Home » Intelligent Design » Uncommon Descent Contest Question 3: Human evolution – What do we actually know?

Uncommon Descent Contest Question 3: Human evolution – What do we actually know?

You can earn free stuff by answering the question below this entry:

One of the causes of “just-so” storytelling about human evolution is the fact that, until comparatively recently, people did not write things down or manufacture a lot of objects.

People like Pascal Boyer can write books like Religion Explained, secure in the knowledge that no documents or extensive artifacts are likely to turn up from 50 000 years ago that challenge his claims.

To see what difference this makes, consider the case of King Tut’s tomb. Archaeologists have unearthed an extensive story of the short-lived effort of one Pharaoh to convert Egypt to monotheism. We actually know a fair bit about what happened there, due to deciphering writings and examining extensive artifacts.

Now and then a brief light is shone on a far earlier era, and here is one: An Australian cave painting depicts a marsupial lion (“Cave Painting Depicts Extinct Marsupial Lion ” by Stéphan Reebs, Natural History Magazine 09 May 2009):

Several well-preserved skeletons of the leopard-size beast have been found. Now, a newly discovered cave painting offers a glimpse of the animal’s external appearance.

In June 2008, Tim Willing, a naturalist and tour guide, photographed an ancient painting on a rockshelter wall near the shore of northwestern Australia. Kim Akerman, an independent anthropologist based in Tasmania, says the painting unmistakably depicts a marsupial lion.

It shows the requisite catlike muzzle, large forelimbs, and heavily clawed front paws. And it portrays the animal with a striped back, a tufted tail, and pointed ears.

Those last three features aren’t preserved in skeletons, but Aborigines would have known them well. Australia’s first people landed on the continent at least 40,000 years ago and were contemporaries of the big predator.

Similarly, an article in Science, 323 (30 January 2009) pushes back the art timeline:

In 2002, a discovery at Blombos Cave in South Africa began to change how researchers view the evolution of modern human behavior. Archaeologists reported finding two pieces of red ochre engraved with crosshatched patterns, dated to 77,000 years ago. Many experts interpreted the etchings as evidence of symbolic expression and possibly even art, 40,000 years earlier than many researchers had thought (Science, 11 January 2002, p. 247). Now the Blombos team reports on an additional 13 engraved ochre pieces, many dated to 100,000 years ago. The researchers suggest that some of the engravings may represent an artistic or symbolic tradition. If so, the timeline for the earliest known symbolic behavior must once again be redrawn.

Go here for more (paywall).

When timelines are getting redrawn this often, my advice is – for now – forget them. At some point, our ancestors differentiated themselves from knuckle-dragging apes (if that was really what happened), and that was an event with great consequences, about which we have almost no information.

Question: In 400 words, to be judged in two weeks, and printed as a post: What do we really know about human evolution that could not simply be overturned by a new find? The winner will receive a free copy of Expelled. The contest will be judged in two weeks, May 27.

Note: This contest is over and was judged here. Please see Contest Question 4 or further ones.

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32 Responses to Uncommon Descent Contest Question 3: Human evolution – What do we actually know?

  1. 1
    AmerikanInKananaskis

    I agree with the goal of your contest, O’Leary, but this question leaves me wondering if you understand science. (Or maybe you do and you’re just trying to milk out the obvious answer. Or maybe you just phrased your question ambiguously by mistake.)

    What do we really know about human evolution that could not simply be overturned by a new find?

    Nothing. All science is tentative and subject to change as new evidence is found.

  2. AmerikaninKananaskis: No, you are mistaken. Some science findings are robust, and would take more than one new find to be overturned.

    Weird stuff sometimes happens. That’s why outlier data is routinely trimmed from studies.

    If you care to enter the contest, please say what we know about human evolution that could not simply be overturned by a new find.

  3. Richard Leakey stated, “Those working in this field have so little evidence upon which to base their conclusions that it is necessary for them frequently to change their conclusions.” (“Spectator, The University of Iowa, April 1973). This still holds true of human evolutionary history.

    For example, consider the popular fossil remains of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), once considered “the original missing link” (The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life, 2006). Now, however, Lucy occupies only a side branch of human evolution.

    The paucity of fossil evidence makes knowing all of human evolutionary history impossible. The best evidence for Lucy came, not from bones or teeth, but from footprints. Science Digest readily admitted that “all the physical evidence we have for human evolution can still be placed, with room to spare, inside a single coffin!” (Science Digest, “The Water People”, Lyall Watson, May 1982).

    And that is where such evidence belongs, with the lid of the coffin nailed shut.

