Luskin, Science and Human Origins, and Dik-Dik Feces

The Discovery Institute recently published a book entitled Science and Human Origins that gives the ID take on human evolution. The book is authored by Douglas Axe, Anne Gauger (Both of the Biologic Institute), and Casey Luskin (from the Discovery Institute) From the book description at Amazon:

Evidence for a purely Darwinian account of human origins is supposed to be overwhelming. But is it? In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.

The book was reviewed in five parts by Paul McBride (starting here). This review created some defensive posts from the folks that created the book, but the dik-dik feces hit the fan when Carl Zimmer asked a simple question (be sure to read all four parts). Nick Matzke captured some of the fun over at The Panda’s Thumb. What caught my attention were the comments referring to the fossil record of human evolution, which prompted a defensive post by Luskin in which he promised to discuss the issue further in future posts. In the meantime he has excerpted several sections of his chapter in the book. In this post I will look at this excerpt. Note, I have ordered the book and will be reviewing Luskin’s chapter on paleoanthropology as soon as it has arrived and I have had a chance to read it. If this excerpt is any example, however, i will have to set my expectations pretty low.

Luskin starts things off by discussing White et al’s 2006 paper on Australopithecus anamensis:

What exactly was found? According to the technical paper reporting the find, the bold claims were based upon a few fragmented canine teeth which were said to be “intermediate” in size and shape. The technical description used in the paper was intermediate “masticatory robusticity.”60 If a couple of four-million-year-old teeth of “intermediate” size and shape make “the most complete chain of human evolution so far,” then the evidence for human evolution must indeed be quite modest.

Is this what the paper claimed? Well, no. Casey is playing fast and loose with the facts here. Here is what White et al described in their paper:

1. a left maxilla with fragmentary crowns of I2 and M2–M3, broken canine, premolar and molar roots, and adjacent palatal and lateral maxillary surface
2. a right maxilla contains the broken P4 root and damaged molar crowns
3. two associated dental rows
4. a metatarsal shaft without ends
5. an eroded distal foot phalanx
6. an intact intermediate hand phalanx
7. four vertebral fragments
8. an adult right femur shaft

So, did White et al base their claims on a few fragmented canines? No, they did not. True, a morphological and mathmatical analysis of the teeth (including premolars) did play a role the femur was just as important. Here is White et al on the femur:

One study predicted that when found, the Au. anamensis femur would be similar to that of Au. afarensis. Specimen ASI-VP-5/154 is approximately 75% of an adult right femur shaft preserving the base of the lesser trochanter and part of the neck–shaft junction. The shaft is well preserved except for its entire distal-most portion, lost just proximal to the popliteal surface. The shaft retains surface detail but is broken into slightly offset fragments that artificially accentuate the very slight (original) anteroposterior shaft curvature (in its original condition the shaft would have been much straighter). The shaft is remarkable for its thick cortex revealed throughout its length by the broken cross-sections.
A strongly roughened, .3-cm long (superioinferiorly), posterlaterally positioned attachment for m. gluteus maximus represents the most rugose part of the bone and contrasts sharply with the otherwise minimal relief of its shaft. There is no linea aspera, but only relatively blunt outlines of the adductor attachments both medially and laterally. At the shaft’s approximate midpoint, these two minimal ridges are separated by about 11 mm, a distance of considerable breadth given the probable original length of the bone. The Asa Issie femur is thereby similar to the ‘minimal linea aspera’ morphology of the posterolateral femur that characterizes the smaller A.L. 288-1 femur (Fig. 3). In this sense, the older Asa Issie specimen is on the presumably primitive end of the considerable range of variation in Au. afarensis with respect to this character. [Note: one reference omitted see below – afarensis]

Note that even though there is only 75% of the femur it still preserves diagnostic pieces of morphology that allow one to make statements about function and phylogeny. This concept escapes Luskin, for Luskin if a bone is fragmented it is a worthless blob. Note also that this femur allowed White et al to test a hypothesis published in a paper in 1999. The 1999 paper is by Carol Ward, Maeve Leakey, and Alan Walker and was published in Evolutionary Anthropology. In that paper, Ward et al survey what was known of the anatomy of Au. anamensis at that time (quite a bit actually). Concerning the femur they write:

There are, as yet, no femora known from A. anamensis, but in view of the fact that the A. anamensis tibia resembles those of A. afarensis in some detail, it would not be surprising to find that the femora of these two species were also similar.

