Answers in Genesis Doesn’t Understand “Ape-Men”

This week we are returning to our series where we examine the claims of everyone’s favorite creationists, Answers in Genesis, about human evolution. The purpose of this series is twofold: I want to learn more about paleoanthropology myself and how to better write about the subject, and I want to act as a resource for anyone who is questioning AiG’s claims but doesn’t know enough about human evolution to be able to refute them. To be sure, I know that Ken Ham and his authors are never going to read this, and they would certainly not change their minds or even their methods if they did. They’ve seen myriads of people arguing against them—and blocked them on Twitter (myself included). This isn’t for the AiG staff but for the more bold of the budding skeptics in their audience.

The section of their website dedicated to “ape-men” is made up of the following articles:

There are several issues with Menton’s and Patterson’s evaluations of “ape-men,” including but not limited to: evolutionists started with the assumption that humans evolved from monkeys and subsequently invented evidence (in truth, they started with the opposite assumption and slowly changed their minds upon discovering evidence); evolutionists use only fossils as evidence (we have probably learned more from molecular evidence in recent years about the evolutionary timeline than we ever did from fossils), and with these assumptions, evolutionists are trying only to learn which apes we evolved from (most paleoanthropologists, so far, have focused more on which human traits evolved first, where, and when, as well as how to define “human”).

Menton and Patterson infuse their writing with a lot of little one-off points like this, but I’d rather save both our time and get to the overarching issue that Menton pushes. This is the idea that “There are only three ways for the evolutionist to create [an ape-man]: 1) Combining Men and Apes, 2) Making Man out of Apes, and 3) Making Apes out of Man.” Menton is so proud of himself for coming up with this concept that Answers in Genesis sells a DVD of a 55-minute presentation of Menton making his case for $13. I honestly can’t understand why; it’s so simple, so straightforward, and so easy to refute. I suppose the other fifty-four minutes and fifty-two seconds could be Menton saying for the umpteenth time what he says in his two (nearly identical) articles that one could read on the AiG website for free.

Menton’s first professed way to “create” an “ape-man” is in reference to frauds like the Piltdown man, in which a paleoanthropologist conned his colleagues into thinking he had uncovered the fossil of an “ape-man” when in reality, he had combined an orangutan mandible with a Homo sapiens skull. I won’t go too far into detail on the Piltdown hoax here, because like Neanderthals, I plan to dedicate a post to AiG’s full articles about it later in this series. For now, I’ll say this: I think the Piltdown hoax is so fascinating. It has this mysterious darkness around it, and the controversy it caused has no end of speculation, since we still don’t know for sure who the perpetrator was.

This book’s author, the prominent paleoanthropologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, spent the last thirty years of his life studying the life and environment of the Piltdown Man, never learning that it was a hoax.

Even though it’s entertaining, of course I would prefer that the Piltdown hoax had never happened. It was committed by someone who wanted to prove that humans evolved their big brains before their ability to walk on two legs, and one of the reasons that the hoax was discovered as fake was when later discoveries showed that that order was indeed backward. Those of us who really understand science know that all science must be regarded with scrutiny but that outright lies like this are rare. But now that creationists have seen just what kinds of mistakes scientists can make, they will never let it go and appreciate the dozens of other real fossils that have been discovered. Although it was the self-correcting nature of science that disproved Piltdown in the end, Answers in Genesis still likes to act like science itself has somehow been tainted by it.

Menton’s second and third ways that he thinks evolutionists “create ape-men” go hand in hand. He basically thinks that one can draw a fine line between what counts as human and what counts as ape. In his presentation he gives the following list of which characteristics belong to which group:

Notice that these traits apply only to skulls. There are dozens of other postcranial features, like the fit of the knee into the socket, that can belong to either category.

In Menton’s world, then, what a scientist would classify as belonging to the genus Australopithecus is just “an ape,” and what a scientist would classify as belonging to the genus Homo is just “a human.” I say it that way because, of course, Menton doesn’t seem to believe in genera or species, only “kinds.” If we’re in the real world, then we would know that “ape” is actually any member of the entire superfamily of Hominoidea (and includes everything from a gibbon to a human), and “human” is any member of the genus Homo. (I went into much greater detail about these classifications in another post.)

So what does Menton do when presented with an australopith with both chimp and human characteristics? He will contort his interpretations of these characteristics to argue that the creature was not human-like at all. Take, for example, Australopithecus sediba. I found his claims about it especially frustrating (but fun to refute), because it appears to be one of the most intermediate species between Australopithecus and Homo—it’s been described by paleoanthropologists as a mosaic of features. Menton worked extremely hard to either not mention any Homo-like traits that sediba had or try to redefine them.

For example, its discoverers decided that sediba must have been more comfortable in trees, but certainly capable of a primitive type of bipedal walking. Menton argued that, essentially, if sediba didn’t walk more like Homo sapiens, then we could completely disregard its bipedalism as any evidence of human-like characteristics. In reality, this swaggering gait was part of the reason why sediba was classified as Australopithecus and not Homo. The decision was down to the smallest details.

I find it unfathomably ironic that the nail in the coffin of Menton’s ape-man argument comes from looking at the views not of scientists, but of creationists themselves. I first saw this table when reading Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Miller cites this TalkOrigins page, which, while being a bit outdated and an eyesore, is extremely telling of how unstable creationism is. It features a list of hominid fossils and shows whether various creationists classify that fossil as belonging to an ape or to a human. People like Menton and Patterson seem so sure of themselves when they say things like “an ape’s an ape, and a human’s a human,” as if it is painstakingly obvious. The irony is exposed when you see that even two creationists who write for Answers in Genesis, Menton himself as well as Marvin Lubenow, disagree on how to classify both Java Man and Peking Man (which, in reality, are both classified as Homo erectus).

Notice, too, that Duane Gish changed his mind about the status of ER 1470 between 1979 and 1985. What happened to God making obvious distinctions between kinds?

Within paleoanthropology, whether to classify something as Australopithecus or Homo is far from being an exact science, but the fact that no one can agree on anything actually supports my point here rather than hurts it. The reason why it is so difficult is because in real life, there’s no line between one species and the next species that it evolves into. There are just continuous generations of parents and children. The idea that there was one mother who was Australopithecus who gave birth to a child who was Homo exists only for the purposes of nomenclature and our ability to talk about it. You can technically say that that happened, but there would have been no way to distinguish the mother and the child as distinct species from each other. This only goes to show that it is pointless to try and classify every Australopithecus or Homo specimen you find in terms of absolutes.

On the other hand, the creationist narrative necessarily includes the idea that it is easy to distinguish a human from an ape. This means that in not agreeing on which specimens qualify as which, creationists are refuting themselves and debunking their own idea that there’s a definite group of apes and one of humans. While science is inherently self-correcting, creationism is self-refuting.

One thought on “Answers in Genesis Doesn’t Understand “Ape-Men”

  • Thanks Rebekah, I knew you would be right on it.

    I want to put a kink in narrative. This is a note from March, 2015. Some folks here may have already been aware of this. I’m hoping some of the folks from AIG will give you a visit. Like the case with Piltdown Man, science is pretty good about correcting their mistakes and those of others.

    This question must have occurred to many people, especially the professionals:
    How many branches could we have?

    Homo Erectus:

    The development of the human species was not a single line of evolution. More than one branch of the species were present at the same time.

    There were periods in the past when three or four early human species lived at the same time, even in the same place. We – Homo sapiens – are now the sole surviving species in this once diverse family tree.

    …showing that parallel origins are a distinct possibility,” Prof Stringer explained.
    https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31718336

    Liked by 1 person

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