Wednesday, August 8, 2007

New Fossil Finds Confirm what we already knew: Reporters foul up the science again!

New fossils have been found suggesting that Homo erectus and Homo habilis, both thought to be ancestors of modern humans, coexisted for about 1.5 million years. This is interesting news, but it does not carry the implications claimed by Seth Borenstein claims in his AP story on the find. Instead, he inadvertently promotes some common misconceptions about evolutionary theory:

"Surprising research based on two African fossils suggests our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, challenging what had been common thinking on how early humans further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man."

Far from being surprising, this is old news to scientists, who have long known that the prefect progression shown in common illustrations was overly simplistic. Dead end lineages have long been known, such as the Robustus line, that branched off the line that led to us and died off. The ladder-of-progress symbol of constantly improving evolution is an unfortunate side effect of the belief by some that evolution was a guided process with man as the intended end product. Fortunately a scientist is interviewed and sets the record straight:

"That old evolutionary cartoon, while popular with the general public, is just too simple and keeps getting revised, said Bill Kimbel, who praised the latest findings. He is science director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and wasn't part of the Leakey team."

But Borenstein doesn't stop there, and promotes another fallacy of evolution with a quote from study co-author Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London:

"It's the equivalent of finding that your grandmother and great-grandmother were sisters rather than mother-daughter"

Um, no it isn't. This is a variant of the "if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys" nonsense. After all, we descended both from our grandmothers and our great grandmothers, so it wouldn't change anything to find they coexisted for a time. I would hope this quote was either somehow taken out of context, or there was some addition information missing from this report that would make it make more sense, because as it stands it looks like a gross misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.

It is no wonder evolutionary theory is so poorly understood by the general public when this is how science is reported.

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