Crooked Dealer at Sima de los Huesos

Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5

A fossil from Sima de los Huesos.

While other groups of young-Earth creationists may hold differing opinions, the Institute for Creation Research insists that Neanderthals were humans too. This is all very well, but for reasons that are not at all clear they take this position to the extreme, minimising, misreporting, or denying any genetic and morphological evidence of differences between modern humans and their former contemporaries, and trampling over the more nuanced scientific view that Neanderthals were very closely related to us yet also a distinct group. Today Brian Thomas writes “Human Remains in Spain: Neandertal or Not?“, going so far that he ties himself up in knots.

A paper in Science – “Neandertal roots: Cranial and chronological evidence from Sima de los Huesos” (pdf), published on the 20th of June – investigated the accretion model of Neanderthal origins. The cliffs notes on this idea seems to be that the notable Neanderthal-specific features appeared at different times in a stepwise fashion, with those associated with the jaw for example developing before those related to the brain. The skeletons at the Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain, being around 430,000 years old according to this paper, lie in the middle of this transition and so provide a test case (who said you couldn’t test things in “historical science”?). The authors looked at the bones of 17 individuals and did indeed find Neanderthal faces with more archaic brains. They write:

In sum, the SH sample shows a constellation of derived Neandertal facial, dental, mandibular, and glenoid features that appears to represent a single functional masticatory complex. At the same time, the cranial vault lacks Neandertal specializations. This mosaic pattern fits the prediction of the accretion model for the first stage of Neandertal evolution

Note that where the fossils lack “Neandertal specializations” it doesn’t mean that they were like us instead. Modern humans have our own set of specialisations in this regard, which these skulls don’t posses. Instead comments like this imply that they haven’t changed these features since the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals several hundred thousand years earlier. This point seems entirely lost on Brian Thomas, who writes:

What did those ancient people look like? In short, the Science authors found that the human skulls showed a combination of Neandertal traits and modern traits. Were they true Neandertals? Not exactly, but neither were they not Neandertal. What does this do to evolution or creation concepts of Neandertal origins?

On that subject, the paper says:

Concerning the taxonomy of the SH fossils, we have long maintained that the SH hominins are members of the Neandertal lineage (16, 40). Based on the cranial evidence, we have proposed that the SH fossils, as well as the rest of the European early and middle Middle Pleistocene specimens, should be assigned to the species Homo heidelbergensis defined in a broad sense to include fossils with a generally more primitive morphology than the late Middle Pleistocene and Late Pleistocene Neandertals, even if they exhibit some derived Neandertal traits (19). However, the difficulty with identifying derived Neandertal features in the Mauer mandible, the type specimen of H. heidelbergensis, contrasts strongly with the presence of numerous Neandertal apomorphies in the SH mandibles (41). On this basis, we suggest that the SH sample be removed from the H. heidelbergensis hypodigm. An alternative view of H. heidelbergensis is as a Middle Pleistocene taxon that includes only fossils that lack any Neandertal apomorphies, and, in this restricted sense, the species is seen as the stem group for Neandertals and modern humans (7).

So they’re on the Neanderthal side of the split, and too far along to be still called Homo heidelbergensis, but later on they contend that they’re not a true H. neanderthalensis either. Such subtleties do not make it into Thomas’ piece.

He says:

But a creation scenario may better explain these results, and thus deserves to compete.

First, how could evolution’s mutation and selection gather all of the Neandertal-like traits that together make up a “functional masticatory complex?” Developing such coordinated sets of features may ask too much of any process that includes random mutation.

This is typical creationist “evolution couldn’t happen” nonsense, but it really is interesting to contrast this with Thomas’ alternative:

Why not instead suggest that the Neandertal mouth trait-suite was deployed via reshuffling of genetic information that was present in Noah and his family?

So a “process that includes random mutation” apparently couldn’t produce a “functional complex,” but shuffling – actual randomness, not the evolutionary processes that creationists pretend are random – wouldn’t break it up into pieces? That doesn’t make any sense, and neither does this:

If people evolved, most fossils should instead show evolutionary blunders, as accidental combinations of trait variations failed the many ages of fitness tests.

The straw-man version of evolution that Thomas is using today seems to most closely approximate saltationism, a century-dead model that involves large genetic leaps. But that still doesn’t explain why “most fossils” would be of these hopeful monsters, unless they were also somehow more likely to be preserved.

And then there’s this:

Second, a creation scenario best explains the general observation that “hominid” fossils are almost always readily binned—by evolutionists—into “human” and “non-human” categories. In other words, if people evolved, most fossils should show transitions between ape and man, not consistent examples of either one or the other kind.