    Modern evolutionary theory has become elastic due to the scientists fitting the evidence to the theory and not the other way around. This precludes a definitive answer as to our human origins from an evolutionary standpoint.

  4. There are thousands of bones and scores of skeletons (and hundreds of tools). To say that all of that would fit into a coffin is pretty lame.

    But the most silly part of that was:
    And that is where such evidence belongs, with the lid of the coffin nailed shut.

    Regardless of the validity of evolution and/or ID, regardless of whether fossils stand for or against evolution… why should we ignore any fossils???

  5. 5
    Barry Arrington

    Barb writes: “Science Digest readily admitted that “all the physical evidence we have for human evolution can still be placed, with room to spare, inside a single coffin!” (Science Digest, “The Water People”, Lyall Watson, May 1982).”

    eintown responds: “There are thousands of bones and scores of skeletons (and hundreds of tools). To say that all of that would fit into a coffin is pretty lame.”

    eintown, we have Science Digest saying one thing and you saying another. Do you have anything to back up your assertion other than your blind faith that its “just gotta be so”? Assertion is not argument. Bald denail is not rebuttal.

    Bring us the goods or kindly go to another site to show off your ignorance.

  6. Well, 27 years later…

    Well, answers in genesis, states that “400 specimens of Neanderthal have been discovered”. Can’t argue with that source.

    Nice, SHORT, list can be found at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_human_fossils

    There are the goods, do they fit in?

  7. oh and this.
    http://www.toarchive.org/faqs/homs/specimen.html

    Also try consult a book that holds inventories of human fossils. E.g. Koobi Fora Research Project… hundreds of fossils from one site, from 1978

  8. 8

    JayM,

    eintown’s comments are largely sarcastic, which is why Barry said to bring to goods or go elsewhere. And, he impugned the Turks, a sovereign nation, for not allowing homosexuals to adopt. That’s not a personal attack, which is why I let it through, but it is way off-topic and an obvious attempt to discredit a people for other reasons than the one at hand.

    And secondly, JayM, are you a theist who is pro-ID? You take that position all the time, in posture, but you argue the opposite in content. It seems to me you just assume these positions, and then attempt to discredit anything about theism and ID, all under the guise of “constructive criticism” from “a pro-ID person who is just trying to help.” But everything I see from you is anti-ID. Which is it? Are you trying to convince us that you’re pro-ID? You claim to take these positions, but what you say in content is totally opposite, 100% of the time. Which is it? Are you pro-ID?

  9. 9
    Barry Arrington

    eintown, thank you for making Barb’s point even more forcefully. It shows what we already know to be the case. The fossils in question are very fragmentary (not complete skeletons as you implied), and altogether they could easily fit in an average sized coffin

  10. Am I the only one confused? Is there a world of ghosts around here?

    From someone called “Clive”:

    JayM,

    eintown’s comments are largely sarcastic, which is why Barry said to bring to goods or go elsewhere.

    On this thread, someone called Clive Hayden seems to be talking to someone called “JayM”.

    Scrolling up a brief thread, I can’t find this “JayM” character. Am I to believe that the “Clive Hayden” character is suffering from some bizzare form of schizophrenia? Or is there a technical problem that might lead a reader to get the impression that this “Clive” is speaking to himself?

    Again:

    JayM,

    eintown’s comments are largely sarcastic, which is why Barry said to bring to goods or go elsewhere.

    And secondly, JayM, are you a theist who is pro-ID? You take that position all the time, in posture, but you argue the opposite in content.

    Odd. In less than ten posts, I can’t find the “JayM” who appears to be being addressed.

    What I’d like to ask is this:

    Is it just me? Am I mad? Or does anyone else have the same impression in reading down this handfull of posts?

  11. Some other posts have disappeared or I cannot find them. They were from Ted Davis yesterday or the day before and actually appear in the search engine and completely innocuous.

    Clive’s post about JayM describes him fairly accurately but the specific referred to post does not seem to be here.

  12. Clive Hayden @8

    eintown’s comments are largely sarcastic, which is why Barry said to bring to goods or go elsewhere.

    Would you please point out the sarcasm? I must have missed it.

    And, he impugned the Turks, a sovereign nation, for not allowing homosexuals to adopt. That’s not a personal attack, which is why I let it through, but it is way off-topic and an obvious attempt to discredit a people for other reasons than the one at hand.

    And secondly, JayM, are you a theist who is pro-ID?

    Clive, did it hurt to write those two sentences so close together? eintown’s comment is off-topic, but my personal religious views are pertinent to this contest question?