So, to restate the obvious, based on a wide variety of fossil evidence an anagenetic relationship between Au. anamensis and Au. afarensis was hypothesized. White et al’s paper confirmed this hypothesis based on new evidence, subsequent papers, by Kimbel et al and Haile-Selassie, (see below for complete references) for example, have confirmed this relationship. Luskin mentions none of this, choosing instead to play fast and loose with quotes from White et al’s paper:

Accompanying the praise of this “missing link” were what might be called retroactive confessions of ignorance. In this common phenomenon, evolutionists acknowledge a severe gap in their evolutionary claims only after they think they have found evidence to plug that gap. Thus, the technical paper that reported these teeth admitted that, “Until recently, the origins of Australopithecus were obscured by a sparse fossil record,” 61 further stating: “The origin of Australopithecus, the genus widely interpreted as ancestral to Homo, is a central problem in human evolutionary studies. Australopithecus species differ markedly from extant African apes and candidate ancestral hominids such as Ardipithecus, Orrorin and Sahelanthropus.

Luskin has reversed the order of these statements. The part beginning “The origin of Australopithecus…” comes in the abstract while the part beginning “Until recently, the origins of Australopithecus… comes later in the paper, and the end of the sentence cites a paper by Asfaw examining the relationship between Au. afarensis and the robust australopithecines. Following which White et al list all the finds that have changed the the situation.

Then Luskin moves to Lucy and seems to be under the impression that Lucy is the only specimen of Au. afarensis available to us. Along the way he recapitulates material I have looked at previously here. He does add something new, which turns out to be a pretty good example of the intellectual dishonesty Luskin is known for. Here is where the dik-dik feces hits the fan. From Luskin:

There are some reasons for skepticism over whether the bones of “Lucy” represent a single individual, or even a single species. In a video playing at the exhibit, Lucy’s discoverer Donald Johanson admitted that when he found the fossil, the bones were scattered across a hillside, where he “looked up the slope and there were other bones sticking out.” Johanson’s written account explains further how the bones were not found together: “[S]ince the fossil wasn’t found in situ, it could have come from anywhere above. There’s no matrix on any of the bones we’ve found either. All you can do is make probability statements.”66

Sounds like Johanson is talking about Lucy at Hadar and is admitting that they just guessed where AL-288-1 came from right? Wrong! The 66 in the quote above is Luskin’s footnote which goes to:

[66.] Tim White, quoted in Donald Johanson and James Shreeve, Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor (New York: Early Man Publishing, 1989), 163.

So, it’s not Johanson talking about Lucy at Hadar, even though Luskin made it sound like it was. It’s Tim White talking about Lucy at Hadar, right? Wrong! If you go to page 163 of Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor you will find that it is Tim White talking about OH-62 at Olduvai Gorge!. The night previous to White’s statement Johanson, White, and Suwa had found the first few fragments of OH-62. The next day they returned to the area, which was also an area known as a dik-dik latrine, with a flock of scientists, students, and guests to begin a proper examination and excavation of the site. White is quizzing a couple of grad students on how to proceed when he makes that comment. So, rather than being a statement of ignorance about Lucy on the part of Johanson, it is just Luskin making stuff up it a blatant display of dishonest scholarship.

While on the subject of Lucy, Luskin seems to be under the impression the AL-288-1 is the only example of Au. afarensis we have. Kimbel and Delezene’s 2009 review paper catalogues several hundred specimens and more has been discovered since. Even without Lucy we have plenty of fossil material belonging to Au. afarensis.

The rest of Luskin’s post recycles material I have addressed here, here, and here.

Literature Cited

Haile-Selassie (2012) Phylogeny of early Australopithecus: new fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille (central Afar, Ethiopia). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2010) 365, 3323–3331 doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0064

Johanson and Shreeve (1989) Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor

Kimbel and Delezene (2009) “Lucy” redux: A review of research on Australopithecus afarensis. Yrbk of Physical Anthropology, Volume 140, Issue Supplement 49, pages 2–48. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21183

Kimbel et al (2006) Was Australopithecus anamensis ancestral to A. afarensis? A case of anagenesis in the hominin fossil record. Journal of Human Evolution 51 (2006) 134-152. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.02.003

Ward et al (1999) The new hominid species Australopithecus anamensis. Evolutionary Anthropology, Volume 7, Issue 6, pages 197–205. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1999)7:63.0.CO;2-T

White et al (2006) Asa Issie, Aramis and the origin of Australopithecus. Nature 440, 883-889. doi:10.1038/nature04629

8 Responses

  1. Luskin is frequently caught manipulating out-of-context quotes to fit his chosen narrative. As I’m sure you know, afarensis, yours is just another in a long list. I recently blogged about a similar instance of Luskin’s apparent dishonesty.

    Of course, Luskin always plays the “civility” card against charges of dishonesty, and it is difficult to know for certain whether he is guilty of intentional deception or sheer ignorance. Nevertheless, I have come to the point where I can no longer trust any quotation Luskin uses without reading the text in its original context. There comes a point where actions speak louder than words.

  2. After reading quite a bit of Luskin’s writings I have come to the conclusion that it is deliberate. I have seen him try to rationalize these kinds of practices far to often to believe it is simple human error. In this case, Luskin knows Johnson didn’t say that – his footnote proves it. Yet he did it anyway and if he read the book he would know what White was talking about. I don’t see how he could read the book and think it was about Lucy.

