Sunday, 5 February 2012

Nebraska Man - A Creationist Hoax

'Nebraska Man' as fancifully illustrated by Amédée Forestier
Nebraska Man, like the Piltdown Man Hoax, is actually a vindication of science and not the embarrassment creationists would like it to be.

The facts are as follows:

In 1917, Harold Cook, a rancher and geologist, found a fossil tooth which looked vaguely hominid.

In 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn prepared a paper on it for the journal Science in which he named the putative owner of the tooth Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. (Ape of the western world - note, ape, not man).

Following its publication, scientist Grafton Elliott Smith wrote an article for a popular magazine, The Illustrated London News, (not a scientific journal). This article was illustrated by Amédée Forestier who, with no scientific justification and despite Osborn's protests, based her illustration on 'Java Man' (Pithecanthropus now renamed Homo erectus).

Osborn declared this illustration "a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and undoubtedly inaccurate". No scientist had ever coined the term 'Nebraska man' and Osborn had always been careful to avoid making any claim that Hesperopithicus was anything more than an advanced primate of some kind.
I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidae), ...

Until we secure more of the dentition, or parts of the skull or of the skeleton, we cannot be certain whether Hesperopithecus is a member of the Simiidae or of the Hominidae.
Osborn 1922
Just as with the Piltdown forgery, jingoistic nationalism became entangled with the science in the popular imagination and America was declared by some to be the place where God has chosen to evolve humans.

Few people, if any, outside America took the find seriously and the scientific world was never more than highly sceptical of the claim. In 1924, George MacCurdy published the two-volume book 'Human Origins' in which he gave Hesperopithecus a mere (and inaccurate) footnote mention with:
In 1920 (sic) Osborn described two (sic) molars from the Pliocene of Nebraska; he attributed these to an anthropoid primate to which he has given the name Hesperopithecus. The teeth are not well preserved, so that the validity of Osborn's determination has not yet been generally accepted.
Eventually, further field work was undertaken at the site of the original find in 1925 and further remains were found which confirmed the scientific scepticism. The tooth was found to be that of an extinct peccary, Prosthenops, of which other remains were found.

Osborn then retracted his paper in 1927, less than five years after it was published and Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. was consigned to the trash-can of science, along with so many other briefly considered then discarded ideas. As is usual with science, a hypothesis had been proposed, the facts were considered, further work was carried out, and the hypothesis was falsified and discarded.

And that would have been that had it not been for Christian evangelical preachers like Hank Hanegraff and Grant Jeffrey, who have seized on 'Nebraska man' to dupe the credulous world of creationism by claiming that it was a failed attempt to dupe people into believing in evolution by dishonest scientists, or at least evidence of how science, especially evolutionary science, is full of mistakes and so should be distrusted.

In fact, 'Nebraska man' illustrates very neatly how science proposes provisional hypotheses, checks the facts and carries out further research if necessary, and then either confirms or falsifies the provisional hypothesis. It also shows how the popular press can take a scientific idea and distort it in the popular imagination, often for profit motives rather than from a desire to inform and educate.

'Nebraska man' also neatly illustrates how creationists seek to mislead their credulous public into misunderstanding any science which would undermine their income and how they will deliberately confuse articles from the popular press with genuine science and will present popular misconceptions as established science.

'Nebraska man' was not, and has never been, a problem for science. 'Nebraska man' is a hoax perpetrated on a gullible creationist public, not by science, but by those who make their living fooling those who are keen and eager to be so duped. Such is the dishonesty of those who make a living from religion and those off whom these people live.

[Later note] A few days after writing this blog, another blogger on atheism and science who blogs under the name 'Plasma Engineer' received this parody of human evolution.

Interestingly, it contains a fanciful drawing of 'Nebraska Man' along with a quite ludicrous drawing of an imaginary chimp-like creature labelled 'Lucy' and an equally notional drawing of 'Piltdown Man' about which I have also recently blogged.

Needless to say, neither these drawings nor this implied sequence in human evolution has ever appeared in any scientific publication and no human evolutionist would present such an idiotic sequence as established scientific fact or even propose it as a hypothesis. It is, as we've come to expect, nothing more than a creationist parody prepared with the clear intention of misleading the credulous and gullible, very probably for commercial gain or political purposes, or both.

It's worth mentioning as an aside, that the 'Cro Magnon' man represented has never been claimed to be ancestral to all modern Homo sapiens. Cro Magnon has only ever been seen as a early European culture of fully modern Homo sapiens. The only difference between Cro Magnon and modern Europeans is their respective levels of technological development.

Note too the white supremacist undertones in the implication that human evolutionary theory puts white Europeans at the end-point. No one but a racist would assume that non-Europeans are less than equally evolved modern Homo sapiens. Indeed, how could it possibly be otherwise?

Clearly there is a racist, white supremacist agenda at work, as well as a clear intent to mislead.

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  1. You hit the nail on the head. I keep repeating the same thing that science isn't static, it changes hypotheses or theories with new evidence. As opposed to creationism that changes (or ignores evidence) to keep the original belief. Your posting tells us how great science is.

  2. To sum it up: creationists grab at straws for a change.


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