Evolution and the Origin of Races
by Eugenie C. Scott
The movement called "scientific creationism" promotes the idea that a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is scientifically demonstrable. Several organizations are attempting to have this view taught in American public school science classrooms. Rather than dealing with the general positions of the scientific creationists, I consider in this brochure some parts of the scientific creationist position dealing with the human fossil record and racial origins.
The Nature of Evolution
Anthropologists and other evolutionists accept the ample evidence that not only are plants and animals the products of evolution, but so also is Homo sapiens. By "evolution" we mean that living forms are ultimately related through shared ancestry and that they have changed from their ancestral forms. We do not assume that this change has necessarily led to greater complexity or "progress" -- merely that change has taken place. The earth is billions of years old, but life has not existed for this whole period. Some change takes place rapidly, some slowly, and evidence exists for both types of evolution. Although modern science no longer questions the evidence that change through time (evolution) has taken place, the rate and mechanisms are vigorously debated. New discoveries from both the fossil record and the laboratory require the rethinking and possible replacement of old ideas. This of course is the essence of vigorous science: the challenging and reworking of hypotheses and theories in the light of new data.
In contrast to much evidence from biology, scientific creationists hold that plants and animals have not changed through time, but were created separately and in essentially their present forms. This separate or special creation occurred during 6 days of 24 hours each. Scientific creationists differ as to how long ago this creation event took place, but most place it within 6,000-20,000 years ago. References at the end of this brochure discuss the lack of evidence for this view; it is clearly a theological, not a scientific, position. The science classroom is not an appropriate place for the teaching of theology.
The Human Fossil Record
Paleoanthropologists (who study ancient human remains) are never satisfied with the available fossils -- all want more. Nonetheless, even though more fossils are sought and details need to be worked out, the outline of human evolutionary history is fairly well understood. The human fossil record is discussed in detail in another NCSE brochure (Delson, "The Record of Human Evolution").
To the scientific creationists, however, there are no human fossils -- no evidence of forms intermediate between humans and other primates. To their way of thinking, all intermediate forms are either frauds/hoaxes perpetrated by deceitful evolutionists, or errors of interpretation; or the fossils can be dichotomized into "just apes" or "true man."
"Just Apes" and "True Man"
It is essential to the scientific creationist viewpoint that modern humans lived before or at the same time as more primitive humans, and so they proclaim a number of fossils to be "modern," even when the evidence refutes this view. Various fossils have been proclaimed modern, but they do not show the brain size or head and facial characteristics of modern humans. Others (such as the "Lucy" australopithecine) have been dismissed as "just apes," when in reality the bones used for locomotion are very different from those of apes and are much more similar to those of humans. Peking Man, discussed below, is also dismissed as an ape and proclaimed a fraud. However, fossils of this same type, called Homo erectus, are found at many sites and could not possibly be mistaken for apes in brain size, teeth, skulls, or bones of the body. Ironically, some scientific creationists consider Homo erectus a "true man." That creationists have trouble classifying intermediate forms only supports the status of these fossils as transitional.
Frauds and Hoaxes
Peking Man: A Fraud? The Peking Man remains were found in China between 1927 and 1937 by a number of Western and Chinese scientists. They were measured, described, and photographed. Accurate plaster casts and drawings were made. The Peking remains, now technically referred to as Homo erectus, are clearly human, but primitive. These people walked upright, made stone tools, and were hunters of large game animals. They differed from modern humans in that they had smaller brains, larger brow ridges, and large teeth. Both culturally as well as biologically, they bridge the gap between early and late human fossils.
Because of the outbreak of World War II, the physical remains themselves were lost. Casts, photographs, measurements, and other descriptive material survived the war, however, and can be studied today. Creationists claim that the original remains were those of monkeys, not people. The casts, photographs, measurements, and other data are all manufactured to look more human than were the actual remains, according to scientific creationists.
The creationist claim is untenable. First, Chinese scholars in recent years have excavated at the original Peking Man site, as well as in other places in China, and have uncovered new remains that look just like the older finds. In fact, two skull pieces found in 1966 fit exactly onto two found in the 1930s and all are clearly part of a single skull. Why should modern Chinese scientists go to considerable trouble to continue a fraud perpetrated 50 years ago by western scientists? We have no reason to doubt the recent Chinese finds are genuine. Furthermore, remains of Homo erectus have been found in many parts of Eurasia and Africa by scientists of many different nationalities. The scientific creationist claim that Peking man is a forgery is strange indeed.
