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Scientists Conclude: Human Origins Research Is a Big Mess

Günter Bechly
Photo: Miocene ape Oreopithecus bambolii, by Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In several articles at Evolution News (Bechly 2017a-d, 2018a-b, 2019a-d) and podcasts at ID the Future (Bechly 2019a+c) I have described in recent years how human origins research is in a ridiculous state of constant major “rewritings” and refutations of allegedly indisputable textbook wisdom. This is mainly due to surprising new discoveries of hominin fossils. The situation goes far beyond the healthy normal progress of science. Instead, it suggests that something is wrong with the general narrative, which needs not just some rewriting here and there, but a major rethinking and paradigm change (Bechly 2017c).

A New Review Study

This critical view has again been confirmed with a new review study by Almécija et al. (2021) in the prestigious journal Science, which especially evaluates the role of Miocene apes for evolutionary scenarios of human origins and the reconstruction of the last common ancestor (LCA) of chimps and humans. The authors discuss the numerous conflicting hypotheses and elaborate on two very different approaches with incompatible conclusions: A bottom-up approach considers the chimp-human LCA as a quadrupedal knuckle-walking chimp-like creature, while an alternative top-down approach considers some strange bipedal and tree-climbing Miocene apes as model for this LCA.

The authors remark about the fossil record:

After 150 years of continuous discoveries, essential information about human origins remains elusive … Even worse, relatively complete fossil apes undisputedly assigned to early members of the gorilla and chimpanzee lineages remain to be found.

Considering the large number of fossils attributed to the human lineage, this striking absence of such fossils for the great African ape lineages is surprising and raises an obvious suspicion: Could it be that the greater fame associated with the discovery of human fossils plays a role in their (over)interpretation? This definitely seems to have been the case for Sahelanthropus (Bechly 2018a) among other examples.

The authors also realize the conflicting evidence in the data and the biased approaches of the scientists studying this evidence:

Such contrasting views about dryopiths stem from their incomplete and fragmentary fossil record coupled with pervasive homoplasy. However, because these factors are equal for all researchers, their different conclusions must also relate to analytical differences (e.g., taxonomy, sampling, polymorphic and continuous trait treatment). The root of the conflict is the remarkable differences in subjective definition and scoring of complex morphologies (e.g., “incipient supraorbital torus”). … [T]he phylogenetic and geographic origin of hominines remains contentious.

A Large Grain of Salt

They especially recognize large difficulties for inferring functional aspects of hominin locomotion from their fossil anatomy, which shows that the simplified textbook claims of “established bipedalism” are to be taken with a large grain of salt:

The decades-long feud regarding arboreality and bipedalism in A. afarensis exemplifies the complexity of inferring function from anatomy. … The mosaic nature of hominoid morphological evolution makes the functional reconstruction of fossil apes especially challenging, … Competing hypotheses about the locomotor behavior immediately preceding hominin bipedalism include terrestrial knuckle walking (15), palmigrade quadrupedalism (93), and different types of arboreal (orthograde) behaviors such as climbing and suspension (7), vertical climbing (139), or arboreal bipedalism and suspension (104, 140).

This panoply of alternative interpretations reveals that the truth is that they have no clue about the evolutionary path to human locomotion, which is the most distinctive feature of the human lineage apart from a trend towards ever larger brain cases.

Finally, the article concludes with this gem:

Humans are storytellers: Theories of human evolution often resemble “anthropogenic narratives” that borrow the structure of a hero’s journey to explain essential aspects such as the origins of erect posture, the freeing of the hands, or brain enlargement (166). Intriguingly, such narratives have not drastically changed since Darwin (166). We must be aware of confirmation biases and ad hoc interpretations by researchers aiming to confer their new fossil the starring role within a preexisting narrative. Evolutionary scenarios are appealing because they provide plausible explanations based on current knowledge, but unless grounded in testable hypotheses, they are no more than “just-so stories” (167).

Hardly any a ID proponent could have said it better. Fancy storytelling in the style of Kiplingesque “just-so stories” is indeed a hallmark of the soft science of modern evolutionary biology in general, and paleoanthropology in particular.

The press release from the American Museum of Natural History (2021) sums up the gist of this review article:

Most human origins stories are not compatible with known fossils … the number of species in the human family tree has exploded, but so has the level of dispute concerning early human evolution … However, many of these fossils show mosaic combinations of features that do not match expectations for ancient representatives of the modern ape and human lineages. As a consequence, there is no scientific consensus on the evolutionary role played by these fossil apes. … Overall, the researchers found that most stories of human origins are not compatible with the fossils that we have today.

“Just a Big Mess”

In this press release the senior author of the new study, Sergio Almécija, a senior research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, is also quoted as offering this remarkable admission: “When you look at the narrative for hominin origins, it’s just a big mess — there’s no consensus whatsoever.”

That is a fair assessment indeed, which admittedly does not mean that these evolutionary speculations are all wrong or futile enterprises. However, it at least shows that those bold hardcore Darwinists, who think they can dismiss and rebuke Darwin critics and ID proponents with some grandiose claims of allegedly settled science, are not just vastly overstating their case but indeed are ignorant of the current state of the scientific debate. The question of human origins is far from being resolved and non-mainstream options should be explored based exclusively on the available evidence, rather than being rejected due to world-view bias.

Literature:

  • Almécija S, Hammond AS, Thompson NE, Pugh KD, Moyà-Solà S, Alba DM 2021. Fossil apes and human evolution. Science 372(6542), eabb4363, 12 pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4363.
  • American Museum of Natural History 2021. Review: Most human origins stories are not compatible with known fossils. Phys.org May 6, 2021.
  • Bechly G 2017a. Fossil Footprints from Crete Deepen Controversy on Human Origins. Evolution NewsSept. 6, 2017.
  • Bechly G 2017b. Human Origins: Out of Africa, or Out of Germany? Evolution News October 23, 2017.
  • Bechly G 2017c. What, Another “Rewrite” of the Human Origins Story? How About a Rethink, Instead? Evolution News Nov. 20, 2017.
  • Bechly G 2017d. “It’s Official”: Textbook Wisdom on Human Origins Is Wrong! Evolution News Dec. 12, 2017.
  • Bechly G 2018a. For Paleoanthropology, Dawn of Another Annus Horribilis. Evolution News Jan. 29, 2018.
  • Bechly G 2018b. Rewriting Human Origins, Ongoing in East Asia. Evolution News Nov. 28, 2018.
  • Bechly G 2019a. Günter Bechly: Human Evolution’s Once ‘Indisputable Facts’ Now “Dead Theory”. ID the Future Episode 1204 (March 20, 2019).
  • Bechly G 2019b. New Fossil Human Species Thwarts Core Darwinian Predictions. Evolution News April 19, 2019.
  • Bechly G 2019c. Günter Bechly on the Latest Fossil Find Confusing the Human “Evolutionary Tree.” ID the Future Episode 1216 (May 1, 2019).
  • Bechly G 2019d. Apeman Waves Goodbye to Darwinian Gradualism. Evolution News Sept. 6, 2019.