Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) continues to be a thorn in the side of the creationist paradigm. Creationists go to great lengths to discredit the discovery and its implications, which is not a problem as far as it goes, but the total lack of any kind of intellectual honesty used in doing so just emphasizes how much of a scientific and philosophical corner these people are backed into. I mentioned in a previous post how infuriating it is to constantly correct the distortions, misinterpretation, quote mining and outright falsehoods regurgitated ad nausem by creationist proponents. It’s not that it’s difficult. Creationists rely on an audience that refuses to look critically at the information they are being presented and ask some simple questions: Is this true? Did the author really mean that? What evidence is not being presented? Most of us who have any claim to intellectual thought processes actually work at understanding an issue. We spend the (often considerable) time reading, reasearching and thinking about the issue. That includes reading creationist literature (we’re often accused of not reading the “other side” of the issue, but I can tell that’s one reason I don’t a lot of creationist argument in my Anthropology class – students learn really quickly I know the creationist literature much better they do!). I see no evidence that creationists actually make an honest effort to look at the information being presented. Instead, Creationist arguments have to be made by pimping the scientific data for the creationist cause: misquoting exports, cherry-picking information, ignoring information that doesn’t fit, using out-of-date information, and frequently just making stuff up!
While infuriating, the consolation here is that creationists offer us those “teachable moments” where we can engage the public, students, and others with the honest information in a “heads-up” sort of fashion: “Look, you’re going to read or hear X about Lucy…here’s why it’s not true….” The reality is that I teach a lot of creationism and intelligent design in the classroom. I don’t use the terms per se, but you can’t believe how many times I say something like, “Some people will say (or you’ll read on blogs or hear in the media) that Lucy was just an ape….let’s take a closer look at that and see if those sources are accurate”.
So, as an example, let’s consider the circumstances behind Lucy’s pelvis (hip) reconstruction. The following comments from a creationist website I recently visited, although this is not an original idea and the information offered is nothing different from that you would see on any creationist website:
When Lucy’s hip clearly showed that she didn’t walk upright, that like a modern chimp, she may have walked upright for a few steps and only awkwardly in those cases, Darwinists simply took a power tool to her hipbone to reshape it into an architecture that might work.
There are several implications being suggested here: First, that the discoverer’s didn’t think Lucy student upright originally and then reconstructed her hip to make it appear like she did; second, that the reconstruction changed the nature of the original and was done fraudulently; third, that the only evidence for Lucy’s bipedalism comes from her hip; and finally, that the original bone was actually altered, thereby destroying any evidence of its original orientation. The creationist’s evidence for this comes from the Nova series, In Search of Human Origins (Part 1), hosted by Don Johanson (the discoverer of Lucy). This is a wonderful series, although a bit dated now, and one that I show in my class frequently. PBS also has a wonderful Teacher’s Guide to this series and others. The creationist website actually shows the video clip from the section where Don Johanson and Owen Lovejoy talk about the hip reconstruction, but let’s look at the actual transcript instead:
DON JOHANSON: … The knee looked human, but the shape of her hip didn’t. Superficially, her hip resembled a chimpanzee’s, which meant that Lucy couldn’t possibly have walked like a modern human. But Lovejoy noticed something odd about the way the bones had been fossilized.
OWEN LOVEJOY: When I put the two parts of the pelvis together that we had, this part of the pelvis has pressed so hard and so completely into this one, that it caused it to be broken into a series of individual pieces, which were then fused together in later fossilization.
DON JOHANSON: After Lucy died, some of her bones lying in the mud must have been crushed or broken, perhaps by animals browsing at the lake shore.
OWEN LOVEJOY: This has caused the two bones in fact to fit together so well that they’re in an anatomically impossible position.
DON JOHANSON: The perfect fit was an allusion that made Lucy’s hip bones seems to flair out like a chimps. But all was not lost. Lovejoy decided he could restore the pelvis to its natural shape. He didn’t want to tamper with the original, so he made a copy in plaster. He cut the damaged pieces out and put them back together the way they were before Lucy died. It was a tricky job, but after taking the kink out of the pelvis, it all fit together perfectly, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. As a result, the angle of the hip looks nothing like a chimps, but a lot like ours. Anatomically at least, Lucy could stand like a human. The case for our earliest ancestor walking upright was growing stronger, and Lucy wasn’t the only evidence…
For someone with a conspiratorial mind, I suppose those conversations would lead you to believe the creationist is correct, and in another blog post, the creationist repeats the same accusation:
But, all hope was not lost, to paraphrase the documented fraud that soon occurred. Ladies and gentlemen, beloved readers, Darwinists simply took a power tool to her hipbone to reshape it into a geometric architecture that might work. Instead of the actual evidence, the real bone, the altered bone was then used as “proof” that Lucy walked upright after it had been ground down and cut to pieces that more closely fit the Darwinist preconceived bias and world view.
There is an additional accusation implied with this second creationist comment: that the In Search of Human Origins series inadvertently documented an actual fraud taking place that otherwise would have remained unknown to the rest of us. This paleoanthropological conspiracy is presented again in another blog post:
…Owen Lovejoy, declared at a 1979 lecture in the United States that a multivariate analysis of Lucy’s knee joints revealed her to be an ape. Therefore, he concluded, whether Lucy’s bones belong to one creature or two, they are both apes. This statement, I believe, was made in an attempt to quell the rising dispute over the validity of the find though Lovejoy would take part in fraudelent reconstruction of the Lucy bones in 1994 for the PBS series Nova; In Search of Human Origins, in a vain attempt to make her appear more human.