    For the record (hey, who doesn’t like to talk about themselves), I am unconvinced by Dr. Dembski’s mathematics. I think he has misapplied the No Free Lunch theorems, that he explicitly and implicitly makes unwarranted assumptions about probability distributions, and that he equivocates on the meaning of the word “information” too often. I also consider the failure of he or any of his supporters to calculate the CSI of a real biological artifact, taking into account known evolutionary mechanisms, to be an indication that CSI as a concept is not sufficiently well-defined at this time.

    On the other hand, I do believe that Dr. Behe’s work on finding the edge of evolution is likely to produce fruit. Unlike many ID supporters, I do believe that we have to make assumptions about the nature of the designer in order to progress and that we will unavoidably acquire additional information about the nature of the designer as we test our hypotheses. I find this exciting and consider it a spiritual as well as a scientific pursuit.

    Does that make me an ID supporter? Does a desire to understand God by more than faith make me not a theist?

    More importantly, why does any of that matter? Isn’t UD supposedly about finding the truth?

    Apropos of that, how about addressing the issues I raised regarding the moderation policy in the post you removed?

    JJ

  13. JayM was probably censored…

    Mr Hayden and Arrington… I’m not sure why the confusion. My point was very simple, the fossil record, whether complete or not, in support of evolution or not, consists of many thousands of bones and tools.. which would not fit into a coffin.

    But the most important point is… why should “with the lid of the coffin nailed shut”??

  14. And hayden I mentioned the anti-gay laws in a DIFFERENT post inorder to highlight the fact that I do not align myself with the statement “Turkish people are highly intelligent and foresighted”, spoken by a Turkish Holocaust denier anti-IDist.

  15. 15
    AmerikanInKananaskis

    No, you are mistaken. Some science findings are robust, and would take more than one new find to be overturned.

    I already answered your question. All the claims of science could theoretically be overturned by a single find, given the gravity of that find.

    Claim: “humans evolved from earlier ape species”

    Evidence that could overturn it: “a layer of Cro-Magnon fossils in Cambrian rock”

    Like I say, I agree with the goal of your contest, and I get what you’re driving at, but you’ve based it on bad philosophy.

  16. Eintown, we’re not ignoring all the fossils, only the ones that have any potential connection to human evolution (which, in case you missed it, was the point of this post). Those fossils can all be placed inside a coffin.

    “With the lid of the coffin nailed shut” is my own personal opinion.

  17. I am talking about fossils connected to human evolution. And I understand that is your personal opinion – which doesnt seem very progressive.

  18. Jerry says:

    Some other posts have disappeared or I cannot find them. They were from Ted Davis yesterday or the day before and actually appear in the search engine and completely innocuous.

    Jerry, I’ve no idea who Ted Davis is, or what his comments might be. The point I’m making, obviously, is that if I said ” heh, Ted, I disagree there” it might be rather difficult for anyone reading the thread if “Ted’s” comments had disappeared.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but am I, as a reader of the thread, expected to know what characters like “JayM” or “Ted” represent?

    Clive’s post about JayM not seem to be here.

    There’s no “JayM” or “Ted” on this thread at all. Excuse me as someone who isn’t very familiar with the site, but when someone called “Clive” is talking to someone called “Jay”, could you regulars explain how newcomers should figure this out?

    Was the person called “Clive” aware that he appears to be discussing things with thin air?

  19. Apologies. This:

    There’s no “JayM” or “Ted” on this thread at all. Excuse me as someone who isn’t very familiar with the site, but when someone called “Clive” is talking to someone called “Jay”, could you regulars explain how newcomers should figure this out?

    Was the person called “Clive” aware that he appears to be discussing things with thin air?

    Was me, and shouldn’t have been in italics.

  20. Well, It is as I thought. Judging from the above posts there is no evidence for human evolution.(darwinian, that is)

  21. iconofid,

    I found the Ted Davis comments and they were not deleted. There were two threads on Turkey and I looked in the wrong one.

    JayM has been commenting here for about 6 months and as I said I thought Clive characterized him correctly. So only the offending JayM comment is gone or it may be on another thread.

  22. The common ancestor of chimps and humans lived between 3 and 7 million years ago.

    Bipedal hominina (primates on the branch leading to human beings) appeared at least 3.7 million years ago.

    Hominina started making tools at least 2.6 million years ago.

    Hominina lived outside Africa at least 2 million years ago.

    Fully upright hominina who were as tall as we are, with a brain size of 700 cubic centimeters and with the same body proportions as modern Homo sapiens existed at least 1.9 million years ago.

