So who cares about fossil names, anyhow?

That's the single most often asked question/frequently expressed complaint in previous ANLD 2 years. In the so-called "hard sciences" the need for details and quantitative facts is clear: forgetting a reaction constant could mean the difference between a pretty color and an explosion on the lab bench. Furthermore, once learned, physical or chemical principles aren't likely to become outdated anytime soon. In the so-called "soft sciences" the rationale for placing less emphasis on details is also clear: the key to understanding Kant does not lie in the number of times he used the word "soul," but in the overall thrust of his arguments. Also, the significance of his arguments depends on the social & historical context of the reader; reinterpretation is ongoing.

The study of human origins falls in between. There are plenty of details, but there are also big- picture stories about them. Neither fossils nor specific observations of primates doing things change much (KNM ER 1813 looks about the same today as it did when it was first reconstructed, and the actual pieces haven't changed at all); however, our interpretations are shifting constantly. Because these different interpretations don't seem to make as much difference as, say, adding the wrong two chemicals at the lab bench, many students in introductory bioanthro courses don't understand why it matters to learn facts and the currently dominant interpretations of those facts.

This "handout" attempts to explain, by illustration. Please don't hesitate to let me know how well it succeeds, and how it can be improved - just email me at


Section I: What are the stakes involved?

The first set of statements, by Morris, are fundamentally religious critiques of evolution; they address what they see as the policy implications of accepting evolution at all. They are not especially sophisticated analytically, but spring from social values many people share.

The second set, by Skybreak, directly address the policy implications contained in our choice of which evolutionary model of human origins we accept; this sort of debate is central to understanding the study of human origins.

Section II: Why are the details important?

This section consists of 3 examples of cases in which knowing specific details is critical to interpreting what you read, and demonstrate how people may rely on the ignorance of the average reader about these details to deceive. Given the stakes established in Section I, hopefully this will convince you exactly why the details are important! Jump ahead to Section II


"Biology is the study of the complex things in the Universe. Physics is the study of the simple ones."

(Richard Dawkins, New Scientist, 15 April 1982: p. 130)

SECTION I) What Are The Stakes Involved?

The following quotes come from three writers on opposite ends of most sociopolitical spectra:
Morris, H. M. (1985). Creation and the Modern Christian. El Cajon (CA): Master Book Publishers.
Morris, J. D. (1990). Why do we marry? Back to Genesis 20: insert.
Skybreak, A. (1984). Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women's Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation. Chicago: Banner Press.

My editorial introductions and comments are in brown and indented; the rest of the following is all direct quotation from the sources indicated.

a) Morris (1985: 67-68) argues that belief in evolution provides the justification for a variety of sins:

Thus, the great assortment of modern social practices which Biblical fundamentalists (and political conservatives also) are fighting today--including abortion, homosexuality, pornography, euthanasia, divorce, promiscuity, use of drugs, and other such anti-Christian activities--are essentially nothing but logical outworkings of the evolutionary philosophy. This does not mean, of course, that every woman who submits to an abortion or every teenager who tries hallucinogenic drugs is an evolutionary humanist. People commit sins for all kinds of personal and ephemeral reasons and this is unfortunately true for Christians as well as atheists. What it does mean is that the intellectual rationale for such practices, whenever their defenders try to analyze and justify them scientifically, is basically a rejection of the Biblical world view in favor of the evolutionary world view.

b) In a section entitled "Evolution and animalistic behavior," Morris considers homosexuality, promiscuity, violence, and abortion to be behaviors typical of "animals," with the implication that if they are "animal" they must be "natural" and hence IF humans are "animal" too, we are doomed to indulge in such behaviors (Morris, 1985: pp. 73-75):

Evolutionary reasoning is also behind the current widespread attempts to legitimize the practice of homosexuality. This ancient sin has only recently been alleged to be acceptable behavior, and the argument has been that the Biblical condemnations should no longer be considered, since such actions are claimed to be based on genetic inheritance and are therefore "natural," as in other animals.

Similar arguments are offered for the so-called sexual revolution. Since men and women are merely higher animals, so they say, it is supposedly natural for their sexual behavior to be animalistic. Biblical moral standards are no longer definitive or authoritative, of course, since evolutionary "science" has supposedly disproved the Bible.

Following their prophet, the atheist Aldous Huxley (brother of Julian), who was probably the first leading intellectual to urge them to do so, followed later by Timothy Leary and others, people began to use hallucinogenic drugs in search of religious insights and experiences which they had lost when the true God was taken away from them by the "scientific" evolutionary humanism of their teachers. Thus was born our modern "drug culture."

Another type of evil in our society, the use of violence to obtain what one desires, has also been justified by evolutionary reasoning. Ever since Raymond Dart discovered the first fossil of Australopithecus in the mid-1920s, along with what he thought were "tools" used by these so-called "hominids" (or ape-like ancestors of man), it has been widely held that these creatures were carnivorous "killer apes," who slaughtered animals and probably other hominids for food and possibly for conquest or even sport. This attribute of these presumed humanoid ancestors of man supposedly "explains" and even "justifies" man's instinctive drive to conquer and loot and kill. This "cave-man" caricature of ancient men and women has been inordinately popularized in comic strips and motion pictures and even school books for many years, but anthropologists now know it is false. The bones of animals supposedly slaughtered, skinned, scraped and eaten by the australopithecines had been misinterpreted all along.