  3. The Discovery Institute recently published a book entitled Science and Human Origins that gives the ID take on human evolution.

    No, it does not give ID’s take on human evolution. It just questions the “science” behind the evolutionary story.

  4. Joe,
    This is a family blog and I have some younger readers, so there are a few ground rules.

    1. No cussing or foul language
    2. No insults

    Having said that, if Luskin’s excerpt of the Disco Institute questioning the “science” they probably shouldn’t have wasted their time a multiple trees because it is clear that Luskin knows didly squat about paleoanthropology. Based on the Johanson “quote” mentioned above as well as other such uses of quotes, I’d say he even knows less about academic standards of scholarship.

  5. From Ann Gauger in the book:

    “I personally am convinced that unguided, unintelligent processes can’t do the job…”

    That is ID’s take on evolution.

  6. The book is straight creationism. Chapter 5 is called “The Science of Adam and Eve.” What next– the hydrology of Noah’s Flood, or the neurology of Balaam’s Talking Donkey?

    Thanks Afarensis for uncovering still more of Luskin’s dishonesty. Great catch here.

    Many authors on the Internet have been running themselves ragged trying to compile all of Luskin’s lies and quote mines. It takes an army to compile them all.

    During the recent kerfuffle at Biologic Institute’s facebook page, when Carl Zimmer asked where their quotes came from, they banned me for being “uncivil.” I suspect this is because I accused them of dishonesty.

    For creationists, facts are ad hominem attacks. The facts show Luskin is a pathological liar.

  7. Afarensis,

    I would like to request your help in debunking another lie that Luskin has recently promulgated, which I believe to be an even more outrageous and easily debunked lie than the one above.

    Just recently, at ENV, Luskin wrote:

    Luskin: “An analysis in Nature of the ear canals of habilis similarly found that its skull is most similar to baboons and suggested the fossil “relied less on bipedal behaviour than the australopithecines.”96 “ [Luskin at ENV]

    His citation 96, of course, is to Spoor et al. 1994, on the inner ear (labyrinth) structure of hominid fossils. You have already blogged about Spoor et al. 1994, so you are familiar with that paper.

    Now I don’t recall the authors examining skulls as a whole, or saying that the skull of H. habilis is most similar to that of a baboon! The idea is insane. Even an amateur like myself can look at them and see it’s no baboon!

    Furthermore, your previous post on creationist misuse of Spoor et al. 1994 was good, but you missed some important points.

    I looked at that paper. As you correctly point out, they did not examine Lucy at all, but four other Australopithecines.

    But the use that creationists put that paper to is to say that H. habilis is not transitional. Now obviously, the contention that tiny differences in structure of inner ear morphology reveal bipedality has been challenged in the literature. But even if we make the assumption inner ear structure = bipedal function, the data in that paper actually support the idea of H. habilis as transitional.

    They examine only one true Homo Habilis sensu lato fossil [SK 847]. That fossil [SK 847] is in fact intermediate in inner ear structure between Australopithecines and H. erecuts, and it’s the only true H. habilis (sensu lato) that they examine.

    The creationist claims are all based on another fossil Stw 53. The creationists cite the authors writing:

    “…the similarity with the [ear] canal proportions in large [apes] suggests that [hominid fossil] Stw 53 relied less on bipedal behaviour than the australopithecines.”

    However, first, Stw 53 is not even Homo habilis. It’s now considered Homo gautengensis. Homo gautengensis is known to be a tool user. If creationists want to call Homo gautengensis “just an ape”, they’re acknowledging that animals have intelligence to design tools.

    Second, the size differences (from Stw 53 to an intermediate value) are numerically small compared to the variation within australopithecine fossils (the difference is about one standard deviation away from Australopithecus, I ran the numbers).

    I hope you will take a look at the numbers in that paper regarding the dimensions of Stw 53, and compare it to the standard deviation among Australopithecines for those dimensions. It’s one standard dev off– that’s not significant.

    Note that no one officially announced the discovery of the Higgs boson until they had a five sigma effect.

    Also take a look at the numbers for SK 847. It’s intermediate.

    If you want my numbers in more detail, ask.

  8. Spoor et al do not say the skull of Homo habilis is similar to the skull of a baboon. Luskin is parroting creationist sources and doesn’t know enough skeletal anatomy to realize how ludicrously us that statement is. Spoor et al do say that there are some similarities in canal proportions to the large cercopithecoids in the sample and say that a functional interpretation of that morphology would be speculative.
    Additional research on semicircular canal morphology in the years since indicates that a simple one to one link between the semicircular canals and locomotion does not exist, agility and body size also play a role. It should also be mentioned that those types of simple locomotion categories do not adequately represent how primates get about.

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