Dmanisi Round 2: Fraud?

You no doubt still remember Friday’s post, in which we looked at an article by Brian Thomas and Frank Sherwin called Human-like Fossil Menagerie Stuns Scientists (screenshot) that horribly mangled the science around Dmanisi skull 5 to claim that it showed that all early Homo species were fully human in the modern sense, while Australopithecus and others were just apes. While they correctly noted that many species would have to be “wiped from the textbooks” – quoting from a Guardian article they couldn’t go too far wrong there – they went so far in their enthusiasm as to claim that human evolution itself should be similarly erased. For my part I suggested that the ICR may want some new science writers, as their article went over and above the call of duty when it comes to misrepresenting scientific results for creationist ends. Seriously: I could do much better.

Today, in a spectacular turnaround, Brian Thomas alone has published a second article on the same fossil called New ‘Human’ Fossil Borders on Fraud. Having previously argued that Dmanisi skull 5 was a problem for evolution, he now suggests (while not so much as acknowledging the previous article) that it’s really a fraud in some manner, perpetrated by researchers to prop up evolution. Thomas doesn’t seem to be claiming that the skull itself is a fraud, in the manner of Piltdown Man, but that it’s really just a Australopithecine that anthropologists are calling early Homo for their own ends.

On the earlier post Adam Benton suggested that Thomas and Sherwin had been just copying what other creationists had said about the find, and that he was interested in knowing who made their crucial mistakes first. I haven’t investigated this in detail, though I personally am a strong believer in the convergence of stupidity in such cases as this: it’s perfectly possible for such errors to have arisen independently of each other as a chance event. But it does seem that in this case Thomas is taking the lead from creationist John Mackay, as he partially quotes an email newsletter that he credits to Mackay which says on this subject in full that:

Because this skull is complete, and not broken into fragments, we can make good comparisons between its features and those of living human beings. The Dmanisi skull certainly has a small brain space. At 546 cc it is close to the average for a modern gorilla (about 500cc but can be up to 700 cc) and little above the estimated value for an Australopithecus of 450 cc. It is also less than half the modern human average of 1,350 cc. (The normal human range varies from around 1,000 cc to over 1,800 cc.)

The fact that the new skull has a small brain and lower face bones that “jutted out more like an Australopithecus” is further indication that it is also a dead Australopithecine (dead ape). It has other ape-like characteristics, including a lower jaw that protrudes in front of the upper jaw, and a dental arch that is more U shaped than the human parabola shape. Furthermore, it lacks the prominent nose bridge and chin that are distinctive features of a human skull. We also agree with the University of Zurich anthropologists comments about the problems with classifying “homo” fossils – the evidence is fragmentary and does not take into account natural variation within species. Most so-called “hominid”
fossils consist of incomplete skulls and other bones, which are nearly always broken into many fragments. Therefore, we have no doubt that many have been reconstructed to look like something sufficiently different from other finds to be given a new name, for no better reason than to give those who found them the kudos of having found another “human ancestor” to prop up the theory of evolution.

As you can see, Mackay has a number of points. First, the brain capacity is quite small compared to a modern human: Thomas quotes this part of the above, but adds in a footnoted caveat:

The tiny, fully-human skull Homo floresiensis also shared a small brain size, so this factor alone should not be the sole determiner of a fossil’s identity.

Thomas has previously declared the famous diminutive “hobbit,” H. floresiensis, to be human, so he isn’t allowed to rely on “this factor alone.”

Now, being from a member of the early Homo species H. erectus this skull is neither truly human nor non-human ape, but has features reminiscent of both. It is possible, therefore, to talk up the ape-like features and ignore the human ones to sell the notion that Dmanisi skull 5 is of an ape – there’s a lot of that going around here. Aside from the small cranium size Mackay points to the face morphology, the dental arch, and the lack of a “prominent nose bridge and chin.” Similarities with other early Homo skulls, on the other hand, are pre-emptively dismissed in the claim that the other fossils are fragmentary and reconstructed by anthropologists for their own ends.

You remember that graph from last time, right? Here it is again:

Dmanisi figure 4

Top right are humans, bottom left are the two species of chimpanzees, and the numbers in the middle are four of the Dmanisi skulls. Two of the features previously mentioned make up the axes – the face shape is horizontal, while brain size is vertical. Thomas is trying to say that the fossil “stands apart” from humans (a bit of a quote mine from the paper – they were talking about fossils), but it isn’t so different as to be from a different species to the other skulls found at the site – the whole point of the paper. There is also nowhere in the above diagram that you could reasonably and unambiguously draw the dividing line between “human” and “ape” that creationists like Thomas insist must exist.

Thomas lists 7 points in his article, going beyond issues raised by Mackay, but we’ve already seen a couple. Here are most of the rest:

2. It is too loosely linked with human postcranial material. The study author’s phrase “probably associated” cannot substitute for solid scientific evidence.

