these traits are often absent in creationists.

The rest of the questions (philosophical or theological) were simply irrelevant to the accuracy of evolutionary theory (or Big Bang theory) and a unwillingness to grasp this fact is yet another character flaw common amongst creationist.

Call it, “blog security”

Gallup has issued the results of yet another poll on American’s views on evolution; human evolution to be specific (and that all most people care about). And the results are unfortunately in the same ballpark they’ve been in for decades. Roughly half (46%) of people in the U.S. believe that humans were created by God in the present form within the last 10,000 years.

The “good” news is that 32% of people polled accept that humans evolved over millions of years, but that God was involved in some way (though that is down from 38%!). To be sure that is not a scientifically defensible position but at least it isn’t an overtly science denying one. Combined with 15% who accept evolution, without adding any unscientific extras, that brings the total of evolution acceptors in the U.S. to 47%; which gives us a whopping 1% lead over the hard core creationists.

Hurray?

I guess it’s back to work then…

[Hat tip to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.]

Is the human knee joint “irreducibly complex”?

This is a re-post, in slightly modified from, of one of my Talk Origins Archive feedback responses (from back when the Archive had a feedback section, specifically March of 2002)


Luke asked:

Please email me your response if possible. I don’t want to categorize myself as a evolutionist or creationist. I was visiting the other website I think it was creationist or similar, your guys arch enemies; anyways I was trying to find proof to support modern man evolving from ape, and they had an extensive article written about the human knee and how it has sixteen parts and minus just one and its useless. Apes have non locking knees and because of their makeup you aparently can’t evolve it into a locking one you have to start from scratch. Evolution and mutations from what I’ve read only allow for small changes no mutation can allow for the formation of a complex organism with sixteen moving parts? The knee would have to be built all at once it couldn’t evolve or it would have no use. How do you suggest that apes dumped their knees and immediately mutated new ones with sixteen brand new parts? I would like to believe it could happen just seems far fetched?

This argument originates from an article (Critical Characteristics and the Irreducible Knee Joint) published in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal (Vol. 13, No. 2, 1999) by a British engineer named Stuart Burgess.

From my reading of the article it seems to be highly flawed, especially in its almost total lack of discussion on the comparative anatomies of living non-human apes (gorillas & chimps etc.), extinct hominins (australopithecines, early Homo) and modern humans. This lack of attention to comparative anatomy (and physiology) is typical of anti-evolutionists and it leads them to continually talk about the anatomy/physiology of various organisms as if they exist in a vacuum (examples: The woodpecker or The bombardier beetle). They focus on some extreme example of organ or system in a particular species as if it is totally unique to that species. The fact is that when one looks at other closely related species one usually finds that there are variations on the extreme example that the anti-evolutionists have focused upon.

For instance the bombardier beetle that anti-evolutionists often cite is just one species of a whole group of beetles (“Ground beetles”, Family Carabidae) many of which have some variation on a chemical defense mechanism, using the same basic chemicals (which exist in many beetles in varying amounts), but used in differing ways. The specific example that anti-evolutionists cite sprays an explosive mixture out of its abdomen in a fairly well aimed stream at its attackers, however there are other Carabid beetles that spray with less accurate aim, and others that merely excrete bad tasting chemicals out of their abdomens when attacked. There is a whole spectrum from fairly simple to fairly complex defense mechanisms. Anti-evolutionists only talk about the more complex variant.

This discussion of the human knee is another example of this sort of argument in a vacuum.

While I am not an expert in the comparative anatomies of the living non-human apes and humans, as far as I am aware there is no material difference between them. That is, every bone, muscle, ligament, tendon, and cartilage in the human knee has its corresponding representative in the knee of chimpanzees and the other great apes (and presumably in the knee of their concestor). Yes they are shaped somewhat differently. Yes they are proportioned differently. But as far as I know all the same parts are there (if there are any primatologists or physical anthropologists out there, please correct me if I am wrong). [Note: see the 2nd Lovejoy quote provided by Adam Benton in the comments section below.]

