Charles Darwin carefully side stepped the question of human origins in On the Origin of Species. But he wrote about it in detail in The Descent of Man, arguing that, like all species, humanity had evolved through a process of descent with modification from a common ancestor shared with apes. As Darwin put it, “In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term ‘man’ ought to be used.”
Yet when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he lacked direct evidence for human evolution. He argued humans must have evolved from an ape-like animal based on anatomical comparisons and embryological similarities among humans and other mammals. For Darwin, evidence of humanity’s “lowly origin” came from circumstantial evidence—an “indelible stamp”—evolution had left in “his bodily frame.”
Still, Darwin lacked full proof of human evolution. Paleontologists had yet to discover fossils demonstrating the gradual transition from ape-like creatures into modern humans. Such fossils would have powerfully corroborated his idea.
The first so-called ape-human intermediate interpreted from the fossil record was discovered in 1890 on the Indonesian island of Java by Dutch paleontologist Marie Eugene François Thomas Dubois. This species was initially dubbed Pithecanthropus erectus and later became known as Homo erectus. In 1924, anthropologist Raymond Dart uncovered a small skull interpreted to possess a blend of ape and human features. This fossil, nicknamed the Taung Child, appeared to be humanity’s most primitive predecessor and was formally classified as Australopithecus africanus.In the late 1950s, Louis Leakey unearthed the first Homo habilis specimen in East Africa. Paleontologists considered this species as the connection between the more primitive ape-like australopithecines and Homo erectus. They also regarded Homo habilis as the first species to use stone tools.
Following these few-and-far-between discoveries, an avalanche of findings ensued. In the decades since the discovery of H. habilis, paleontologists have uncovered a treasure trove of hominid fossils encompassing a wide-range of species and accompanying archeological remains. These discoveries have occurred throughout East, Central, and South Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—and the fossils continue to pour in.
For evolutionary biologists and the general public alike, each new hominid unearthed by paleontologists appears to fill in a gap in the evolutionary tree and clarify the pathway that human evolution took over the course of the last 6 million years.
In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins makes this very point. He argues that the hominid fossil record looks exactly as expected if humans evolved from an ancient primate.
This week I continue my critique, focusing on chapter seven and Dawkins’ discussion of the fossil record as evidence for human evolution
According to Dawkins, human evolution will be verified once paleontologists discover transitional forms displaying any of the following properties:
- Intermediate gait and brain size
- Human-like gait with a chimpanzee-sized brain
- Walking on all fours with a large, more human brain
Dawkins spends most of the chapter masterfully describing an assortment of hominid fossil finds, which he interprets as fulfilling these requirements. Once again he returns to a tactic utilized throughout the book, lampooning ill-informed young-earth creationists and setting up easily defeated straw man arguments. In doing so Dawkins attempts to create the perception that there are no good arguments against the evolutionary framework.
In one instance, he provides a transcript of a TV interview he conducted with Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. Throughout the exchange, Wright adamantly refuses to accept that a relatively rich abundance of hominid fossil finds exists, even though Dawkins keeps telling her to go to a museum, any museum and see the evidence first-hand. Instead she repeatedly maintains the evidence for human evolution is a product of the imagination of Darwinists reflecting an atheistic philosophy.
Dawkins also decries another common tactic used by some young-earth creationists: dismissing the entire fossil record based on the Piltdown man forgery and the initial controversy surrounding the discovery and analysis of the first H. erectus find. Again, Dawkins tries to give the impression that no good scientific challenges have been raised against human evolution and that evolution-deniers have to ignore the evidence in order to reject biological evolution.
Although Dawkins himself ignores old-earth creationism, it does represent another approach to the hominid fossil record. Old-earth creationism recognizes the authenticity of the finds, but interprets them within a creation model framework.
In the book Who Was Adam?, Hugh Ross and I present a scientific model for human origins derived from the biblical text. As part of that model we account for the hominids as animals created by God. Accordingly, these creatures existed for a time and then went extinct. The hominids appear to have been remarkable creatures that walked erect, possessed some level of limited intelligence, and emotional capacity. This allowed these animals to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of ‘culture’ much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Still, the hominids were not spiritual beings, made in God’s image. This status applies exclusively to modern humans.
The hominids could be thought of like the great apes. If so, then it’s expected that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities will exist between the hominids and modern humans to varying degrees. But since the hominids were not made in God’s image, they are expected to be clearly distinct from modern humans, particularly in their cognitive capacity, behavior, ‘technology,’ and ‘culture.’
In other words, the evolutionary paradigm is not the only framework that makes sense of the hominids found in the fossil record. It is possible to view these creatures as part of God’s creation.
But I would agree with Dawkins that the hominid fossil record provides the chief means to determine whether or not humans actually evolved. This record functions as a proxy for the natural history of these primates. If indeed humanity evolved from an apelike ancestor, the fossil record must display telltale patterns and features.
As noted in Who Was Adam? in order to uphold the theory of evolution, the root of the hominid fossil record should be a single, knuckle-walking ape-like primate that existed between 5 and 6 million years ago. Over time, a variety of hominids should appear in a branching treelike pattern from this ancestral form, and a clear evolutionary pathway from this supposed ancestor to modern humans should be readily evident.
Hominid fossils should also document the gradual emergence of the anatomical and behavioral traits that define humanity—such as a large brain size, advanced culture, and the ability to walk erect. Lastly, transitional forms that connect australopithecines to primitive Homo specimens and then these to modern humans should be readily discerned in the fossil record. If these broad requirements cannot be met, then human evolution cannot be declared a fact. In this case, other models for humanity’s origin should be entertained.
A number of advances indicate that the fine features of the hominid fossil record don’t match the expectations if humans evolved. For example, paleoanthropologists have concluded that the fossil evidence available to evolutionary biologists can’t be used to build reliable evolutionary relationships. (See here.) Scientists have also discovered that the ability to walk erect didn’t emerge gradually. Instead this defining feature of humanity appeared suddenly. And a number of other studies eliminate important hominids from the human lineage. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
The inability to identify transitional forms that document an unequivocal pathway from an ape-like ancestor to modern humans is intriguing in light of genetic diversity studies of people groups around the world. Geneticists can use this genetic variability to reconstruct early human history and in doing so have stumbled upon powerful evidence for the reliability of the biblical account of humanity. (See here.)
Collectively, the consensus that emerges from a large number of studies indicates that humanity originated recently (about 100,000 years ago) from East Africa (near the location theologians ascribe to the Garden of Eden) from a small population. Amazingly, studies using mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA markers trace humanity’s origin back to a single man and woman. These studies also indicate that humanity’s migration around the world began at or near the Middle East.
Though these results are often presented and discussed within the context of the evolutionary paradigm, they have profound biblical implications. Evolutionary biologists refer to this account of humanity’s origin as the Out-of-Africa hypothesis, which looks like the biblical model awkwardly forced into the evolutionary framework. If humanity’s genesis happened in the way described in Scripture, the genetic diversity patterns observed among people groups around the world would be very similar to those discovered by geneticists and anthropologists.
Despite Dawkins’ claims, it looks as if Adam and Eve really existed, giving rise to all humanity.