Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species
The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils
“Big Daddy”: Fruits, Roots, and Responses
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There are two living authors whose works have sold over half a billion copies. One is American novelist Danielle Steel. The other is Christian pamphleteer Jack Chick. Now 91 years old, the reclusive Chick has reportedly sold a staggering 750 million copies of his illustrated tracts and comic books since 1960. His works have been translated into over 100 languages and are widely distributed by missionaries and other Christian workers. Many of his publications are consistent with mainstream evangelicalism, stressing man’s accountability to God and the necessity of personal integrity and of following Christ. Some of his tracts, however, vehemently attack modern secularism and also religious views (especially Roman Catholicism) that Chick disagrees with.
I recall being handed a copy of his anti-evolution cartoon tract, “Big Daddy”, many years ago. This pamphlet, which first appeared in 1972, is reportedly “the most widely distributed anti-evolution booklet in history“. A recent article by Paul Braterman on the Primates Progress blog ,” How to lie about radiometric dating, evolution, and even nuclear physics “, brought this Chick tract back to my attention. This pamphlet continues to be sold in bulk at 16 cents apiece, and stands as an example of the arguments brought against evolution by some Christians. The complete tract is shown on the Chick Publications web site. I will display some representative panels here, and comment on the accuracy of their scientific claims.
The cartoons start off with a professor, flanked by a portrait of a banana-eating ape titled “Our Father”, asking:
The whole class calls out “We do, sir!” One courageous Christian student dissents, and battle is joined:
In the cartoons, the student shoots down all the pro-evolution evidences put forth by the increasingly-desperate professor. By the end the professor becomes convinced that evolution is wrong. He decides he can no longer teach it, and naively hopes that the university administration will tolerate his change of view:
It would be tedious to analyze the whole tract, panel by panel. The Primate’s Progress article does an excellent job critiquing many of these items, and discusses the psychology that lies behind such authorship. A briefer rebuttal of each panel in “Big Daddy” is given by Robert Stovold.
Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species
A core concern of “Big Daddy” is the plausibility of potential human ancestors. I’ll start by recapping the current state of fossil evidence, then discuss how the tract treats the subject.
A large number of fossils have been found which represent species with mixed ape and human characteristics. The earliest of these species are more ape-like, but with time, more-human features appear. The “Prominent Hominid Fossils” page on the TalkOrigins site provides an accessible treatment of this subject. Over 60 fossil finds are briefly discussed, usually with photos provided, representing about a dozen species of hominids. Also, the Wikipedia “List of human evolution fossils“ article has a table with dozens of entries, listed in order of age. Most of these entries have photos of an actual skull and links to further articles.
I’ll comment on some of the more significant of these ancient species:
Australopithecus afarensis – – This hominid lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Its brain size was about 380–430 cm3, roughly the same as modern chimpanzees. The Wikipedia article lists at least eight major fossil specimens of this species, so it is well-established. The most famous specimen is “Lucy”, a female partial skeleton found in 1974. It had a mixture of ape-like and human-like features: while features of Lucy’s arms and hands resemble those of apes, “in overall anatomy, the pelvis is far more human-like than ape-like. The iliac blades are short and wide, the sacrum is wide and positioned directly behind the hip joint, and evidence of a strong attachment for the knee extensors is clear.”
Young earth creationists sometimes try to dismiss the significance of Australopithecus afarensis fossils like Lucy by saying these were merely chimpanzees. This assertion is so straightforward to disprove that one professor developed a classroom exercise for biology teachers, which shows students the fossil evidence and let them draw their own conclusions. In the main figure of that exercise, chimpanzee bones and teeth are shown on the left, human bones are on the right, and “Lucy” remains are shown in the middle. Anatomical traits numbered, and numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Below is a portion of that figure dealing with just the lower jaw and teeth. It is obvious that some Lucy features are more closely resemble chimps, and some more closely resemble humans, just as expected for a species which is intermediate between humans and other primates.
Homo habilis – – At least five major fossil specimens are known. This species lived 1.5 to 2.8 million years ago. Its brain size of 550 cm3 to 687 cm3 was about 50% larger than that of the australopithecines, but still much less than modern humans (typically 1350 to 1450 cm³). This is one of the earliest species that used flaked stone tools.
