Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ancient skull found in Ethiopia

Ancient skull found in Ethiopia, BBC, 27 March 2006 Fossil hunters in Ethiopia have unearthed an ancient skull which they say could be a "missing link" between Homo erectus and modern people. The cranium was found in two pieces and is believed by its discoverers to be between 500,000 and 250,000 years old. The project's director, Dr Sileshi Semaw, said the fossilised specimen came from "a very significant time" in human evolutionary history. It was found at Gawis in Ethiopia's north-eastern Afar region. Stone tools and fossilised animals including two types of pigs, zebras, elephants, antelopes, cats, and rodents were also found at the site. The skull appeared "to be intermediate between the earlier Homo erectus and the later Homo sapiens," Sileshi Semaw, an Ethiopian research scientist at the Stone Age Institute at Indiana University, US, told a news conference in Addis Ababa. The palaeoanthropologist said most fossil hominids were found in pieces, but the near-complete skull provided a wealth of information. "[It] opens a window into an intriguing and important period in the development of modern humans," he explained. Little is known about the period during which African Homo erectus supposedly evolved into our own species Homo sapiens. The fossil record from Africa for this period was sparse and most of the specimens poorly dated, project archaeologists said. The face and cranium of the fossil are recognisably different from those of modern humans, but the specimen bears unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs to the modern human ancestral line, Dr Semaw said. Scientists conducting surveys in the Gawis River drainage basin found the skull in a small gully. ...
Scientists say fossilised skull from Ethiopia could be missing link, The Independent, 28 March 2006, Sophie Goodchild The face and cranium of the fossil are recognisably different from that of modern humans, but it offers unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs in our ancestry, Dr Semaw said. ...
Ancient skull 'a look at ancestors', ABC, March 25, 2006. The discovery pushed back the known date of mankind, suggesting that modern man and his older precursor existed side by side. "The Gawis cranium provides us with the opportunity to look at the face of one of our ancestors," he said. ... [Repeated on MSNBC. Quite frankly Semaw is misleading the public (presumably to boost the important of his discovery and thereby his own importance), by claiming this fossil "belongs to the modern human ancestral line" and was "one of our ancestors". While I accept universal common ancestry, it is simply impossible to truthfully say that any particular fossil is literally an ancestor or descendent of another fossil or living organism. Even on the ~billion-to-one chance that this fossil was literally an ancestor of all living humans, there is simply no way that could be determined.

It is also a false claim that "modern man and his older precursor existed side by side" since: 1) these skulls are dated between "500,000 and 250,000 years old"; and 2) fossils of anatomically modern humans (not "modern humans") found also in Ethiopia are dated "about 195,000 years old" (Age of ancient humans reassessed, BBC, 16 February, 2005).]

Could Ethiopian skull be missing link?, CNN, March 25, 2006 Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, who was not involved in the discovery said the fossil found in Ethiopia "might represent a population broadly ancestral to modern humans or it might prove to be one of several side branches which died out without living descendants." ...
Missing Link" Human Skull Found in Africa, Scientists Say, National Geographic, March 27, 2006 "There are at least one to three species of Homo recognized within that time period. But we don't know exactly what the relationship is of any of those to modern humans," said Eric Delson "This specimen doesn't seem to show any specific features like modern humans', but it's much more lightly built than Homo erectus," Delson added. [Full credit to Delson for stating the true position (note the two "mights" and the "broadly ancestral"). That this hominid fossil shared a common ancestor with modern humans is all that can be truthfully stated.

See the following quotes, all from Tom Bethell's "The Electric Windmill" (1988) which make this point (with my comments):

"In 1978, [Colin] Patterson wrote an introductory book called Evolution, which was published by the British Museum. A year later, he received a letter from Luther Sunderland, an electrical engineer in upstate New York and a creationist-activist asking why Evolution did not include any `direct illustrations of evolutionary transitions' Patterson's reply included the following: `You say I should at least "show a photo of the fossil from which each type of organism was derived."' I will lay it on the line-there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument. The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question. It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way of putting them to the test.' [Patterson C., Letter 10 April 1979, in Sunderland L.D., "Darwin's Enigma: Fossils and Other Problems," (1984), Master Book Publishers: El Cajon CA, Fourth edition, 1988, p.89]" (Bethell T., "Agnostic Evolutionists," in "The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography", Regnery Gateway: Washington DC, 1988, pp.192-193)

What I assume Patterson means (otherwise I disagree with him) is that "statements about [individual] ancestry and descent" are not able to be resolved by the fossil record. It impossible to tell from its fossils if the species Archaeopteryx is the literal "ancestor of all birds." But it is certainly possible to tell from the Archaeopteryx fossils (which in 1997 I saw a copy in San Francisco and then an original in London) shares a common ancestor with reptiles and birds.

