The Case for a Creator: Meet Your Ancestors

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

In the final section of chapter 3, Strobel and Wells turn to the evidence that creationists loathe above all else: the fossil hominids that make up the human family tree. Human ancestors are not only a clear, obvious transition that even a layperson can understand, they directly demonstrate that we ourselves are a product of evolution, thus striking at the desire to be separate, special creations that almost certainly motivates nearly all creationists.

I strongly suspect that creationism as a movement would never have arisen if scientists hadn’t insisted on encompassing the human species in evolution’s family tree. Whatever the creationists say, they don’t really care about turtles or oak trees or earthworms. If scientists were willing to grant that human beings were special, unrelated to the rest of Earthlife, creationists would probably have been happy to concede that every other species came about from a process of mindless natural selection. But the evidence doesn’t support a separate origin for humanity, and the idea that we might be one of those animals – a relative of slime molds and toadstools, of centipedes and cyanobacteria – enrages creationists, who can’t bear to believe in a universe in which they are not the central and most important figure. In their quest to reclaim that sense of specialness, they would gladly obliterate the best theory ever devised to explain the true origins and diversity of life as we now see it.

And this leads us to the last section of Strobel’s interview with Jonathan Wells. We begin with Java Man, who, according to his discoverer Eugene Dubois as quoted by Strobel, “represents a stage in the development of modern man from a smaller-brained ancestor” [p.61]. Strobel points out – for once, correctly – that the find consisted of a skullcap, a femur and some teeth, but that the femur and the teeth are now believed to belong to different species.

Nevertheless, Strobel writes as though Java Man is an isolated find, a single fossil fragment drifting in a void of uncertainty. As usual, the creationists have ignored the abundant corroboratory evidence. Java Man is just one specimen of a well-known hominid species, Homo erectus, that is known from many other specimens – including Sangiran 17, a far more complete skull that was also found on Java – and even more spectacularly, the Turkana Boy, a nearly complete skeleton of an approximately 12-year-old erectus boy found near Lake Turkana in Kenya. All these specimens, including Java Man, share the characteristics that make them unlike modern humans: a sloping forehead, heavy brow ridges, large jaw with no chin, and a braincase much smaller than ours (between 750 and 1100 cc, depending on age, while most modern sapiens have brains about 1350 cc).

What do the creationists think Homo erectus is? We never find out Strobel’s viewpoint, since neither he nor Wells ever mentions these fossils. The closest he ever comes is asserting that Java Man is a “true member of the human family” [p.62]. That’s actually correct, although it doesn’t mean what Strobel thinks it does.

Aside from this brief discussion of Java Man, we hear nothing more about any specific fossil. Wells spends the rest of this brief section complaining about how artistic reconstruction of fossils is a speculative field [p.62] and quote-mining science writers who point out that we cannot reconstruct exact lines of descent from fossils – which is true, but Wells acts as if this means that every theory ever devised about human evolution is worthless. The lesson he takes away is not that we must be careful to only propose testable hypotheses supported by the evidence, but that “Darwinists assume the story of human life is an evolutionary one, and then they plug the fossils into a preexisting narrative where they seem to fit” [p.63], as if the fossils themselves had no meaning and could be used to support any conceivable hypothesis equally well.

I also want to highlight one particularly obnoxious bit of dishonesty. Here’s Wells quoting science writer Henry McGee:

“In fact, he said that all the fossil evidence for human evolution ‘between ten and five million years ago – several thousand generations of living creatures – can be fitted into a small box.’” [p.63]

It’s true that the oldest fossil evidence of human evolution – the species nearest the branch point of humans and other apes – is fragmentary. But by definition, those species would be the least humanlike. What Wells neglects to mention is that all the most important fossil evidence showing how humans became human is younger than five million years! Australopithecus afarensis, and the other australopithecines, are between 4 and 3 million years old. Homo habilis is between 2.5 and 1.5 million years old. Homo erectus is between 2 million and half a million years old. We have multiple fossils for most of these species and others, far more than would fit in a “small box”. Wells’ sleazy tactics would be like a defense attorney getting a witness to admit that he saw nothing unusual between 5 and 6 PM, and triumphantly concluding his client was innocent – even though the crime took place at 7.

Again, what stands out about this section is how little time Strobel and Wells spend on discussing the actual fossils of human ancestors. We never hear about Turkana Boy. We never hear about Lucy or Homo habilis. What were these creatures? How does the intelligent-design worldview explain them? This is a question Wells steers well clear of, other than repeating postmodernist claims that any explanation is just as good as any other.

Now I’ll do something that Strobel and Wells never do: show you the fossils so you can see them for yourself. Here’s a table, with pictures, which lists some of the most important hominid specimens and shows what creationists think about each of them.

As you can see from the table, although all the creationists are adamant that every fossil is either fully human or fully ape, they can’t agree which is which. (Java Man in particular is an almost even split, especially if you include Strobel and Wells’ claiming that it’s human.) This, of course, is exactly what we would expect if these fossils were genuinely transitional: being intermediate between two groups, they would resist unambiguous classification as one or the other. Ironically, the creationists themselves provide the best testimony of that.

Other posts in this series:

Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness
The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
Book Review: 1491
Weekend Coffee: CRISPR
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.