    Hominina began making Acheulean hand-axes at least 1.6 million years ago. The stone was chipped on both sides to form a biface of two cutting edges.

    Hominina with a brain size of 1100-1400 cubic centimeters – overlapping our own – appeared at least 600,000 years ago.

    Hominina started making wooden projectile spears at least 400,000 years ago.

    Hominina began to cook their food with fire at least 250,000 years ago.

    The prepared core technique, which allowed the creation of more efficient tools than Acheulean hand-axes, appeared at least 200,000 years ago. This method allowed humans to create stone tipped spears, which were the earliest composite tools, by hafting sharp, pointy stone flakes onto wooden shafts.

    Neanderthals, who appeared over 130,000 years ago and had an average brain size of over 1400 cubic centimeters, possessed the same version of the FOXP2 gene as modern humans. Their hyoid bone was virtually identical with ours.
    Neanderthals also controlled fire, constructed complex shelters, and skinned animals. They had sophisticated stone flakes, task-specific hand-axes and spears.
    Some Neanderthals practiced simple burials with grave goods, such as animal bones, tools, and ochre.

    Anatomically modern or almost modern Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago.

    Long distance trading in rare commodities between groups commenced over 120,000 years ago.

    In Africa, anatomically modern or almost modern Homo sapiens was shell-fishing at least 140,000 years ago, using ochre at least 100,000 years ago, making bone harpoons at least 90,000 years ago, making and drilling beads of snail shells at least 75,000 years ago, deliberately burning the grasslands to encourage the growth of plants with corms or tubers at least 55,000 years ago, and making boats at least 42,000 years ago.

    Anatomically modern Homo sapiens made sculptures at least 35,000 years ago, painted on cave walls at least 32,000 years ago, and used the bow and arrow at least 30,000 years ago.

  23. 23

    JayM,

    A simple yes or no will suffice.

  24. 24

    I love the thing here about the picture of the marsupial lion. If true its very cool.
    They used to say it was just a toothy possum who used its great teeth to open cocanuts or something.
    Now they see it as convergent evolution with our lions.
    I am a biblical creationist and insist that all marsupilsare just the same creatures as their placental cousins and simply had quick general adaptation upon entering certain areas on earth after the biblical flood.
    Marsupial lions, bears, tapirs, wolves, mice, etc are just what their namesake says.
    There has been a great error of classification.

  25. vjtorley, that was obviously a well thought-out and researched post. Sadly, posts’ of that caliber are, if not wholly ignored, met with little to no insightful objections on UD.

  26. Why would objections be expected? There’s plenty of us here who are aware of and believe humans had evolutionary precursors. The big bang of human consciousness (as it’s called) has been discussed on this site before as well, approvingly.

  27. Clive Hayden @23

    JayM,

    A simple yes or no will suffice.

    That’s not what kairosfocus told me.

    JJ

  28. eintown

    Glad you liked the post. I’m sure Denyse won’t have a problem with it. Affirming common descent for humans and chimps does not entail that the differences betwen them can be explained by natural selection alone.

  29. 29

    When I met David Berlinski in DC and asked him about how we must certainly accept some human evolution just looking at language from ancient Egypt to modern times. Berlinski said to me “we don’t have one scintilla of evidence that language has evolved.” I pressed him on it by saying surely there are new concepts of things that didn’t exist such as cars etc.. Berlinski stayed solid in his position. His point I think was that if cars existed in ancient times they would have had a word for it and that new concepts our their linguistic representations not to a more evolved man but because they are new phenomena. That is the evidence does not show that man’s ability and modes of language are inherently different in any way- going as far back as records allow.

  30. Science can never deal in absolute certainty and that simple fact is extremely easy to prove. The “reality” we perceive could be a complete fiction, a simulation generated by some vast machine of the kind that science fiction writers have loved to entertain us with.

    Consequently, a finding such as that, would overturn, not just evolutionary science, it would overturn ALL of science.

    But the question isn’t quite that, it asks “what do we really know about human evolution that could not SIMPLY be overturned by a new find?”

    What we really know about human evolution should not be considered as a linear list of independent facts. The essence of our knowledge lies with the vast web of interrelations that is draped across the conventional divisions of the constituent subjects of science. The famous evolutionary scientist O. E. Wilson called it Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in his book that name. Wilson explains:
    “Literally a jumping together of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork for explanation.” (page 8)
    Scientific knowledge is “holographic” and it “all hangs together”. By its very nature, it is able to take multiple fixes from different angles on any issue. Consequently, vital dependence on one particular fact is rarely, if ever, encountered.
    So what we know about human evolution is a subset of that vast consilient network, and, like a spider’s web it is also resilient to the weakening or removal of any one of the many facts and theories upon which it depends. In a world free of miracles and unexplained effects, that is how it must be, that is the only way it can be. Unless of course we are being subjected to that diabolical simulation constructed for the amusement of some mischievous super-alien.

