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Materialist Science Fiction on Human Evolution Promoted to Kids at Local Public Libraries

Casey Luskin

Last December, I wrote a post about a book titled Life on Other Planets, aimed at junior-high-aged kids. I found it at a local library. The book promoted materialist science fiction about the origin of life on earth.

More recently, the Seattle Public Library system had its annual booksale, and I loaded up. One now-former library book I bought was Journey from the Dawn: Life with the World’s First Family, by Donald Johansen and Kevin O’Farrell (Villard, 1990). I liked this book far better than Life on Other Planets, but instead of promoting materialist science fiction to kids on the origin of life, this one promoted science fiction to kids regarding paleoanthropology and the origin of humans.

The book starts by telling readers that it “presents a tantalizing glimpse into the ancient world of our ancestors” (pg. xi). So there’s no mistake: this may be science fiction, but it’s meant to be taken as realistic, plausible, and believable science fiction. It is intended to help inspire faith in the Darwinian story.

Johansen tells the story of how he famously discovered Lucy, a partial fossil skeleton identified as belonging to Australopithecus afarensis. Johansen admits that “we will never know what thoughts trickled through those small brains 3 million years ago or what emotions the creatures felt toward each other” (pg. xiii). This is an honest admission — but then the author proceeds in the rest of the book to speculate about exactly what thoughts and emotions trickled through Lucy’s brain, making a hard effort to to humanize Australopithecus.

Lucy Ponders the Stars?
The first page of the book’s story shows Lucy lying on her back at night, gazing up at the stars — much like a human would do, pondering the meaning of life. The book claims that higher questions about the stars “did not matter” (pg. 2) to Lucy, but the picture tells a much different story; Lucy is depicted in a humanlike and deeply pensive pose. In fact, pictures in the book tell more of the story than the words: every page has full-color illustrations covering nearly the entire page with just a couple of small paragraphs of text.

The First Midwife?
More human-like qualities emerge in the australopithecines when Lucy’s mate, “Lorcan,” puts his hand on her pregnant stomach and feels the baby kicking inside — much like a human would, of course. This leads to a scene where Lucy’s behavior becomes extremely human-like when she gives birth. Lucy walks up a ravine, using a walking stick again in a very human-like fashion, and her mother (who is named “Eba”) goes with her and functions as a midwife for the birth. Apparently all the australopithecines had names, and at this point Lucy “remembered Liber, the little male who had died the day after she had given birth to him a year before” (pg. 20). Eba helps deliver the baby precisely as a doctor or a midwife might do, holding her hands out to catch the newborn infant as Lucy pushes it out. In the book, the scene looks very, very human.

The infant is named “Lifi,” and Eba acts as any grandmother would, taking care of Lifi as her own.

Australopithecine Discoveries?
In many scenes, the australopithecines make discoveries. If they aren’t human exactly, the message is that this is how they started to become human. In one episode, some of the australopithecine males discover fire. A volcano is erupting and what looks like a bomb explodes nearby, lighting a stick on fire. The illustration shows them holding the burning stick in the air, marveling over it. On another occasion, a member of the band of australopithecines, this one named “Lonnog,” apparently discovers something in his reflection in the water:

Lonnog, chasing Ciar, slipped on the smooth clay and into a small puddle. Pulling himself up, he thought he saw something move in the water. Curious, he bent over and peered in. It was his own face looking back at him. Startled, he brought his palm down onto the reflection, shattering it, and watched it form again as the ripples died away. As he pulled back, his hand pressed deep into the mud. Removing it, Lonnog saw the print his hand had left slowly filling with water. He pressed his hand down again and withdrew it. He looked at the two prints for a moment as the water seeped in from the edges. He looked at his hand. For an instant, something sparked behind his eyes. He hooted softly and moved to put a third print between the first two. (pg. 40)

And that, my friends, is how we discovered the handprint.

Playing Like Human Children
Lonnog and some other australopithecines then invent skimboarding (on their feet, as human children often do at the beach), running along a wet muddy surface and skidding along. They also have a mudfight. Later, Lucy and her family discover the omelette as some lava heats a nest containing some eggs.

Eventually the family of australopithecines meets a troop of baboons. The illustration shows Lucy’s daughter Liban smiling, “as is usual when two groups like this meet, the younger children break the impasse, playing chasing games” (pg. 56). Apparently these groups play just like human children.

Liban and her new baboon friend then find some ostrich eggs, which results in Lonnog (Lucy’s son) learning to shake an egg to determine if it was fertilized, and then using a stone to break the egg to remove the fetus. Lucy’s daughter Liban learns from Lucy’s hand-gestures to ignore the “mirages” on the horizon on hot summer days. Later, “Lorcan knew that Lucy was particularly fond of the red roots from one particular plant,” so he picks them for her. It’s one big happy human-like family.

Science Fiction Extraordinaire: Where Are the Trees?
As I discussed at My Pilgrimage to Lucy’s Holy Relics Fails to Inspire Faith in Darwinism, Lucy’s status as a bipedal hominid is not only questioned among scientists, but there is some evidence that she knuckle-walked (like a chimp). Many agree that if she did walk upright, then she couldn’t run in an upright fashion like modern humans do. Additionally, palaeoanthropologists largely agree that she and her species spent much of their time in trees.

But in this children’s book, Johansen and O’Farrell largely dispense with the facts and portray Lucy and her family as a fully upright-walking ground-dwelling bipedal hominids. Throughout all of Lucy and her family’s adventures, the book portrays them as walking on the ground — upright, very much like modern humans. There’s even talk of them running around. There is never any mention of their spending time in trees, knuckle-walking, or having a mode of locomotion that is anything but modern-human-like. Simply put, many of the major non-human-like attributes of the australopithecine lifestyle seem to have been excised from this book so as to make Lucy appear more human-like than she actually was.

Of course the notion of non-human species that use communication, play around, and even experience certain emotions is uncontroversial. But the explicit and implicit message throughout the story is that these non-humans do those things in a most human-life manner. Seemingly, we are supposed to believe we might be witnessing what could very well be historical fact. The message is that we have these traits because we are descended from individuals like these.

I don’t object to students reading books like this — but at some point we have to ask, “What’s fact and what’s fiction?” At the very least, there’s a lot of pure speculation in the book. And when it comes to Lucy’s mode of locomotion, the book’s portrayal is downright counterfactual. The case for Lucy’s status as a human-like ape is overstated so much that this can only be called science fiction.

One hopes students reading this book will understand that at the end of the day, this is a fictional and fanciful story based upon a single, controversial skeleton. But the book’s co-author is the famed Donald Johansen, and so students will be inclined to trust the account as scientifically accurate. Unless students do their own outside research, they will never have a clue just how much imagination, speculation, and pure science fiction went into Johansen’s book.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, 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.



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