Homo erectus – – The fossil evidence for Homo erectus (“Upright man”) extends from 1.9 million years ago to 70,000 years ago. Dozens of fossils have been found, on three continents. H. erectus starts to look fairly human, but with some significant differences. Large brow ridges and large teeth remain, and the brain size (750-1250 cm3) was generally smaller than modern man. Several groupings of fossils are subsumed under this species classification. There was a trend toward larger brain size and overall more resemblance to modern humans for some of the more recent Homo erectus fossils, indicating evolution within this species. These folks made fairly sophisticated stone hand-axes, and might have mastered the use of fire. Both Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have evolved from some branch of Homo erectus. Here is a Homo erectus skull dated about 1.6 million years ago, with a brain size of 850 cm3:
Homo heidelbergensis – – Because it shares features with both Homo erectus and modern humans, this species is sometimes viewed as a late, advanced Homo erectus or an archaic Homo sapiens. At any rate, it is the sort of intermediate fossil that evolutionary theory predicts. Individuals lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago.
Homo neanderthalensis – – The bones of about 400 individuals have been found ranging from about 30,000 to 300,000 years old. Despite many similarities, Neanderthals had stouter limbs, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin and a much larger nose than modern humans. Their typical brain volume (1600 cm3) was slightly higher than modern humans, and their skulls were more elongated, with a “bun” at the back (see figure below). Although they were very similar to Homo sapiens, DNA evidence shows they were a separate species which split off from the lineage of Homo sapiens around 400,000 years ago. There are indications that some interbreeding with modern humans took place much later in Europe or Asia.
Homo sapiens – – Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Evidence indicates that about 70,000 years ago some of them left Africa and eventually spread all over the world. There has been some evolution within this species over the millennia. Some of earliest Homo sapiens fossils such as Skhul/Qafzeh people displayed brow ridges. Somewhat later Homo sapiens, such as the Cro-Magnon people living in Europe 30,000-40,000 years ago, had more robust skeletons and larger brains on average than today’s humans.
Nick Matzke has plotted the brain size and age of many individual fossil representatives of the species discussed above. It can be seen that there are many fossils of increasingly human-like species over the past 3 million years, which is consistent with modern humans evolving from earlier primates.
Although not every little transition is filled in here, this is an impressive array of fossils which supports the notion that today’s humans evolved from earlier species. Some general principles for assessing fossil intermediates are given in Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils . (It is worth noting that even more powerful than the fossil evidence is the modern genetic evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates, as discussed in Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates. )
The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils
The relevant cartoons in “Big Daddy” are shown below:
I’ll discuss nine claims made in these cartoons:
(1) “Richard Leakey found a normal human skull under a layer of rock dated at 212 million years”
This statement is false. TalkOrigins explains:
What Richard Leakey actually found was an early, primitive skull in a layer of rock that dates a little more recently than 2 million years. The physical characteristics and date of the skull are quite consistent with human evolution.
- The skull in question, KNM-ER 1470, is not that of a normal human. Among other things, the skull capacity (750cc) is far below that of an average modern human and the face is much more robust. Nearly all anthropologists agree that this skull is either a very early member of the homo genus (Homo rudolfensis) or a member of another hominin genus entirely (e.g., Australopithecus or Kenyanthropus).
- The original dating of the rock at over 200 Ma was false due to contamination of the sample with older volcanic rock. Subsequent dating methods converged on a range of dates between about 2.9 and 1.8 Ma, and in the early 80s, the discrepancy was finally resolved at 1.8 Ma.
(2) “Lucy was only an unusual chimpanzee”, and “Nearly all experts agree that Lucy was just a 3 foot tall chimpanzee.” This is blatantly false. See discussion of Lucy above, under “Australopithecus afarensis”, showing many features closer to humans than to chimps.
(3) “HEIDELBERG MAN Built from a jaw bone that was conceded by many to be quite human”.
This statement implies that “Heidelberg Man” is a shaky concept (based only on a single jawbone), and that this was essentially a modern human. This is false.