If Thomas thinks that scientists are going around classifying fossils as “human” and “non-human” – and that this is in any way an easy task – then he really isn’t paying attention, even to this paper. The only people at that game are his fellow creationists, and they are doing famously poorly. To make this distinction is to draw an arbitrary line in a grey area, and declare that one side is white and the other black.

No such line truly exists.

12 thoughts on “Crooked Dealer at Sima de los Huesos

  1. Yeah, this latest piece by Thomas has even more logical errors and nonsensical comments than usual, which is quite a feat. Besides those you note, I could not believe he wrote: “..the Science authors found that the human skulls showed a combination of Neandertal traits and modern traits. Were they true Neandertals? Not exactly, but neither were they not Neandertal. What does this do to evolution or creation concepts of Neandertal origins?” First, as you note, he misunderstands what the authors write–they did not mean that any trait not identified as N. must mean “modern.” Second, even if the fossils showed combinations of N and modern features, it would just indicate new info on human evolution, and do nothing to refute evolution, while it would (like countless other hominid fossils) challenge YECism. Likewise, he claims near the end that evolutionist always pigeon hole hominid fossils as either “human” or “nonhuman,” which is very ironic, since it is YECs who routinely do this, while mainstream scientists recognize the many fossils that show intermediate features. I suspect even some ICR supporters are starting to shake their heads as the utter nonsense being cranked out by Thomas, Lloyd, J Morris, and others at ICR lately. A recent gem from Morris was an Acts and Facts piece explaining why “peer review” is important in science, even tho (which he never mentions) most ICR articles are not subject to anything like the rigorous peer review process of real scientific papers. ICR truly seems to be an “Alice and Wonderland” of pseudoscience, with their leaders sinking farther and farther down the rabbit hole.

    • I think that’s a Lisle article, but it’s pretty good all the same – especially in relation to some “Starlight and Time” letters-to-the-editor of TJ that I found the other day. I’m writing a post on it; we’ll see when it appears (my drafts folder is a graveyard, including a number of completed articles that never saw the light of day).

  2. These guys have so thoroughly discredited themselves that they are now their own best refutation. In any case, keep up the good work Peter.

  3. You’re right, the article on peer review was by Lisle. However, J Morris had an article in the same Acts and Facts issue, on whale evolution, In it he bashes “evolutionists” while making his usual sanctimonious comments about “ferreting out the truth,” which is rich, considering that the evidence for whale evolution is overwhelming, and Morris own handling of the evidence is superficial and misleading at best. Hans Thewissen, perhaps the word’s foremost expert on whale fossils, has spoken to our local paleo club several times, and even brought in some of the intermediate fossils. While oversimplifying and hastily dismissing dismissing this evidence, Morris does not even mention one of the most powerful lines of evidence for whale evolution: that some living whales are found with vestigial leg and sometimes even foot bones! Morris also strangely questions whether Basilosaurus had hind legs (even tho this is quite certain from the fossil evidence), then suggests that the legs were too tiny to have been useful for walking. HELLO! That’s exactly the point, they were no longer useful for walking (and perhaps nothing else either), but once would have been, which is why they are evidence of evolution. Although also not mentioned by Morris, a few other YECs have admitted that vestigial whale legs do seem to indicate that whales did once walk on land, but that this could be just a case of degeneration or “de-volution.” This is a lame and desperate argument, since these animals did not just loose legs, but acquired many new adaptations for habitual sea life (dorsal fins, echo-location, blow holes, etc)., that clearly involve new structures and evolution, not just degeneration. All the other articles in the same Acts and Facts issue are so fill of logical errors, special pleading, and neglect of contrary data that I can barely read them without getting nauseous. I don’t know how these guys sleep at night.

  4. Thomas making himself sound like an expert but seemingly saying very little apart from questioning the views of the scientists published in Science.

