Ape or Human?

on November 7, 2009
Featured in News to Know

This week, American public broadcasting began a three-part series on human evolution titled Becoming Human.

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“Humans: without a doubt, the smartest animal on Earth. Yet we’re unmistakably tied to our ape origins.

So begins the first of a three-part TV series, “Becoming Human,” on PBS’s NOVA. The program purports to reveal details of the alleged transition from ape to human, with various scientists throwing out their pet ideas along the way.

Most of the content is typical: a look at how humans began to walk upright, how our brains expanded, and so forth. “What powered our evolution?,” the narrator asks. “Why did we become human?” Scientists give such reasons as that bipedalism would allow ape-men to “see over tall grass,” “pick fruits off of the low branches of trees,” or “cool more efficiently.” While those are all benefits to bipedalism, the scientists do not explain how the genetic information for bipedalism (the different skeletal structure, etc.) could have “accidentally” made its way into an apeman genome.

Much of the program focuses on “Selam,” the fossil of a supposed ape-man placed in the same taxonomic category as the widely known Lucy. (Creationists consider both representative of an extinct ape group.) “Like Lucy, she testifies to a crucial step in our evolution,” the narrator says, but reminding us that “[h]er [discovered] bones would fit in a shoebox.”

The program also considers the Toumaï skull, another fossil of what creationists believe was an ape. While the extent of that fossil is a skull, evolutionary paleontologists believe they can prove it walked upright by showing that the skull doesn’t fit on a quadrupedal ape skeleton. Of course, without a full skeleton for Toumaï, any reconstruction is speculative (as would be the case with a partial or disorganized skeleton). Thankfully, the narrator adds, “Some scientists still question whether Toumaï was really a biped.”

A problem the program faces up to is the lack of ape-men fossils with larger brains. “From Toumaï to Selam, both [allegedly] bipeds, brains stayed small,” the program states. “And they weren’t the only ones. Over millions of years there was a profusion of [alleged] upright walkers with complicated names and chimp-sized brains[.]” One of the scientists emphasizes, “They were all bipeds, big snouts, more or less chimp-sized brains.” Bipedal or not, that doesn’t sound like near-humans.

"We are creatures of climate change.”

Unfortunately for those interested in the supposed jump from these ape-men to humans, “the fossil record is virtually silent,” the program says. Instead of fossils, scientists find tools—sophisticated tools, which the scientists admit weren’t made by Lucy or other ape-men. Finally, near the “top” of the fossil record, paleontologists find Homo fossils—larger-brained and not so ape-like. Apparently creationist find the gaps far more problematic for ape-to-man evolution than do evolutionists (surprise, surprise).

Intriguingly (and perhaps provocatively), the program concludes that climate change was ultimately responsible for the evolution of humans. “It is a simple but revolutionary idea: human evolution is nature’s experiment with versatility,” the program says. “We’re not adapted to any one environment or climate, but to many; we are creatures of climate change.”

Surprisingly, “Becoming Human” is quite mundane overall: simply rehashing years-old “evidence” for human evolution. Creationists point out that most of the ape-man fossils are overwhelmingly more similar to living apes than any humans. Also, the state of most ape-man fossils is so imperfect and incomplete that all scientists can do is speculate—based on their presuppositions.

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