"Colin Patterson, perhaps the leading transformed cladist, has enunciated what might be regarded as the cladists' battle cry: `The concept of ancestry is not accessible by the tools we have.' Patterson and his fellow Cladists argue that a common ancestor can only be hypothesized, not identified in the fossil record. A group of people can be brought together for a family reunion on the basis of birth documents, tombstone inscriptions, and parish records evidence of process, one might say. But in nature there are no parish records; there are only fossils. And a fossil, Patterson told me once, is a `mess on a rock.' Time, change, process, evolution-none of this, the Cladists argue, can be read from rocks. What can be discerned in nature, according to the cladists, are patterns-relationships between things, not between eras. There can be no absolute tracing back. There can be no certainty about parent-offspring links. Only inferences can be drawn from fossils. To the cladists, the science of evolution is in large part a matter of faith-faith different, but not all that different, from that of the creationists." (Bethell, 1988, p.196)

I agree with this, "that a common ancestor can only be hypothesized, not identified in the fossil record." But that is also true of the New Testament manuscripts (see below). We don't have the originals, only copies of copies, hundreds of years later. But by comparing them, scholars can group them into families based on changes made by scribes and then faithfully copies thereafter. A common ancestor manuscript of each of the thousands of manuscripts of the gospels of Matthew, Acts, Romans, Revelation, etc, can be hypothesised (but not actually identified) with a high degree of probability. But no one claims that there were separate creations of `basic kinds' of each of the NT books, e.g. multiple originals of the gospel of Matthew, etc.

"[Gareth] Nelson put the issue of evolution this way: In order to understand what we actually know, we must first look at what it is that the evolutionists claim to know for certain. He said that if you turn to a widely used college text like Alfred Romer's Vertebrate Paleontology, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1966 and now in its third edition, you will find such statements as `mammals evolved from reptiles,' and `birds are descended from reptiles.' (Very rarely, at least in the current literature, Will you find the claim that a given species evolved from another given species) The trouble with general statements like `mammals evolved from reptiles,' Nelson said, is that the `ancestral groups are taxonomic artifacts. These groups `do not have any characters that are unique,' he said. `They do not have defining characters, and therefore they are not real groups.' I asked Nelson to name some of these `unreal' groups. He replied: invertebrates, fishes, reptiles, apes. But this does not by any means exhaust the list of negatively defined groups. Statements imputing ancestry to such groups have no real meaning, he said." (Bethell, 1988, p.199)

Apart from the question-begging "evolved" (which I don't agree with, since common ancestry is not necessarily evolution), it seems to me this is true, but comparatively trivial, being merely verbal (the word "reptile" covers a group that has no unique characteristics but is defined by the absence of characteristics). The claim that "mammals descended from reptiles" could be correctly reworded to "mammals (and birds) share a common ancestor with reptiles" or "mammals, reptiles and birds all descended from a common ancestor."

But I have run out of time and this post has got too long. I will return to post and comment on remaining quotes on this topic from Bethell's book, when it comes up again.]

PS: I have added the following quote to a new section, of my "Why I (a Creationist) Accept Common Ancestry" page, "7. Common ancestry is inferred in the same way that the original common ancestor manuscript of each book of the New Testament is."

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

"The special character of the New Testament has given rise to special types of errors over and above those which are common in all manuscript copying. ... The study of these witnesses to the original text and the restoration by their means of the original text as nearly as it can be determined belong to the science of Textual Criticism. This is not, of course, a science which has to do specially with the New Testament or the Bible as a whole; it makes its contribution to all kinds of literature. In English literature it is a very necessary science in the study of the works of Shakespeare and the determining of his original text by the comparative study of the early editions. There are four principal stages in the work of the textual critic. First, he makes a study of such individual manuscripts as are available to him, correcting obvious slips and taking cognizance of what appear to be scribal alterations, whether accidental or deliberate. Next, he arranges these manuscripts in groups. Those which share some peculiar feature of spelling or wording, or some common error, are probably related to one another and have a common archetype. There are different ways of grouping manuscripts, according as their evident relation to one another is more or less close. Those whose mutual relation can be fairly precisely established are said to constitute a family. But a number of separate families, while they are diverse from one another in many respects, may have a sufficient number of significant features in common to suggest that they all represent one rather early textual type. In the third place, when the arranging of manuscripts in groups leads to the establishment of an archetype for each of the groups which have been distinguished, these archetypes themselves are subjected to comparative study in the hope that it may be possible to reconstruct a provisional archetype from which the archetypes themselves are descended; if this is achieved, then we have arrived as closely as we can to the autographic text." (Bruce F.F., "The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible," [1950], Pickering & Inglis: London, Third Edition, 1963, pp.178-179)

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