A Real Fraud: Piltdown Man. The Piltdown fossil was discovered in 1912 and was hailed by almost all evolutionary scientists as a true "missing link." Most workers accepted it as genuine because it showed characteristics predicted by the accepted evolutionary scheme of the day: the main characteristic distinguishing humans from other animals was thought to be mankind’s intelligence. Scientists therefore presumed that the first humans would have large brains, as had the only known human fossils of the time. But scientists of the time did not conceive of the earliest humans as being quite different from their descendants in brain size. Piltdown had a large, modern skull and primitive dentition: just what the hypothesis predicted. As it turned out, Piltdown was a forgery composed of the skull of a human and the jaw of an orangutan, with teeth carefully filed, and the whole specimen stained to give it an appearance of antiquity. Whoever forged it knew well the expectations of the scientific community, thus ensuring the immediate acceptance of the hoax as genuine.
This preliminary acceptance was not shared by all scientists of the time. R.M.S. Taylor criticized the find as not having a human pattern of tooth wear, and some other critics expressed skepticism as well. But most scientists accepted Piltdown because it fulfilled the correct working hypothesis: that the earliest humans would be distinguished from apes by having large brains. In 1924, a series of fossils began to be discovered in South Africa that in time caused a replacement of the "big brain" model of evolution. These fossils, called Australopithecus had small, ape-sized brains, but human-like teeth -- exactly the opposite of Piltdown. As more of these two-legged early humans were discovered, a revision in the old view became necessary. Piltdown became more and more an anomaly, irreconcilable with increasingly abundant small-brained fossils. For a couple of decades Piltdown remained in limbo and was less and less frequently fit into evolutionary sequences -- or done so with a "?" or other indication of confusion. Finally the matter was laid to rest in 1953 by J.S. Weiner and colleagues, who demonstrated chemically that the skull and jaw belonged to two different creatures.
Piltdown is therefore an excellent example of how science works: the constant interplay between evidence and interpretation. The discovery of new fossils caused a revision in the way scientists looked at human evolution. Fitting Piltdown into the overall scheme became more and more difficult. There was only one Piltdown, and much contrary evidence. Eventually the idea of Piltdown as a human ancestor was abandoned. Another important point is that it was evolutionists themselves who exposed
Piltdown as a forgery, not scientific creationists, and in so doing demonstrated the self-correcting nature of science.
A Creationist Fraud? Scientists have explored the region around the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, since the 1930s, finding hundreds of dinosaur tracks. The geology and paleontology of the area are well known. Scientific creationists claim human tracks are found among the dinosaur tracks, which if true would challenge the interpretations of evolutionists. Contrary to television and comic book portrayals of "cave men" with dinosaur neighbors, humans evolved millions of years after dinosaurs became extinct, and remains of dinosaurs and humans are never found together.
What about the Paluxy River "man tracks," then? Some are, as one wag put it, carvings made by the hand of man, rather than his foot. This is admitted even by the creationists. Other tracks were made by feet, but not human feet: some alleged "man tracks" are modified or eroded dinosaur tracks. When a heavy animal withdraws its foot from soft mud, the mud will flow back along the sides of the track, making an oblong impression which can look superficially like a human footprint; some of the "man tracks" are formed in this fashion. A three-toed dinosaur places most of its weight on the center toe. In soft mud, the center toeprint will be deeper. In some of the "man tracks" presented in creationist books, faint traces of side toes can be seen, suggesting that these footprints are really just eroded dinosaur tracks. These tracks show claw marks at the "heel" of the "human" print, another indication that the track is a misinterpreted dinosaur track. Also, in at least one footprint sequence, dinosaur tracks and human footprints alternate. Either people evolved very quickly from dinosaurs and then back again, or the "human" tracks are just indistinct dinosaur tracks.
These dinosaur prints lack the anatomy of human footprints, although some creationists claim to be able to see "big toes," "balls," and "arches" in eroded holes in the river bank. If the whole bank is surveyed, however, it can be seen that there are hundreds of erosion holes and washed-out places. The irregular shapes are like inkblot tests: one can imagine all kinds of figures. The "human" prints imagined from these erosional features are carefully selected examples that are best described as wishful projections of the hopes of scientific creationists to see what they want to see.
Other evidence also argues against the alleged human prints being genuine. Dinosaurs and humans are not the same size and weight, but both kinds of tracks are sunk to the same depth in the mud. Stride length is influenced by leg length, so dinosaurs and humans should not have had the same stride length. Yet when the distances between footfalls are measured, the human prints are spaced the same distance apart as are the dinosaur prints. Also, the creationist explanation for how human and dinosaur tracks came to lie together seems farfetched. Supposedly, the creatures who made the tracks were fleeing the rising waters of Noah’s Flood. However, creationists recognize that there are several thousand feet of water-deposited sedimentary rock beneath the footprints, and several thousand feet on top of them. Somehow, the Flood must have deposited the base rock, receded long enough for the dinosaurs and humans to run across the valley (leaving their tracks), and then covered the tracks with a tidal wave, sealing -- but not destroying -- the tracks with a layer of mud. This procedure would have had to occur numerous times, because the dinosaur and human tracks appear in several different layers. Many questions remain unanswered by such a scenario.
