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My Pilgrimage to Lucy’s Holy Relics Fails to Inspire Faith in Darwinism

Pacific Science Center from Space Needle
Photo of Pacific Science Center by Ɱ via Wikipedia

A couple weeks ago, the Seattle Times printed an article titled, “Few lining up to see famous fossil at Pacific Science Center,” noting the poor public attendance of the exhibit showing the bones of the famous hominid fossil “Lucy” here in Seattle. Having studied about Lucy and other fossils supposedly documenting human evolution for many years, I was already planning on attending the exhibit. The whole experience seeing Lucy was enlightening, though probably not in the way its creators intended. In short, I left the exhibit struck by the paucity of actual hard evidence for human evolution from ape-like species, and the amount of subjective, contradictory interpretation that goes into fossil hominid reconstructions.

“Lucy” was discovered by paleoanthropologist Donald Johansen and his team in Ethiopia in 1974. The first half (or more!) of the exhibit was actually quite fascinating as it told the cultural and political history of the Ethiopian people and the Aksumite Empire. This history seemed well-documented by facts and evidence, replete with coins, weapons, religious artifacts, and art, which inform us about this rich and beautiful culture. And when the evidence was thin, the exhibit acknowledged that there are aspects of the Aksumite people where we know very little. This high standard of evidential documentation and appropriate tentativeness disappeared, however, as soon as we entered the section of the exhibit dealing with human evolution.

Lucy in the Dirt With Rock Rubble

The first thing my friends and I noticed when seeing Lucy’s bones was the incompleteness of her skeleton. Only 40% was found, and a significant percentage of the known bones are rib fragments. Very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered. (This seems to be common: many of the replica skulls of early hominids at the exhibit were clearly based upon extremely fragmentary pieces.) And yet, according to the exhibit, Lucy still represents the most complete pre-Homo known hominid skeleton to date.

Not only was I underwhelmed by the incompleteness of Lucy’s skeleton, but I was also struck by admissions at the exhibit that, in my mind, cast serious doubt on whether we know for certain that Lucy’s bones are from a single individual from a single species.

In a video playing at the exhibit, Johansen admitted that when he found Lucy, he “looked up the slope and there were other bones sticking out.” So this was not a case where the bones were found together forming a contiguous skeleton, but rather they were scattered across a hillside. At one point, Johansen even says that if there had been only one more rainstorm, Lucy’s bones might have been washed away, never to be seen again. This does not inspire confidence in the integrity of Lucy’s skeleton or its proper reconstruction: If the next rainstorm could wash Lucy away completely, what happened during the prior rainstorms to mix-up “Lucy” with who-knows-what? How do we know that “Lucy” doesn’t represent bones from multiple individuals or even multiple species?

The classic rejoinder to these questions claims that since none of Lucy’s bones are duplicated, that this shows she’s a single individual. But given the fragmentary nature of many of the bones and the highly incomplete nature of the skeleton, this argument seems fragile. Perhaps many of the bones are from one individual. But can we be sure that all are from one individual? Take Lucy’s femur or the pelvis, the most-prized parts of her skeleton. It’s a very difficult case to conclusively make that all “Lucy’s” bones are clearly from one individual of one species, and it requires some heavy assumptions.

Regardless, seeing the broken scraps of old Lucy laid out under the protective glass, with full skeletal and full-flesh reconstructions of Lucy abounding throughout the exhibit, I could not help but recall the words of the famed physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton, who in 1931 wisely counseled that “alleged restorations of ancient types of man have very little, if any, scientific value and are likely only to mislead the public.” (Up From The Ape, pg. 329.)

Forcing Old Bones Into New Interpretations

As noted, the most interesting part of Lucy’s skeleton is her half-pelvis and half-femur that were discovered, which are said to indicate that she walked upright. Thus, despite these nagging questions about the integrity of Lucy’s skeleton, the exhibit boldly states that “Lucy’s species walked bipedally, in much the same way as we do,” at one point saying Lucy’s skeleton “approximate[s] a chimpanzee-like head perched atop a human-like body.” Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the data and a poor reflection of the sharply contradicting opinions of many learned paleoanthropologists.

