The First Human: Ann Gibbons Responds

Speaking of the war on evolution…A few days ago Ed Brayton over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars emailed me a link to Luskin’s comments on The First Human a new book by Ann Gibbons. As I have mentioned before Luskin may know the words (Australopithecus, etc.) and concepts (fossil record, etc.) he doesn’t really seem to understand them very well. Or maybe he does but just redefines them so he can say they support whatever bit of creationist nonsense he cares to spew. This is a case in point. So I fisked Luskin’s comments here. The post came to the attention of Ann Gibbons and she was gracious enough to leave a long, interesting, comment. I am reprinting my post from Anthropology.Net here, along with Ann’s comments on it.

A friend pointed me towards this post by creationist Casey Luskin. Another in a long series bashing paleoanthropology. He links to a book review of The First Human – a new book by Ann Gibbons (on my wish list).
When a review starts:

According to a Gallup Poll taken in 2004, 45 percent of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.” More than 50 years after the Scopes trial, and 135 years after Darwin published “The Descent of Man,” lots of people still find it hard to believe in human evolution. But though the fuss over “intelligent design” and other anti-evolutionary arguments has made a lot of headlines lately, it barely surfaces in Ann Gibbons’ colorful and readable book about the search for human origins.

You know you may be in trouble…I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t speak to some of the specifics but I did have a few thoughts on the review and on Luskins remarks. Apparently, the book is about the search for the first hominin (it has a neat picture of Toumai on the cover, by the way). Along the way we get treated to interesting stories about the paleoanthropologists engaged in the hunt. This example comes from the review:

But White is also a no-nonsense type who likes to demonstrate the harsh reality of fossil-hunting for lecture audiences. He tells them that to re-create the conditions in the Afar rift of Ethiopia, he would have to heat the auditorium to 100 degrees, “blow in dust and sand, and bring in two dump trucks filled with scorpions, snakes, and malarial mosquitoes.” In the course of his research, White has contracted malaria, Gibbons reports, as well as giardia, dysentery, hepatitis and pneumonia.

We also learn about some of the infighting that goes on in paleoanthropology…But then we get to the horrible:

Nothing that old is in good shape, of course. We’re not talking about complete skeletons but about teeth, the occasional jawbone or skull or thighbone, sometimes on the verge of crumbling into chalky dust. But in every case, there has been just enough to convince researchers, and their peers who review their research, that a hominid, and not an ancestor of an ape, has been found. But the evidence has also provoked ongoing controversy.

But she also explains that consensus would be hard to reach even if the hominid scraps were gathered in one place. “Together, the fossils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least,” she notes. But too many pieces are still missing from the puzzle — including fossils of the ancestors of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas — to allow for a clear picture of the evolutionary lineage.

From this Luskins spins a wild tale and basically uses the infighting and alleged paucity of the human fossil record to dismiss paleoanthropology:

While the commitment of paleoanthropologists to their research is admirable, one can only wonder how these hardships would strengthen one’s psychological commitment to one’s favored view of human evolution. This is especially poignant when one considers that their hypotheses are based upon little evidence…

I have previously blogged about the fragmentary nature of the fossil record and what you can learn from bone fragments so I won’t repeat myself here (I also will be doing another post on what one can learn from bone fragments – though I’m not sure if I’ll publish it at ScienceBlogs or here). Suffice to say creationist arguements about the fossil record betray a vast ignorance of the subject. One interesting wrinkle, though is the claim (in the book review) that "…the fossils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least…" Gibbons may be referring specifically those fossils, such as Toumai, Kenyanthropus and Orrorin tugenensis, if so she may be correct. On the other hand, the amount of fossil material pertaining to human evolution discovered since 1990 is immense. Leaving aside White’s recent discovery, there is the Gona material, Clarke’s discovery of a nearly complete robust australopithecine, Lattimer’s discovery in early 2005 (as far as I know this has not been written up yet), continuing discoveries at Hadar proper, a number of discoveries of Miocene material – the list goes on and on and would take quite a while to complete. My last year in school was 1995 and between then and now a whole host of new discoveries had been announced – so many that I still haven’t gotten completely caught up and current in the field – making several of the textbooks I used almost obsolete. Granted, personality has an effect (Pickford did get arrested after all) and to a certain extent this may play a role in paleoanthropology, but I defy anyone to read say First hominoid from the Miocene of Ethiopia and the evolution of the catarrhine elbow or The Primate Cranial Base: Ontogeny, Function and Integration and find any trace of politics or personality. What Luskin and people of that ilk fail to understand is that paleoanthropology is a genuine science, once the fossils are found there is a lot of hard work and rigorous science that takes place in the lab…
Ann Gibbons’ response:

I am the author of The First Human. To set the record straight, Luskins’ comments make it clear that he either did not read the book or willfully quoted my section out of context. My intent was the opposite of what he wrote–to show that there finally IS data from the mysterious period 4 million to 7 million years ago.
Here is what I wrote:
“… for the sake of this thought experiment, if the researchers were able to gather every single tooth, jaw fragment, and finger or toe bone they had found that was 4 million years or older–and that had been published between 1994 and 2005–they would bring 144 fossils from Chad, Ethiopia, and Kenya to the summit.”
If they were really in a munificent mood and brought along unpublished fossils, the number would soar to include the bones of two partial skele¬tons from Ethiopia: the crushed partial skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus being analyzed by White and his colleagues and a new partial skeleton of an upright-walking hominid that was nearly 4 million years old and had been dis¬covered in February 2005 by Yohannes Haile-Selassie in Ethiopia. Two other teams working in Ethiopia, including those of Ethiopian Sileshi Semaw and Austrian Horst Seidler, have also found new fossils of Ardipithecus that should fill in some gaps for that species.
Even though most of the published fossils are teeth and jaw fragments, it is an impressive collection by any standard. Before 1992, only a half dozen fossils of hominids older than 4 million years were known. Together, the fos¬sils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least. This is the hard data (along with younger fossils) that the field of paleoanthropology is built upon. In a proposal for funding to the National Science Foundation in 2003, Berkeley paleoanthropologist Clark Howell and White wrote, “These dramatic discoveries promise to finally answer questions that have been a central focus of human origins studies for over a century: when, where, how, and why hominids originated from the last common ancestor they shared with chimpanzees.”

I am not surprised that Luskin spins the book so badly. What does surprise me (as I noted in the original post) is that the writer of the review, in the Mercury News, seemed to buy into the creationist mumbo-jumbo put out by the Discovery Institute (note to the publishers of The First Human I would be more than happy to review the book on my blog…just send me a review copy…).
I have bolded one section of Ann’s remarks because part of it came as a mild surprise. I had heard of the first two discoveries she mentioned but the third and fourth discoveries I am unfamiliar with and am eagerly awaiting more news…

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