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.
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.