Previously Thomas expressed his distrust of the line in the paper which said:

Skull 5 is probably associated with the postcranial elements of an adult individual with nearly modern human body proportions.

This is cited to the supplementary information, which says:

S1. Relative stratigraphic location and context of the Dmanisi D4500 cranium
Figure S1 shows the stratigraphic position of the hominid fossils found in excavation Block B. […] Based on taphonomic and anatomical data, the most parsimonious association of these elements is with Skull 5: 1) their spatial vicinity to Skull 5 (maximum distance from D4500: 193cm); 2) their spatial distribution: postcranial elements are distributed along a principal axis with NW–SE orientation (see fig. S1, relative positions of H-C-S and F-T-P); cranium D4500 and mandible D2600 fit well into this distribution; 3) pristine preservation of both cranial and postcranial remains; 4) similarly prominent cranial and limb bone entheseal structures; 5) similar degree of arthritic alterations on TMJ and knee joint surfaces; 6) similar estimated age (mature adult).

Here’s the “solid evidence” you were looking for, Mr Thomas.

5. It links to other material that is not clearly identified or dated. The Science authors reported, “Furthermore, the remarkably large and robust dentognathic remains of early H. erectus from Java (Trinil/ Sangiran) exhibit close affinities with skull 5.” But the abstract describing the Java remains reads, “Temporal changes, within-group variation, and phylogenetic positions of the Early Pleistocene Javanese hominids remain unclear.”

Those are not at all contradictory statements.

6. The researchers’ approach to skull 5 may be similar to other fraudulent or dubious finds. Dutch physician Eugene Dubois, anxious to find proof of human evolution, uncovered the famous Java “man” fossils in 1891. It was not until 30 years later that Dubois revealed the truth behind the find and admitted he had been hiding fully human skulls from the same Javan site and that his Java man skull cap was actually that of a gibbon! Could today’s scientists be subject to the same eagerness to prove evolution, leading to skewed analyses? Because human origins research can be so subjective, one researcher of the history of paleoanthropology voiced a relevant caution: “We have only to recall the Piltdown adventure to see how easily susceptible researchers can be manipulated into believing that they have actually found just what they had been looking for.”

This is largely based on some Duane Gish material. The implication here is that all of modern palaeoanthropology is suspect due to the early-20th century Piltdown hoax, and the not-actually-a-hoax 19th-century “Java Man.”

Thomas concludes his article:

The assumption that skull 5 represents an ancient human permeates the original report and the news, but it ignores the seven basic observations that refute it.

Biblical creationists are not restricted to interpreting skull 5 according to evolution. Instead, they are free to exercise a healthy scientific skepticism of current interpretations. If Dmanisi skull 5 ends up not being human at all, then its titillating implications for human evolution fizzle. It then simply becomes an ape skull found in a long-collapsed animal den into which saber-toothed cats may have dragged both human and other prey.

Biblical creationists are apparently also not restricted to consistency, or the fair analysis of facts – but then that’s not new. Just last week this skull was a problem for evolution, but now Thomas has at least realised that this is not so. But instead of conceding the point he has abruptly about faced and started arguing from the other direction.

On the ICR’s facebook page, under the post for the earlier Dmanisi article, a reader added a link to my post asking what their response was (it’s still there at time of writing). The reply from another commenter, who seems to not have actually read the link, was that my piece was “apologist spin.” I wonder what they will make of this spin of a different kind.


Update: For those interested, creationist Todd Wood has blasted Thomas’ article for other reasons. To quote:

So despite the fact that Skull 5 is a HUGE benefit to creationist claims, confirming basic concepts of baraminology and post-Flood human populations, Brian Thomas is throwing it all out because he thinks it’s a fraud (which it’s not).  So I guess creationists who affirm the Skull 5 findings must be frauds too, following Thomas’s line of thought.

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16 thoughts on “Dmanisi Round 2: Fraud?

  1. As someone once quipped, for a Creationist an “intermediate form” just means another two gaps in the fossils to fill. The mental gymnastics required to deny evolution is astounding. DoubleThink and DuckSpeak seem to be the modus operandi of Brian Thomas and his ilk.

  2. That article makes me want to give Brian Thomas a slap, it’s so not even wrong. I don’t like to write about ICR stuff on EvoAnth as I think you cover it all really well; but this might need a post.

    • As in “Is this a skull or a hand” or “different groups of hominins”? In either case, not really. Each time I bring up a species I give them a brief description (often including a bit of their skull, because that’s everyone’s favourite bit) but never any major comparisons.

    • I was thinking more the latter – you could perhaps do a “how not to do it” post for Mr Thomas’ (and my) benefit.