Here, of course, the accusation is that, not only did Owen Lovejoy fraudulently reconstruct the shape of Lucy’s pelvis, but he then attempted to cover up the act by claiming publicly that that Lucy is actually an ape (so, it doesn’t matter anyway). Moreover, the effort was to quell a “rising dispute” over Lovejoy’s fraudulent reconstruction of Lucy’s bones. You certainly can’t find high drama of this caliber outside of daytime television!
So what’s the real story behind the reconstruction? First, Lovejoy was not hiding anything with the reconstruction; the fact that creationists were unaware of the reconstruction until the In Search of Human Origins episode just demonstrates how little they read the primary literature regarding human origins. Lovejoy described the Lucy pelvis reconstruction in detail in an American Journal of Physical Anthropology issue in 1979 and at a professional meeting that same year (a full 15 years before creationists would pull a few comments out of a public television show and spin a conspiracy around it). No one in the paleoanthropology community (or the greater public at large) was kept in the dark about the reconstruction – it was certainly common knowledge for anyone with any interest in the subject.
Second, reconstructing fossil fragments is a standard practice among those of us who study ancient bones. Bones fragment, get pushed together, become fossilized in place and must be pieced together to restore their original orientation (by the way, this is the same technique used by forensic anthropologists to reconstruct an individual’s identity – creationists don’t seem to have a problem with bone fragments being “reconstructed” to identify a murder victim). Further, creationists misrepresent what Lovejoy actually did. He did not “reshape the bone…in a vain attempt to make her more human”. He (and every other anatomist who looked at the fossils) realized the bone had been fossilized in an “anatomically impossible position” (emphasis added). The documentary noted this, Lovejoy described this at professional meetings and in professional publications, and others have noted it. The only people who seem to ignore this fact are the creationists who are more interested in weaving a Darwinist conspiracy theory than understanding the nature of paleontological research. Lovejoy simply cut the broken parts out and re-fit them into the position they occupied at the time Lucy was alive.
Third, Lovejoy did not alter the original fossil, although creationists make it appear that he destroyed the original in an effort to hide the evidence of the alteration. He made a cast and altered it – the original is still available for anyone to review it. Again, this is common practice – no one messes with the original fossil. (Interestingly, no one has professionally challenged Lovejoy’s reconstruction – even those paleoanthropologists who disagree with Lovejoy’s interpretation of the pelvis have not questioned the reconstruction).
Fourth, creationists present the idea to their audiences that it is only a fraudulent hip reconstruction that makes scientists think Lucy walked upright like humans. Not so. Lucy’s bipedal gait is demonstrated by a whole host of other anatomical indicators, most of which are misrepresented, ignored or outright lied about in the creationist literature. But don’t take my word for it. While surfing the web, I happened across an article by Matthew Murdock in the 2006 Journal of Creation. What Murdock does, remarkably, is present a fairly accurate presentation of hominid locomotor capability based on fossil evidence. Moreover, he quite bluntly lambastes his fellow creationists for not reporting the fossil evidence honestly. Here are a few snippets from his article that are relevant to the discussion at hand:
Reading the popular literature (non technical papers), one would get the impression that there has only been one australopithecine pelvis found: the one belonging to A.L. 288-1 (‘Lucy’).Students sometimes get the notion that from this pelvis alone that australopithecine locomotion has been determined. The truth is there are several pelves belonging to australopithecines, some partial, some complete, and the evidence for australopithecine bipedality was establishedlong before the skeleton of Lucy was even discovered…
When I placed a cast of the unrestored ilium next to the sacrum, the distorted auricular surface forced the ilium into an anatomically incorrect position (figure 5). It is rotated to a right angle of where it should be no matter what the posture of this individual was (biped or quadruped). No animal alive or dead has a pelvis orientated this way, and this was clearly not its position during life, and no other australopithecine has this problem. It is clearly a case of post mortem distortion in this specimen (A.L. 288-1) only. As such, some repair had to be done to this surface (see postscript)….
I have seen a few creationists claim that it was this restoration that gave Lucy her upright posture. It does not appear as if these people have studied the skeleton in any detail (even if only through the writings of others). For if they did, they would see that it is not just the pelvis of Lucy that makes her bipedal, but her entire skeleton. Curvature of the spine (lumbar lordosis), length and angulation of the femur and tibia/fibula, and the hand and foot skeleton all indicate bipedal locomotion…
Did Lovejoy’s restoration give Lucy a bipedal pelvis? No, she already had one. In fact, even if this damaged part of the pelvis had not been found, we could still determine Lucy’s posture and gait from the rest of her pelvis (and skeleton)…
Finally, what are we to make of the statement that Lovejoy, “…declared at a 1979 lecture in the United States that a multivariate analysis of Lucy’s knee joints revealed her to be an ape. Therefore, he concluded, whether Lucy’s bones belong to one creature or two, they are both apes.”? This statement has been repeated word for word on a number of creationist sites, but none report an original source. I find it difficult to believe Lovejoy would have seriously contended that Lucy was an ape when he has consistently been a staunch proponent of the idea that Lucy and her kind walked like humans and not at all like apes. Again, a quick read of his professional publications demonstrates exactly this position. My bet is that creationists have either seriously misinterpreted what Lovejoy said or have fabricated the entire event (perhaps mixing Lovejoy up with someone else?). If creationists can provide an original transcript of the talk, I would be more than happy to look into it in more detail.
What all of this demonstrates is that creationists frequently fabricate the “evidence” they use to make an argument. They depend on an audience that will not question the sources of their information or spend time to verify the validity of what they say. Fortunately, most of us aren’t that naive.
Postscript: I am not the first one to demonstrate the deceptive nature of the creationist “Lovejoy Reconstruction” myth. Some time ago, Afarensis linked to an article by G.P. Jellison that also critically evaluates this creationist canard. Unfortunately the link seems to be invalid and I could not retrieve Jellison’s paper…if anyone has a copy I’d be interested in reading it.