Lucy did have a small, chimp-like head, but as Mark Collard and Leslie Aiello observe in Nature, much of the rest of the body of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was also “quite ape-like” with respect to its “relatively long and curved fingers, relatively long arms, and funnel-shaped chest.” (Nature, Vol 404:339-340, 3-23-00.)

Collard and Aiello’s article also reports that we now have “good evidence” that A. afarensis (including Lucy) “‘knuckle-walked’, as chimps and gorillas do today.” Due to their evolutionary preconception that Lucy was a bipedal precursor to our genus Homo, they call this plain evidence that Lucy knuckled-walked “counterintuitive.” They suggest the possibility that “the locomotor repertoire of A. afarensis included forms of bipedalism, climbing and knuckle-walking.” This is a tenuous proposal, however, as knuckle-walking is obviously very different from bipedal locomotion. Collard and Aiello suggest avoiding the “counterintuitive” evidence that Lucy climbed and knuckle-walked by discarding it as unused “primitive retentions” from her ancestors.

By ignoring the skeletal evidence that Lucy didn’t walk “bipedally, in much the same way as we do,” I’m sure these Darwinists are pleased that Lucy can retain her prized position as our alleged bipedal ape-like ancestor. But science writer Jeremy Cherfas explains why this evolutionary holdover argument is weak:

Everything about her skeleton, from fingertips to toes, suggests that Lucy and her sisters retain several traits that would be very suitable for climbing in trees. Some of those same treeclimbing adaptations can still be detected, albeit much reduced, in much later hominids such as the 2-million-year old specimens of Homo habilis from the Olduvai gorge. It could be argued that Lucy’s arboreal adaptations are just a hangover from her treedwelling past, but animals do not often retain traits that they do not use, and to find those same features in specimens 2 million years later makes it most unlikely that they are remnants.

Jeremy Cherfas, “Trees have made man upright,” New Scientist, Vol. 97:172 (1983).

The only reason to discard Lucy’s clear anatomical evidence that she climbed trees and knuckle-walked is the Darwinist preference for her to be a fully-bipedal ape that was on her way toward evolving into a human being.

No Love for Lucy’s Status as a Transitional Hominid

Let’s assume for the moment that Lucy was a fully bipedal ape: should that necessarily qualify her as a human ancestor? Given that the much earlier fossil record from the Miocene yields bipedal apes that supposedly evolved upright-walking completely independently from the line that supposedly led to humans, it would seem that the answer is clearly no.

Moreover, even if Lucy did walk upright, there is good evidence that her mode of locomotion was in significant ways very different from humans. One book for sale at the Lucy exhibit — Origins Reconsidered, by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin — argues that A. afarensis and other australopithecines “almost certainly were not adapted to a striding gait and running, as humans are.” (pg. 195) It doesn’t seem very advantageous, and therefore likely, to use bipedality as your primary mode of locomotion if you can’t use it to quickly run away from predators. Lewin and Leakey then quote Leslie Aiello stating, “No doubt about it[,] Australopithecines are like apes, and the Homo group are like humans. Something major occurred when Homo evolved, and it wasn’t just in the brain.” (pg. 194, 196) Their quotation of Peter Schmid’s surprise at the non-human qualities of Lucy’s skeleton is striking:

“We were sent a cast of the Lucy skeleton, and I was asked to assemble it for display,” remembers Peter Schmid, a paleontologist at the Anthropological Institute in Zurich. … “When I started to put [Lucy’s] skeleton together, I expected it to look human,” Schmid continues. “Everyone had talked about Lucy as being very modern, very human, so I was surprised by what I saw.” … “What you see in Australopithecus is not what you’d want in an efficient bipedal running animal,” says Peter. “The shoulders were high, and, combined with the funnel-shaped chest, would have made arm swinging very improbable in the human sense. It wouldn’t have been able to lift its thorax for the kind of deep breathing that we do when we run. The abdomen was potbellied, and there was no waste, so that would have restricted the flexibility that’s essential to human running.”

Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human, pgs. 193-194 (Anchor, 1993).

One article in the Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution from 2000 likewise emphasizes the anatomical differences between members of the genus Australopithecus and humans, stating, “We, like many others, interpret the anatomical evidence to show that early H. sapiens was significantly and dramatically different from earlier and penecontemporary australopithecines in virtually every element of its skeleton and every remnant of its behavior.” (Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol. 17:2-22.) The article states that our genus Homo thus arose via an abrupt “genetic revolution,” where “no australopithecine species is obviously transitional.”

Lucy’s Still Got Explaining to Do

Given that some leading experts would probably sharply disagree with some of the claims about Lucy at the Pacific Science Center’s exhibit, it seems appropriate to quote an article in the Journal of Human Evolution which concluded that the lack of fossil data about Lucy necessarily prevents paleoanthropologists from making firm conclusions about her mode of locomotion and bipedal stature:

The conclusion is that Lucy’s erect posture is unlike that seen in modern humans and is still a mystery. Not enough fossil data are yet available to make a final judgement on the nature of her erect posture. … Prevailing views of Lucy’s posture are almost impossible to reconcile. When one looks at the reconstruction proposed by Lovejoy and by Weaver, one gets the impression that her fleshed reconstruction would be a perfectly modern biped. But when one looks at the preliminary reconstruction recently shown at the Smithsonian, one gets the impression of a chimpanzee awkwardly attempting to stand on its hindlimbs and about to fall on its front limbs. … To resolve such differences, more anatomical (fossil) evidence is needed. The available data at present are open to widely different interpretations. Until more fossils are recovered and until we have a better interpretation of human and non-human primate positional behavior, there is likely to be a continuing debate on the subject of Lucy’s posture and locomotion. Lucy’s erect posture still is a mystery.

M. Maurice Abitbol, “Lateral view of Australopithecus afarensis: primitive aspects of bipedal positional behavior in the earliest hominids,” Journal of Human Evolution, Vol. 28:211-229 (1995) (internal citations removed).

A 1981 commentary in Science captured this precise problem with the insufficiency of the data regarding hominid fossils: “The field of paleoanthropology naturally excites interest because of our own interest in origins. And, because conclusions of emotional significance to many must be drawn from extremely paltry evidence, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the scientific disputes raging in the field.” This quote seems highly applicable to Lucy’s exhibit at the Pacific Science Center, as we see bold claims based upon very sparse evidence from a discipline where paleoanthropologists are discarding evidence which doesn’t fit their vision of human evolution.

Perhaps Abitbol correctly describes how scientists should be promoting Lucy to the public: “The available data at present are open to widely different interpretations. … Lucy’s erect posture still is a mystery.” In fact, I think that if Lucy’s exhibit discussed the controversy over Lucy’s status as a bipedal hominid and a transitional form, she might be attracting far more attendees. It seems that the more ardently the Darwinists promote evolution to the public, the more the public is losing interest.

Conclusion: Go See Lucy Anyway

No doubt many an eager Darwinist has attended the Lucy exhibit hoping to find confirmation of their views. Instead, what they found was a small coffin-like case holding scraps of ambiguous bones.

Whether you’re a true believer in Lucy’s status as a transitional form, or an apostate who suspects that her story and reconstruction could be largely myth, the Lucy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center is worth visiting (after all, even atheists visit holy relics due to their literary and cultural significance). So go see the exhibit, keep an open mind, and come to your own conclusions. Just be forewarned that regardless of what you believe, you’re likely to walk away from Lucy feeling underwhelmed at the incompleteness of the fossil and the lack of clarity in the case for human evolution.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.