  3. Just out of curiosity, why are the numbers in the middle of the graph 2,3,4 and 5? What happened to 1?
    ICR’s treatment of hominds reminds me of the deceptive way YECs treat Archaeopteryx. Those who want it to be 100% bird only emphasize the bird-like traits and downplay or ignore most reptilian ones. Those who want it to be 100% reptile claim the feather impressions are fake (which has been well refuted). In fact, it shows many intermediate and mixed features, and appears in an appropriate geologic time span (just like hominds do). But they keep whistling in the dark, pigeon-holing fossils as their misguided YE dogma requires, and making themselves look anything but scientific.

    • I believe skull 1 is too incomplete for the information needed for this graph to be determined – skull 5 is by far the most complete.

      Archaeopteryx is definitely another fossil that gets this treatment. In the ICR’s case they play up the bird angle, generally not mentioning the tail and the teeth. They go the other way however for a number of feathered dinosaurs, whist a handful like Microraptor are declared to be birds when the alternative is not considered a feasible option. It’s a mess.

    • Hi Glen,
      As eyeonicr notes, Skull 1 is too incomplete – the graph is plots cranial capacity against degree of prognathism and Skull 1 is only a skull-cap. The graph clearly shows a smooth gradation from the Australopithecine/Chimpanzee state towards Modern Humans – in otherwords it clearly shows evolution, at least in those two dimensions.

  4. You write: “But it does seem that in this case Thomas is taking the lead from creationist John Mackay, as he partially quotes an email newsletter that he credits to Mackay”

    I am utterly confused by this– where does Brian Thomas cite John Mackay, the cat exorcist? In his article I see no reference to Mackay.

    I am curious about this because John Mackay is the Australian who accused Carl Wieland’s then-future wife of witchcraft and necrophilia. She was then [c. 1987] Ken Ham’s secretary, and Mackay fired her at 7am before she came to work, told her she could not collect her personal belongings, changed all the locks on the building without consulting AIG’s board of directors, and ordered her co-workers to burn anything she had given them.

    Mackay told Henry Morris, the ICR and Ken Ham that he had exorcised from his dog and from a black cat some demons put there by Wieland’s wife. Some of her coworkers went into Ken Ham’s office to mutter magic words and exorcise her demons by splashing grape juice around Ken Ham’s office, according to documents released by Jonathan Sarfati here: http://www.creationontheweb.com/images/pdfs/mackay/information_package.pdf (see in particular pages 27 and 46). This became an issue again years later during the ugly AIG-CMI “divorce”, with both sides trading accusations of unbiblical behavior.

    In 1987 Ken Ham had grandly announced “I MUST TOTALLY DISSOCIATE MYSELF FROM JOHN [Mackay]. BECAUSE OF WHAT HE HAS DONE AND BECAUSE OF ASPECTS OF HIS THEOLOGY THAT COULD NOT BE ACCEPTED BY EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS, I CANNOT AFFORD ANYMORE TO BE CONNECTED KITH JOHN. MY CHRISTIAN REPUTATION IS IMPORTANT” [letter of 1987, cited in http://www.creationontheweb.com/images/pdfs/mackay/information_package.pdf, page 27; caps in original.] During the ugly AIG-CMI divorce, they made up. So I’m curious whenever creationists cite Mackay the cat exorcist as their authority on paleontology.

    • Well that was dumb of me – looks like I never took a screenshot of this one. I assure you there was a mention originally, but it seems to have been quickly edited out (even the internet archive didn’t catch it, and I don’t know how to work the google cache). If I’d realised he was so significant I would have paid more attention to it.

    • You burn, you learn. These people do this kind of thing all the time— you have to get screenshots. As for the original version of this ICR page, google cache didn’t catch it either. To use google cache, search for the old URL; each returned search item has a URL; next to that is a little blue triangle which, if you click it, produces a drop-down menu, first item “cached.”

      I’m curious about the internal politics. In ’87 Ken Ham said he would never associate with John Mackay again. But then around 2007 during the ugly AIG-CMI divorce, they associated again. Of course ICR and AIG are feuding. So if AIG is associated with Mackay, and ICR hates AIG, it’s surprising that ICR would cite the cat exorcist as their go-to guy for paleontology.

      I wonder what went through Thomas’ mind as he rewrote that page?

    • I’m dumb twice over, it seems: I just checked again and it turns out the screenshot (two versions even, though they are the same) were in a different folder. Here’s a link. He is merely referenced as “creation speaker John Mackay” and then quoted (see point three).

      I haven’t really noticed an AiG/ICR feud. I suspect the most likely explanation is that Thomas was as oblivious as I, but was alerted after publication and he – or somebody else – made a quick edit.

    • Brilliant, sir. They’re busted.

      At least Paul Braterman insists there is an AIG-ICR feud. I have not heard much about it except what Paul says. The CMI/ AIG/ Mackay feud, as you know, was much discussed in the newspapers.

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