While the first fossil of Homo heidelbergensis (“Heidelberg Man”) was indeed a jaw bone, found in 1907 near Heidelberg, Germany, other fossils of this species have been recovered in Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa. Many high-quality fossils have been found in caves in Spain. These fossils are not of modern humans. Below is shown a skull from one of those caves. It is closer to modern humans than to apes, but clearly has the brow ridges and low forehead of a pre-modern species. It is thus an example of the type of intermediate species predicted by evolution.
(4) “NEBRASKA MAN Scientifically built up from one tooth, later found to be the tooth of an extinct pig”.
An examiner of this tooth, Henry Osborn, believed it to be the tooth of an anthropoid ape, and published this conclusion in Science in 1922. Further work at the field site uncovered more bones, which showed that the original tooth came from an extinct peccary, not an ape. Science published a retraction in 1927.
Here we have an honest mistake in the 1920’s, which was caught and corrected within five years. This is an example of the self-correcting nature of real science: after a hypothesis is proposed, it must sustain testing by colleagues in open debate.
Chick’s description here is largely correct (except that the “build-up” was mainly journalistic, not “scientific”), but it is misleading to reach way back to a mistake (which was quickly corrected) nearly a hundred years ago as though that is representative of the anthropoid fossil record as a whole.
(5) “PILTDOWN MAN The jawbone turned out to belong to a modern ape”.
Robert Stovold comments:
Piltdown Man was a hoax exposed in the 1950’s. The modern ape’s jaw had been filed down to make it look more human-like, making the fraud harder to spot than it would otherwise have been… The hoax was exposed by scientists, showing how science can correct its errors.
One hoax cannot indicate the inferiority of conventional archaeology, because creationists have several hoaxes of their own, including Paluxy footprints [supposedly human and dinosaur tracks in the same rock layer], the Calaveras skull, Moab and Malachite Man, and others. More telling is how people deal with these hoaxes. When Piltdown was exposed, it stopped being used as evidence. The creationist hoaxes, however, can still be found cited as if they were real.
( 6) “PEKING MAN Supposedly 500,000 years old, but all the evidence has disappeared”.
This statement gives the impression that the notion of “Peking Man” is unsubstantiated. This, again, is a falsehood. The Wikipedia article notes that some 15 skulls and 11 jaws were found near Beijing (“Peking”) between 1929 and 1937 and were carefully studied. While the original fossils were lost as a result of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, we have detailed descriptions and casts which were made of these fossils, and we also still have some teeth which can be dated. So it is not true that “all evidence has disappeared.” Also, these fossils were representatives of Homo erectus, for which dozens of other fossils have been found, as noted above.
( 7) “NEANDERTHAL MAN At the Int’l Congress of Zoology (1958) Dr. A.J.E. Cave said his examination showed this famous skeleton found in France over 50 years ago is that of an old man who suffered from arthritis.”
The wording here (“this famous skeleton found in France”) implies that that particular skeleton is the key evidence for Neanderthals, and also implies that a scholar opined that this was the skeleton of a regular (modern) man who happened to be elderly and arthritic. These points are both false.
As noted above, fossils of some 400 Neanderthals have been found at sites across Europe, the Middle East and central Asia which establish them as a separate species from Homo sapiens, with distinctive physical features. None of that is negated if one of these skeletons showed signs of arthritis. Also, the scholar here (Dr. Cave) called attention to features like robust bones and musculature that differentiated it from today’s Homo sapiens.
(8) “NEW GUINEA MAN Dates way back to 1970. This species has been found in the region just north of Australia”.
This is just a deceitful distractor. No textbook or other scientific publication refers to “New Guinea Man” (whatever that is supposed to be) as a link in human evolution. It seems that some young earth creationist just made this up.
(9) “CRO-MAGNON MAN One of the earliest and best established fossils is at best equal in physique and brain capacity to modern man … so what’s the difference?”
This is yet another misleading distractor. This statement implies that scientists consider Cro-Magnons as a link in the evolution of modern humans, but scientists do no such thing. Since Cro-Magnons were fully modern humans, they cannot be considered as a stepping stone towards modern humans. That Cro-Magnons had “physique and brain capacity” equal to modern man has no bearing on the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens.