    I received an email reply from anti-YEC Christian Prof Tertius as follows (I will send him this link):
    “It’s so funny when asked what is the boundary that prevents microevolution from becoming macroevolution, YECs always say that “all of the information is stored in the genes and all the population can do is shuffle the cards in new ways.” Because they are ignorant of genetics, they don’t understand that the programming ISN”T all in there. The alleles are limited and evolution creates NEW alleles.
    I think educators need to stress that “continuous evolution” doesn’t mean “every moment” of the life of an organism is spent evolving. No, technically speaking, evolution happens mostly DURING REPRODUCTION. That is, only when the new decks of cards are being combined and shuffled is evolution happening. Otherwise, each individual is “fixed” in a statis….and can’t genetically adapt at all!
    It is amazing when they say “Evolution never adds information to the genome” when we observe HUGE additions of information when things like POLYPLOIDY happen…….which is common in plants. Agribusiness now does its own polyploidy exploitation because one can double trip and quintuple information in the genome in a single action. They even use to make a PERENNIAL plant out of an annual……..with huge advantages as a result!
    It explains why they don’t want to learn about evolution…….because they would lose the advantage of IGNORANCE. (One can’t feel guilty about lying when one doesn’t know anything.)
    One would think that when I tell them of entire industries based on evolution, they would decide to investigate. Do they really think all of these CEOs and stock exchanges are cooperating with a ruse…..millions in profits that don’t exist?? Are flu shots bogus?
    I happened to have PBS on TV minutes ago and they were talking about efforts to save the Northwest Salmon……and by setting up fish hatcheries, they screwed up evolution. So they are trying to return to letting evolution “do it right”.
    I would think that it takes a LOT of mental energy to keep telling oneself that it is ALL just illusion and deception. I mean……..I”m a very cynical person……but I’m not THAT cynical to think that ALL scientists and business executives plotted to carry out an elaborate ruse like this! Can you imagine? It is much like denying the Holocaust…..only much worse—-because not everybody was alive in 1945. But lots of people can see the evidence for evolution.
    But this is my theory: YECs are very ignorant and assume others are just as ignorant. They assume “You only affirm evolution because you believe Richard Dawkins et all.” They just can’t believe that we read books and review the evidence. They think that is beyond the possibility of the average person. So they assume we get duped by Dawkins by faith….just as they are duped by Ken Ham by faith. Seriously. They have no idea what we non-evolutionary-biologists bothered to learn.”

    I think YECs have decided that to deny that all available and possible genetic information was stored in genes right from ‘Creation Week’ (meaning that all a population can do is shuffle the cards in new ways) is to be ‘unbiblical’ by suggesting that creation did not stop on ‘day six’ but is ongoing (heresy heresy). Thus they presumably insist that speciation (only within ‘kinds’ as that is ‘biblical’ and no speciation beyond ‘kind boundaries’ has been directly observed since 1859) must involve simple reshuffling of genes/alleles and never any new ‘information’.

  5. Good points Ashley. I want to add that YECs don’t even realize how they have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that “no new information” is ever created. As mentioned before, since most traits in humans and other organisms involve many more than 2 alleles, we could not have started from only 2 individuals* –at least not without extensive evolution and new alleles being produced along the way. And YECs need this to happen in a few thousand years, requiring more rapid and dramatic evolution than even “evolutionists” allow. Sadly, many YECs seem to have no grasp of this serious problem for their view, and those that do just look the other way or tap dance around it. But what else is new?
    * For more explanation on why this is so, see:

    • It seems that Mitchell does better than Thomas – not that that would be hard. Her main problem seems to be a more fundamental misunderstanding of science: if certain “assumptions” lead to a specific prediction, and that prediction is fulfilled, then that’s evidence in favour of the assumptions being true – you don’t get to dismiss the whole thing because “it’s just based on assumptions.”

  6. Mitchell and other YECs are clearly infected with a high level of “confirmation bias”–emphasizing anything that appears to fit your preconceptions while neglecting or discounting all other evidence. A metaphorical picture of this phenomenon is “Morton’s Demon.” As many of you know, Glenn Morton was once a staunch YEC, until his work in the oli field convinced him that virtually everything ICR had told him about geology was wrong.

  7. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    So they assume we get duped by Dawkins by faith….just as they are duped by Ken Ham by faith.

    I have a hypothesis that creationists are incapable of understanding science. They understand religion very well and interpret any scientific activity into some religious activity.

    This is why they attack evolution as if it were an enemy religion, not a wrong scientific theory.
    This is why the claims that evolution is a religion – not just as an attempt to discredit it, but because they don’t understand that something other than religion exists. This is why they seem to think scientists are frantically conspiring to cover up the deficiencies in evolution, because they themselves are frantically conspiring to cover up the deficiencies in YECism, and they can’t conceive that there is another way to go about a contest of ideas.

  8. Ashley, I agree with everything you wrote, except for the idea that YECs understand religion very well. I don’t think they have a good understanding of many religion in general, or even the Biblical (let alone scientific) arguments against YECism. Even many theologians and fellow Christians object to their rigid and hyper-literal reading of Genesis. Ironically, while committing many dubious apologetic tactics, they often lecture others on the subject, as they do in the latest issue of Acts & Facts. I think you have a good insight on your last point, but also think there is a lot of “ends justify the means” reasoning going on–where many have convinced themselves that since YECism is true, almost anything is justified in promoting it, even when it conflicts with one of the central tenets of their faith (honesty).


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