Dinosaurs became extinct about 63 million years ago; after this they do not appear in the fossil record. For over 150 million years before this date, however, they are quite abundant. If humans and dinosaurs coexisted, one would think that human remains would be found in all or at least some of the hundreds of dinosaur fossil sites that have been explored. Or, dinosaur bones should be found in the hundreds of human and mammal fossil sites that formed during the last 63 million years. The fraudulent Paluxy "man tracks" are offered as proof of dinosaur and human coexistence, but they are not convincing, being rather misinterpreted dinosaur tracks, erosional features, or out-and-out carvings.
The Origin of Races
People whose ancestors have been living in the same geographic area for a long time tend to show similarities in visible characteristics such as size and shape, skin color, and hair form, and also invisible characteristics such as blood groups. Some of these groups are large, as were native Americans before Europeans and Africans came to the New World. Some are small, as are neo-Hawaiians (the descendants of Europeans, Japanese, and Polynesians). Large groups can be subdivided, depending on the level of comparison being made: sub-Saharan Africans are more similar to one another than they are to Europeans, but within this groups there is considerable diversity, such as that between the brown-skinned Bushman-Hottentot people and Bantu-speaking ("black") Africans.
Human "racial" diversity is a result of people in a geographic area intermarrying, being exposed to a number of biological processes, and adapting slowly to local environments. These biological processes include combining and recombining inherited genetic material over the generations, which produces offspring and descendants who differ from their parents and ancestors. The environment may favor certain characteristics, producing populations that are on the average taller, or darker, or more rugged than other populations from other geographic areas. Isolation and inbreeding of some populations may produce differences as well. These natural processes occur in humans as well as other animals and are the source of much study in biology and anthropology.
However, even if people in different geographic areas differ, it is impossible to draw sharp lines between racial groups. Few if any populations are cut off from others, and even if laws, culture, and/or religion prohibit it, mating does take place. Characteristics of people change gradually from one geographic area to another; where across Central Asia do European "whites" leave off and Asian "yellows" begin? Anthropologists see races as temporary, changing phenomena, products of genetic processes and natural selection. The races we see today are different from those of yesterday and will be different tomorrow.
Scientific creationists, however, have a simple, Scriptural explanation for human diversity. All people today are descendants of the sons of Noah. Shem founded the Hebrews; Japheth gave rise to the other Semites, Europeans, and the people of India (Indo-Europeans); and Ham was the father of the rest of humanity (the "colored" peoples, as one of the scientific creationist writers puts it.) The appearance of all these varieties of humanity occurred within a few thousand years after Noah’s Flood and before recorded history. The three brothers and their descendants moved to different parts of the world, where according to the scientific creationists, normal processes producing genetic variation produced the diversity of races and nations we see today. Both scientific creationists and evolutionists recognize the existence of these processes in producing human variation and agree on their importance. The two groups differ considerably on how these processes can operate, however.
Scientific evidence of either visible or invisible characteristics found in our species does not support the scientific creationist view of human variation. Although Homo sapiens has considerable genetic variation as a species, and each individual has many different genes, it is incomprehensible that differences as great as those seen between small, black, lightly built, kinky-haired Negritos of Melanesia and tall, copper, broad-shouldered, straight-haired Greenland Eskimos could occur in only a few thousand years. To derive this much diversity in such a short time from only three people -- and these as closely related as brothers -- would require rates of mutation, natural selection, and other processes of evolution so high as to most likely cause the extinction of the population.
Historical movements of people have been described for 4000-5000 years, far longer than the time claimed to exist after the recession of the Flood waters and the beginning of recorded history. Why are there no records of great changes in human variation during this period that are comparable to those described in scientific creationist literature? There are no accounts of people changing so rapidly during the past 5000 years. The evidence we have from history and archeology suggests the current major racial groups have been around for tens of thousands of years. The scientific creationist view cannot be reconciled with scientific fact.
A Word in Closing
Anthropologists study religions and world views of peoples in every part of the globe. We do so without declaring any one view "superior," "advanced," "better," or "truer." These latter judgments are matters of belief, not of science. It is not our function as anthropologists to evaluate whether the scientific creationist view is theologically superior to other religious views, whether Christian or non-Christian. However, as scientists we have a duty to speak out on the nature of science. Whatever its theological merits or demerits, scientific creationism is not scientifically valid and should not be accepted as an alternate scientific view. The American public needs to be aware of the difference between believing in scientific creationism (a theological explanation seeking empirical support) and accepting evolution as the best scientific explanation for a wealth of data from all natural sciences.
Eldredge, N. 1982. The Monkey Business, NY: Washington Square Press (Pocket Books).
Eve, R.A. & F.B. Harrold 1991. The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Futuyma, D.J. 1983. Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution. NY: Pantheon Books.
Frye, R.M. 1983. Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science. NY: Scribners.
Godfrey, L.R., Editor 1983. Scientists Confront Creationists. NY: W.W. Norton.