Surprising Human Hand Bone Challenges Evolution

The Institute for Creation Research is an organisation which spins science news to support the notion that the earth was created 6,000 or so years ago. I try and avoid commenting on their pieces because they excellent Eye on ICR blog does it all a lot better, but the other day I stumbled across an article that was so bad I had to go borrow my girlfriends hands so I could do a quadruple facepalm, the only appropriate response. So I decided you should suffer with me.

It deals with a recently discovered fossil finger. The real story is that a fossil finger, dating to 1.42 million years ago, has been found with a styloid process. This is a bump on the bone that means the wrist and hand can lock together, allowing us to exert a more powerful grip. This comes in pretty handy (if you’ll pardon the pun) for making tools, but it isn’t necessary for doing so. We know our ancestors were making tools without a styloid process prior to at least 1.8 million years ago. Before this new fossil was discovered we thought it evolved around 800,000 years ago in Homo heidelbergensis and was inherited by all subsequent species of human, including both us and Neanderthals. Now this fossil suggests it actually evolved earlier in Homo erectus,* but the story nonetheless remains unchanged: early humans were making tools and developed a styloid process some time later to aid them.

The real science in handy picture form

The real science in handy picture form

But what does the ICR’s Brian Thomas make of all this? He seems to be under the impression that the styloid process is actually a defining characteristic of modern humans. Never mind the fact that Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis (and now Homo erectus) have been found with this sort of bone; it actually defines Homo sapiens. Thus modern humans have been alive forever, unchanged. Thus we didn’t evolve and young earth creationism is actually right.

the most significant news from the latest hand-fossil find should be the simple fact that the oldest, widely recognized human hand bone shows no evolutionary change. This Kenyan fossil points to man originating…as man [ellipses in original, this description of them was not]

He seems to be basing this conclusion on a quote from the research paper, which notes that “in all ways, this bone resembles that of a modern human in overall proportions and morphology.” However, he misses the paragraph after next goes on to note that

[the styloid process is] short compared with modern humans, as are those of Late Pleistocene humans…[it also] falls within the observed ranges for modern humans and Neandertals, both of which overlap considerably [these ellipses are all mine]

In short many different species have a similar bone, so it’s existence 1.42 million years ago provides no support for the idea that modern humans have existed unchanged for this length of time. The best you could say is that one part of the human finger has remained unchanged for at least 1.42 million years; a statement which in no way challenges evolution. If a trait is beneficial then it would be expected to stay around. That’s how natural selection works. And since using our hands is still useful we would expect it to remain all the way into modern humans.

But it’s not defining humans based on our fingers that prompted a 4 handed facepalm. No, it’s a tangent Brian goes in halfway through his article where things get especially bad. He lists 8 ways in which the human hand has a “unique design”. This he lifted from the research into the new finger bone, but in the process he omitted a pretty important fact. The first of Brian’s ways in which the human hand is uniquely designed is that we have “short fingers relative to thumb length” but in the original paper it notes that

Most noticeable are the short fingers (relative to thumb length) and a robust thumb metacarpal. Australopithecus afarensisAustralopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus sediba also have short fingers

The Australopithecines are believed to be the ape-like ancestors from which humans evolved. And their hand shares some of the unique characteristics which define ours! But not all of them, the paper goes on to note that they lack the robust thumb. In other words their hand has some ape traits and some human traits, making them what one might call a transitional form. You know, the missing link creationists are always barking about. But this key next sentence is curiously omitted from Brian’s article, and that is why my face is now very sore.

The ICR disputes evolution by defining modern humans based on our hands to suggest we have remained unchanged for millions of years. This is silly, since other species share our hands. It then argues that our hands are uniquely designed, which is also silly because other species share our hands; including some which appear to have partially similar hands en-route to becoming “modern.” But surely when the science is so badly handled and key quotes so deliberately omitted it goes beyond being silly. It gets to the point where the author is either so incompetent they can’t even read the entire paper they’re trying to review or they are deliberately twisting and omitting facts.

Either way, I think this should be a wake up call to anyone taking the ICR seriously

* Given that no other bones were found at the site it’s difficult to say for sure that it belongs to Homo erectus. However, it is the right size, in the right region at the right time so I think it’s a safe bet.

9 thoughts on “Surprising Human Hand Bone Challenges Evolution

  1. Adam (and Peter aka Eye on the ICR if he is reading this)

    I made the following post on the British Centre for Science Education community forum a couple of nights ago about a new AiG article which also referred back to an earlier ICR article – as follows:

    “More much ado about nothing from AiG.
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2014/01/25/human-hand-fossil
    “The styloid process has been found on all true human fossils for which the metacarpals have been found—including Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. Conversely, the styloid process is clearly missing on both modern apes and the various supposed ape-like human ancestors in the human evolutionary lineage. For instance, the australopithecine fossil record (Au. afarensis, Au. africanus, and Au. sediba) has produced no styloid processes. Ape wrists are well-designed for the lifestyle of an ape but not for human pursuits”. So the ‘Lucy’ species must have been an ‘ape’? After all, as I gather from a brief online search, metacarpal fossils HAVE been actually found for at least one Australopithecus species.
    Mitchell also refers to a past ICR article by Brian Thomas – and that article refers back to a previous Thomas article:
    http://www.icr.org/article/lucys-new-foot-bone-actually-human/
    Which article refers (without linking to it properly) to this paper in ‘Science’:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6018/750.abstract
    The Abstract of which stated: “These features show that the A. afarensis foot was functionally like that of modern humans and support the hypothesis that this species was a committed terrestrial biped”. So ‘Lucy’ LACKED a feature found in humans but also HAD a feature found in human beings (but not found in today’s ape species)?
    The 3 million year old plus foot bone looked so ‘human’ that Thomas insisted that it must have been misidentified (as being from the ‘ape’ species Australopithecus afarensis presumably) and instead stamped his foot and insisted ‘Lucy’s’ New Foot Bone Is Actually Human’.
    Back to Mitchell:
    “Nothing about this metacarpal supports evolution.”
    NOTHING about this metacarpal and its estimated age UNDERMINES evolutionary theory.”

    • I had a look at the Lucy footbone story; and it appears to be the same paper that was later critiqued by showing that the footbones fall within the range of gorillas. So ICR joins AiG in claiming gorillas have human feet

  2. Pingback: AiG & ICR double down on “gorillas have human feet” | EvoAnth

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