As for fossil hominins, the knees of more derived types like Homo erectus (which are either “fully human” or “just apes” depending on what anti-evolutionist you talk to) seem to be virtually identical to those of H. sapiens. As for the knees of the more basal species of Homo (H. habilis) and the australopithecines these become increasingly like those of living non-human apes the farther back in time one goes. Exactly the sort of thing one would predict if humans evolved from an “ape-like” ancestor. The knee of Australopithecus afarensis (which most anti-evolutionists say is “just an ape”) retains a number of “ape-like” features but also has characteristics like those of later hominins including H. sapiens. In other words it is an intermediate form in this regard.

The knee bones of a modern human, an australopithecine and a chimpanzee.

See The ICR and Lucy: Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor for more comparative photos, or refer to any good text on human evolution for comparative illustrations.

Burgess does mention living apes briefly but only to dismiss them as being poor bipedal walkers. However this is a problem for his argument for irreducible complexity (IC), at least as I understand Michael Behe‘s (the person responsible for the recent popularity of this term) definition of the term, in that while the knees of living non-human apes are slightly different in form, and are not as efficient for use in bipedal walking as those of humans, they do work, and they can walk bipedally.

Note: please remember that evolutionary theory does not postulate that humans are descended from other living apes, like chimps or bonobos, rather we share a common (ape) ancestor with those species.

So, assuming that knee joints of the ancestor of later hominins was essentially the same as those of the living non-human apes and could, like them, walk in a bipedal manner at all, then it would be possible for there to be a selective advantage for any slight modifications in their descendants which lead towards an increase in efficiency of bipedalism.

The human knee seems to me to be a poor example of an IC structure.

Some of Burgess’ other arguments just seem nonsensical to me. For example he states:

The knee joint presents a major challenge to the evolutionist because it is unique, and because there are no intermediate forms of joint between a condylar joint and the other two limb joints found in animals and humans – the ball and socket joint and the pivot joint. (Burgess, 1999)

I fail to understand Mr. Burgess’ challenge here. Knee joints did not evolve from elbow, shoulder, or hip joints. Rather knee joints have been knee joints since their origin in the first tetrapods. The same applies to the other types of joints. So why would we expect to find “intermediate forms” between them? That Burgess even poses this as a supposed problem for evolution demonstrates a significant lack of understanding about evolutionary theory and the fossil record.

Ichthyostega; an early tetrapod and its hind leg bones. Its “knee” was the joint between the femur and the tibia and fibula.

It is a curious thing that Behe’s principle of IC as an argument for design turns the traditional argument from design on its head. It used to be argued that those features of organisms that seem perfectly sculpted to suit their needs, or seem well designed from an engineering point was evidence for design. Now, under Behe’s IC principle of design, it doesn’t matter how clunky, ungainly, and poorly designed from an engineering point of view something is, it only matters that it is supposedly irreducibly complex.

Apparently the “Designer” under this new design “theory” is a (supernatural) cosmic Rube Goldberg.

Related Links

Are the top universities in the United Kingdom abandoning the teaching of evolution?

Yes, according to U.K. creationist YouTuber davemakesawave who started leaving comments in response to a short video I did regarding so called “polystrate” fossils and the claims creationists make about them. However this post, as the title suggests, is not about “polystrate” fossils; for those interested in them I suggest the following links as good starting places.

As I said davemakesawave started off commenting on my “polystrate fossil” video but the topic of our exchange veered of that subject immediately with him making some rather grand claims about the state of science education at “top UK universities”. Given the limitations of YouTube video comments I thought this would be a better venue to thoroughly examine his allegations.

The following is the exchange that davemakesawave and I have had so far:

davemakesawave: Polystrate fossils are creation nonsense? What?

Me: It says “linked comment” but there’s no link. Was there something that you weren’t clear about regarding the nonsense creationists spout about “polystrate” fossils?

davemakesawave: No nothing at all thank you, I am quite clear about polystrate fossils especially as some UK universities now openly concede that the fossil record does not show evolution.

