The October, 2015, issue of National Geographic tells the story that has taken both the scientific and non-scientific worlds by storm: the discovery of a possible human ancestor deep inside a cave in South Africa.
Or at least, that’s what many would have us believe. At this point, all the announcement and subsequent reaction tells us for sure is how hype-ridden science has become in the age of press releases and social media.
According to National Geographic, this new hominin, named Homo naledi, “shakes up our family tree.”
It’s an extraordinary claim, which, as Carl Sagan used to tell viewers, requires extraordinary evidence. So does the discovery of Homo naledi meet this requirement? There are reasons for doubt.
The claim that Homo naledi “shakes up our family tree” is based on what scientists call “morphology,” the study of animal forms and the age of the fossils.
Specifically, as Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute told me recently on the Eric Metaxas Show, the team claims to have found a species which combines characteristics of the ape-like australopithecines like the famous “Lucy”—which had small brains and an elongated trunk—with more human-like characteristics, such as its hands.
What’s more, the team dated the finds to between 2.5 and 3 million years ago.
Thus the media went on what Luskin has called a “crusade for Darwin,” which questions humanity’s unique and special status.
The problem is that, from the start, other scientists have raised questions about the team’s assertions.
One concern—the morphology. As Luskin pointed out, “Unlike humans, [Homo naledi’s] hands had long, curved fingers that were tailored for climbing.” As Lee Berger, the head of the team, told New Scientist, “it doesn’t look a lot like us.”
And that’s assuming there’s only one “it” in the cave. Luskin pointed out that Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has argued that “the bones represent not one species but at least two, because of the differing shapes of various skulls found in the cave.”
And as Wikipedia has already noted, some of the most common methods used to date fossils older than 50,000 years cannot be used in dating the findings in this cave. As Luskin put it, the claimed age “isn’t the result of an objective geological dating analysis. Rather, that date is driven strictly by evolutionary considerations.”
“At present,” Luskin says, “there’s no geological evidence that this species is from that time period and plugs some ‘gap’ in the fossil record. Claims that it is a human ancestor are driven by hype, not evidence.”
Unfortunately, the “hype” is all that virtually every American will ever know about the find. They’re unaware that the real science happens after the announcements and press releases. Berger’s peers will evaluate his claims and the evidence for them. It’s what’s known as “peer review.”
And if they find his evidence wanting, as will likely be the case, you probably won’t hear or read about it in the media.
I know this because in 2010, Berger made a similar claim about another find, Australopithecus sediba. In words that will sound eerily familiar, National Geographic’s headline read “New Studies Shake Up Human Family Tree.” Five years later, his scientific peers remain unconvinced, and National Geographic recycled the headline.
Given this tendency toward hype and the cultural authority attached to whatever is labeled as “science,” we need to understand how science is supposed to work. Otherwise, we’ll just keep barking up the wrong tree.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.