The tract put this statement in the mouth of the professor:
The tract attempted to discredit this declaration, but ironically it is the probably most valid science-related statement in the whole pamphlet. The fossils (which are far, far more than just a few fragments) do indeed display a progression from mixed ape/human features in Australopithecus afarensis, to gradually more human-like characteristics in Homo habilis and then Homo erectus (and other intermediate species as well), in full support of evolutionary expectations.
“Big Daddy”: Fruits, Roots, and Responses
The claims in the Chick tract regarding fossil evidence of human evolution were found to be deceitful, and are often outright falsehoods. It is not clear that Chick himself is educated enough to appreciate how wrong his pamphlet is. Young earth creationist popularizer Ken Hovind was involved in revising the tract in 1992. Hovind has read enough scientific literature that he should know better, but apparently he gleans from his reading only that which fits his worldview. Hovind’s creationist views are so extreme and irresponsible that other young earth creationist groups like Answers in Genesis have publically criticized him for continuing to use creationist arguments which have been discredited.
Whatever the inner thoughts of Jack Chick, his anti-evolution tract continues to be distributed by young earth creationists, and is considered by many to provide accurate information on human evolution. As an example, the Missing Links page of the Discovery News website directly or indirectly quotes a number of the statements in the Chick tract, such as the nonsense about “New Guinea Man”:
On the basis of such findings, that website assures its readers:
The fact is, the fossil record has not produced one piece of evidence that man has evolved from another species. Millions and millions of fossils have been unearthed, and not one of them substantiates the philosophy that man evolved from apes, monkeys, or any other animal. If the theory of evolution were true, surely by now at least one credible piece of fossil evidence would have been unearthed.
Responsible citizens, and especially science educators, are rightly dismayed by this sort of teaching which motivates students from religious backgrounds to reject large realms of modern science. (It’s fine to question evolution, but it is not fine to mindlessly reject the reasonable answers which scientists provide to questions about evolution).
As a Christian, I am further dismayed by the bad witness entailed here. Long ago, Augustine warned against this sort of thing. He noted that if Christians claim that the Bible teaches something about the physical world which unbelievers know to be incorrect, they will be disinclined to give the more crucial teachings of the Bible a fair hearing:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.
Many of my friends are young earth creationists, and I was in that camp myself at one time (see here for my story) , so I am acquainted with their motives. They are on the whole trying to do the right thing. The core problem is their conviction that the Genesis creation story (six-day creation, a few thousand years ago) must be taken as literally true. That conviction acts to filter out all the pro-evolution facts and reasoning presented by secular teachers. This willful blindness seems deplorable, but this sort of confirmation bias is common human behavior. Passionate political conservatives and liberals, for instance, can summarily dismiss any allegation that their side is in the wrong.
An ongoing stream of books, on-line articles, and videos published by young earth creationist organizations (and also by Intelligent Design proponents) serves to refute, in the minds of the faithful, the evidence presented by the “Darwinists”. The staff of those young earth organizations, such Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Creation Research Society bear the primary responsibility for the ongoing popularity of young earth creationism. Doing a Google search on a controversial evolutionary topic can uncover a breathtaking number of conservative Christian sites actively retailing the anti-evolution teachings from these organizations.
The secular sites and organizations which refute the misinformation of the anti-evolutionists are helpful in combatting this problem. I believe it is also important to address the theological error (i.e. the necessity of a literal interpretation of Genesis) that is at the root of young earth creationism. Believers should know that there are alternative, old-earth interpretations which are held by committed Christians, and which take into account the world-view of the people to whom the Scriptures were first given. Many of today’s Christians are not aware that the mainstream conservative Christian view on creation from about 1860 to 1960 was of an old earth. As discussed here, it was only after John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over the view of a discredited Seventh Day Adventist promoter of Flood geology and repackaged it in their 1961 volume, The Genesis Flood, that young earth creationism became fashionable in conservative Protestantism.
My approach to biblical interpretation which allows for honest interaction with modern science is described here. The New Testament treatment of the Fall is a controversial topic, which is discussed in Adam, the Fall, and Evolution. Another, more structured resource is this Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?”, which includes a number of links to further testimonies and articles.