Me: No doubt. There are so called “universities” in the U.S. that spread lies and misinformation as well (Liberty U., Bob Jones U. etc.). Of course with the U.K. being historically so central to the formation of modern geology there is even less excuse for it.

davemakesawave: Interestingly it is the top UK universities that are teaching the fossil record does not show evolution, even though the lecturers are also promoting atheism; it is not based on bias, it is based on real science but without evolution, atheism has no basis whatsoever. Interesting isn’t it? And this is partly why I dumped atheism some 28 years ago; this and God revealing and proving himself to me. My story is on YT An Atheist Saved In Jesus Name if you want to watch it. Tx

Me: Sorry Dave, I’m going to call bullshit, on this. I don’t believe for a second that the biology & geology departments of, say Oxford or Cambridge, would teach any such thing. The time ordered pattern of change in the fossil record is perfectly consistent with descent with modification (evolution), indeed evolution is currently the only logical and coherent explanation for this and other patterns found in nature.

So name specifically which “top UK universities” are staffed with incompetents or shut up. And spare me your atheist baiting and witnessing. Defend your scientific claims or take it somewhere else.

And now we’ll look at davemakesawave’s response to my demand that he back up his claim:

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Dinny the dinosaur (still) held hostage

A couple of years ago, after hearing that creationists had purchased Dinny the dinosaur and converted perverted him—and his sidekick Rex—into tools for peddling their rank ignorance, I went out to Cabazon to see for myself how badly they had been abused. What I found was not happy-making, nor would it be for anyone who cares about knowledge, science and truth, or who finds the thought of children being mislead distressing.

What I found was that Dinny had not only been taken hostage by creationists but judging by their posted material, creationists who seem to be enamored with the “teachings” of some of creationism’s lowest common denominators; professional hucksters such as (the felonious) “Dr.” Kent Hovind and “Dr.,” Carl Baugh, two people that even other young earth creationists (YEC) tend to distance themselves from.

Even worse they seemed to be doing fairly good business as they were in the process of expanding the attraction by adding a number of decently executed life size dinosaur models.

Dinny the dinosaur (foreground) and Rex (background).

As I said that was two years ago. Last summer my wife Kathy and I happened to find ourselves not far from Cabazon and I figured we should swing by and see what new devilry might have befallen Dinny.

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Smithsonian Magazine Editor Responds

Someone named Laura, who identifies herself as being an editor at the Smithsonian Magazine, left a comment on my post about their mix-up of hominid pictures in a paleoanthropology time line published in the March edition of the magazine and I figured I’d move it up to post level where more people would likely see it:

Troy, thanks for your post about Ann Gibbons’ story on Hominid Evolution in Smithsonian. I’m an editor there who worked on the story. We decided whenever possible to use images that would be easy for readers to understand. The timeline, especially, had to show many small images of specimens that some of our readers are reluctant to consider their ancestors. For Java Man, we did go with the more complete skull from the same place and species. We’re trying to figure out what happened with the Neanderthal image–the source we used labeled it as Neanderthal, but your comparison with Turkana Boy makes a good case. We’ll let you know if we figure out where the photo was taken and which specimen it shows.

First let me say thank you Laura for responding on this.

Regarding the Java Man thing, as I admitted in my post, I was perhaps being a bit nit-picky, and I don’t consider the switch from one Indonesian Homo erectus skull to another to be too much of a problem. However swapping out a H. ergaster (from Africa) for a H. neanderthalensis (mostly European) is obviously a different matter.  And while I am not a paleoanthropologist  and while I don’t even play one on the interwebs, I’ll bet you a years subscription to your magazine that you’ll find that the picture that was used to show a Neanderthal is instead a photo of the Turkana Boy.

Funny how I don’t get this sort of response from the antievolutionists who I catch making much larger mistakes than this (and I know some of them read this blog). Ah well…