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Hominid Hype and the Election Cycle

It's that time of the election cycle again. You know, the time when the media starts regularly deploying the "evolution test" to decide whether a candidate is mentally impaired. Those who capitulate to the Darwinian consensus are deemed of normal intelligence and fit for office. Those who don't are subjected to public mockery and humiliation.

In this context, the media is naturally going ape over papers recently published in the journal Science discussing an australopithecine fossil. This provides a perfect opportunity for the media to kill two birds with one stone: attack disfavored candidates and promote evolution. The ever-political New York Times carried a story on the fossils claiming, "the new species, known as Australopithecus sediba, is the most plausible known ancestor of archaic and modern humans."

There are many problems with this claim, but one immediate problem is that it isn't a "new" species. It was first reported in Science almost a year and a half ago. At that time, the media also went bananas, with the London Telegraph, for example, declaring, "Missing link between man and apes found." Like soldiers walking behind a tank as it plows through an enemy city, Internet Darwin activists quickly followed suit with comments like, "If you believe in 1+1=2, and don't believe in evolution, then you are a bigot and turn a blind eye to facts."

Right now, media outlets are using similar evangelizing headlines such as, "Scientists in South Africa have discovered a key 'missing link' in human evolution," or "Remains may be missing link," or "Missing link between man and apes discovered." My favorite hyped-headline sounds like it belonged in the era of the Scopes trial: "Caveman from 2m years ago may be missing link."

Should we jump on the bandwagon and accept these claims so we can pass the evolution-test, or should we take a look at what history has to say about previous so-called "missing links"?

A Brief History of Hominid Hype

Ignoring fraudulent fossils like Piltdown man, the last 50 years have seen a slew of so-called human ancestors which initially produced hype, and were later disproven.

In the 1960s, an ape-like fossil named Ramapithecus was touted as an ancestor of humans. When the hype had cooled down, paleoanthropologists soon afterward were lamenting, "Ramapithecus walking upright has been reconstructed from only jaws and teeth" with "his legitimacy sanctified by millions of textbooks and Time-Life volumes on human evolution." In fact, those claims were overturned in the 1970s and 1980s when more complete specimens were discovered, showing the species was unlike humans, and probably an extinct orangutan-like ape.

Next came Homo habilis, discovered in the 1980s, and dated at about 1.9 mya. It was placed within Homo to imply an ancestral link with the australopithecines. However an analysis in the Journal of Human Evolution published by leading paleoanthropologists in 1999 found that habilis is very different from Homo, and should be reclassified within Australopithecus. Another study found that habilis was even more similar to modern apes than were other australopithecines. One co-author called those results "unexpected in view of previous accounts of Homo habilis as a link between australopithecines and humans." Since habilis does not predate the earliest true members of Homo, it could not have been a precursor of our genus.

The turn of the millennium century saw no slowdown of widely publicized, alleged human ancestors being overturned by the evidence.

In 2002, Sahelanthropus tchadensis was touted as the "oldest fossil human," even though all that was reported was one skull and a few jaw fragments, which some paleoanthropologists have suggested might have belonged to a female gorilla.

Then came May 20, 2009. On this day, there's a good possibility that your morning started something like this: You crawled out of bed, logged on to the Internet, and soon discovered that Google had changed its banner graphic to display the image of a small, long-tailed fossil primate:

Being the Internet-savvy user that you are, you immediately recalled that it's not uncommon for Google to change its design to observe holidays or honor famous historical figures. Nonetheless, you wondered what this cute brown mammal was doing on Google's home page, so you clicked on the link.

Little did you know that this innocent fossil graphic was not just any link. It was a lure that led you into a carefully orchestrated PR campaign involving leading paleontologists, top TV networks, the Internet's most popular website (Google), and numerous other media outlets in a coordinated effort to promote evolution to the public.

The fossil, dubbed "Ida" by her discoverers, was introduced by the media as the "eighth wonder of the world" whose "impact on the world of palaeontology" would be like "an asteroid falling down to Earth." Famed BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough got involved, making a documentary titled Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link, to explain why Ida is "the link that connects us directly with the rest of the animal kingdom."

Just a few months later, Ida's reign came to a sad end after scientists inspected the fossil and determined that "[m]any lines of evidence indicate that [Ida] has nothing at all to do with human evolution."

Ida was not the only "missing link" erroneously promoted in 2009. There was also Ardipithecus ramidus, declared by some to be the most recent common ancestor of apes and humans. The journal Science called "Ardi" the "breakthrough of the year," yet admitted that her bones were originally "crushed" and required over a decade of "reconstruction." Other paleoanthropologists noted that Ardi was initially "crushed nearly to smithereens" and resembled "Irish stew."

Later, after cooler heads had prevailed, multiple studies found that Ardi was more similar to apes than humans, and concluded she was not a human ancestor. As Time magazine later reported, critical scientists regard "the hype around Ardi to have been overblown."

Why the Resurrection of sediba Story?

If Au. sediba has been publicly discussed for almost a year and a half, the current barrage of stories about the fossils can only have a political explanation, as I suggested at the start.

It's at these times that it's most important to remember history. Anyone who automatically believes the hype that we've found another "missing link" either has forgotten history or hasn't looked very carefully at the evidence.

In a subsequent article I'll discuss in more detail some of the hype surrounding Au. sediba, and why many scientists doubt it was a human ancestor.