    Darwin correctly conjectured that humans and the African apes had a common ancestor.

    In the last decade, “what we know about human evolution” has been refined and extended by advances in Evolutionary Psychology and in the analysis of the vast historical records to be found in the DNA of primate species. Consequently, “what we know” is not just a fact or even a list of facts, it is a theory that ties all the facts together and shows how they interrelate. It is this theory that cannot be SIMPLY overthrown by a “new find”.

  31. We can know that random changes in human DNA produce undesirable results such as cystic fibrosis. This observation holds true even if the traditional “change agents” such as copying errors are replaced by others, as the link between the altered DNA and corresponding defects is well established. These observed changes have also produced a generation in which it is undesirable for closely related men and women to reproduce. These observable traits of mutations can certainly be extrapolated back to any previous generation possessed DNA subject to change.

    This is a proposed a quality, or fact, about observable evolution. It is not the same as a rote fact about humanity (brain capacity etc.). It is not shown that damaged DNA has produced any quantifiable or observable trait except those involving defects, however there is a direct and provable correspondence between altered DNA and the consequences listed above.

    Notice any claims of beneficial mutations (I know, but pretend with me) do not undo this claim since undesirable effects are certainly observed. The reverse is not true, as the idea of beneficial mutations stands to be disproved as a statistical impossibility as the complexity of the information found in DNA becomes more evident. The other way to reverse this observation would be to claim that human DNA in the past was not changeable, but that ends the debate anyway.

  32. vjtorley (#22),

    Your response is very good. It is always safer to believe facts than it is the theories that are based on them. And a simple theory, such as “white swans exist” can be substantiated by the sighting of one, or at the most two, white swans.

    However, I think that you miss two at least theoretically important points. The first is that you have not truly gotten back to facts. The second is that even apparent facts can be questioned.

    For example. to take the second point, it was commonly believed at one point that in human evolution, the brain became enlarged first and the jaw became more human later. This seemed to be substantiated by a skull and jaw found in Piltdown. A closer examination of the “fact” revealed that the skull and jaw were in fact modified modern human and orangutan, respectively, and the “fact” evaporated, along with the theory built on it.

    So when you say, “Hominina lived outside Africa at least 2 million years ago.” you are presumably basing this on physical evidence. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we have one skull dated at 2 million years, and another 3 skulls dated at 1.5 million years. If someone were to show that the skull dated at 2 million years had a carbon-14 to ordinary carbon ratio comparable to that of modern humans, or even comparable to an uncalibrated radiocarbon age of 35,000 years, you would then have to revise your statement to read “Hominina lived outside Africa at least 1.5 million years ago.”

    To take the first point, you would have been safer if you had said, “Hominina lived outside Africa at least 2 million years ago, by currently accepted dating criteria.” For a date is not a fact stamped on the rock and readily available for all to see. It is a series of measurements, with their inherent uncertainties, along with a theory that interprets those measurements as an age. The theory could ignore sources of error, which could theoretically be large enough to invalidate the age.

    If we were to discover sources of error that could explain all the dates to which you had reference in your list, we could no longer accept your assertions as valid. And if we had another secure dating method that argued that the timescale was inflated by orders of magnitude, all of your assertions would be wrong.

    I am not arguing here that this is the case at present (although there is interesting evidence that it may be the case), but only arguing that we need to be careful about pronouncements in science.

    However, there is one final area that should be mentioned. Science is rarely so easily falsified as a straightforward application of Popper would imply. As mentioned by Truthzyme (#30), science is an interconnected web with resilience, and it is rare that a single fact will completely destroy that web. This is partly because the weight of theory will oftentimes result in extra scrutiny of apparently contrary facts, so that the facts are often shown to be based on misunderstanding or fraud, and not what they seemed at first. A theory may even simply put the facts on a shelf, to be studied and integrated later when more is known. And finally, a theory can be used to rule certain facts invalid or inapplicable, even when the facts should rightfully overthrow the theory. It takes a strong theory to do this. But naturalistic evolution is such a strong theory.

    So the answer to Denyse’s question is that there is probably not one single observation that would invalidate most assertions about human ancestry. But with a suite of observations, practically any given assertion could be overturned.

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