"They concluded that the australopithecines, like the baboons and antelopes from the same deposits, had been dragged into the caves and eaten by leopards and carnivores. Most and probably all of the bone tools were scraps from a cat's lunch--and so were the remains of the supposedly killer apes" (Matt Cartmill, Natural History, Vol. 92, November 1983, p. 76).
Men and women may be prone to all sorts of violent and selfish behavior, but this is because of sin in their hearts, not animals in their ancestry. It needs to be condemned and judged, unless first repented, forgiven and forsaken--not coddled and justified on the basis of evolutionary presuppositions, as courts have been so quick to do in recent decades.

Still another animalistic practice is now beginning to be advocated, on the basis of evolutionism. Once abortionism has become acceptable, infanticide cannot be far behind, as well as other checks on population growth (euthanasia, etc.).

"Among some animal species, then, infant killing appears to be a natural practice. Could it be natural for humans too, a trait inherited from our primate ancestors? ... Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man that infanticide has been 'probably the most important of all checks' on population growth throughout most of human history" (Barbara Burke, "Infanticide," Science 84, May 1984).
There have already been many attempts even at genocide in the name of evolutionary progress, such as the slaughter of the aborigines in Tasmania by white settlers, who argued that these "primitives" were not really human; the gas ovens of Nazi Germany, in the name of Aryan racial supremacy; and others.

If evolution is the real law of life, then practices such as these may really contribute to the overall progress of evolution, as their practitioners allege. It is hard to offer an effective scientific argument against them, if evolution is true.

Many writers, both Christian and non-Christian, have also pointed out the evolutionistic base of such deadly social philosophies as communism and Nazism, as well as racism and laissez-faire capitalism. ...

John Morris (1990) recently echoed the same theme in a pamphlet series put out by the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon. For an entertaining discussion of what Morris considers "technical evolutionary journals" see Shapiro (1992) "Evolution's hidden agenda--revealed!" Creation/Evolution 12(1): 22-28 [UCSD's SSH Library carries the journal]. Morris wrote:

Few laymen may know it, but the technical evolutionary journals frequently feature articles which describe how modern society should be shaped.

Such articles usually follow this pattern: A certain animal group has been studied. It will be noted (depending on the article and/or animal group) that few animals mate for life. Certain animals of the same sex interact sexually with one another. Unwanted young, whether deformed, sired by another, or for no apparent reason other than convenience, are destroyed. Older or weaker members, unable to contribute to the good of the larger group, are destroyed or abandoned. Since humans are, in reality, descended from the animals, and, in fact, are animals ourselves, and since we still have animal desires, needs, and instincts, we should pattern ourselves and our culture after these animal groups. Only the kind of behavior which brought us to this evolutionary stage will be able to carry us onward to higher levels of evolutionary development.

You see, ideas have consequences. If one thinks along evolutionary lines, he will make decisions consistent with his ideas of evolution. It has been well documented that Hitler, Marx, Freud, etc. acted purposely--consciously applying evolutionary principles in their systems. To a consistent evolutionist, only two things are important: survival and reproduction. All else can be, and, indeed, should be expended.

In addition to being outspokenly teleological, these arguments are both based on the "naturalistic fallacy": that if something is "natural" we have no choice but to do it. By that logic, we should not wear clothes or fly in airplanes... A couple of related points to ponder:

1) Do we need an effective scientific argument against, say, murder?

2) Note the distinction between using an argument to support one's actions, vs being driven to those actions by the necessity of that argument. Some have attempted to justify genocide on racial/ biological grounds, but don't forget the religious rhetoric used to justify the Crusades, Inquisition, or the "settling" of the New World.

c) Skybreak (1984: 12) is explicit about the utility of evolutionary models for addressing modern social issues. Here she is discussing Nancy Tanner's "woman the gatherer" model of human origins. Look in the index of most textbooks under "gathering" and "hunting" for an example of what Skybreak, Tanner and others are worried about.

In particular, while its scope is limited to a reconstruction of the period of our earliest divergence from the apes, its analyses and conclusions are valuable stepping stones for exploring the origins and ongoing bases for the subjugation of females and their domination by males in the most varied of modern societies.

d) Skybreak points out how the "man the hunter" model has affected our views of human sex roles (1984: 20-21):

And "Man" here does mean the male of the species... Man evolved speech, in this scheme of things, to better coordinate his hunting activities, and went on to develop art, ritual, etc., for the same purpose. He formed bigger social groupings and invented monogamy as a device to insure the "little woman" when he got back from the hunt. And while Tarzan chased about on the hunt, Jane was good enough to evolve bigger buttocks, breasts, lips, etc., and to make herself sexually available at all times in order to please Tarzan and ensure his continuing presence and protection in a hostile environment. ....

Anyone who thinks the above is too much of a caricature of these classical reconstructions should check out some of the popular literature `a la Desmond Morris's Naked Ape, which, while it may elicit snickers and guffaws in scientific circles today, continues to have broad popular influence. As for the more "serious literature," though more carefully worded, it still promotes many of these same unfounded assumptions concerning the key elements in the transition from ape to human: the emphasis on hunting, men on center stage as the sole innovators, women and young seen as passive or quasi-nonexistent, a high level of aggression, etc. These stories are all loaded with political implications, providing choice material for the claim that women are naturally less competent and men are naturally more aggressive. The overall effect is to create the impression that the subordinate position of women relative to men has been with us from the very beginning and forms part of the natural, if perhaps regrettable, order of things. The idea is also conveyed that human aggression and war are part of the natural packaging, our innate animal side which, do what you will, keeps reasserting itself as part of Mother Nature's program.

e) In a very interesting discussion, she goes on to elaborate on the relative implications of the baboon and chimpanzee as primate models for hominid origins; the issue here involves the role of homoplasy & homology in our choice of animal models (Skybreak, 1984: 83-85):

The combination of all these factors suggests that chimps probably are "the closest we can get" to an idea of our direct ape ancestors, keeping in mind the limitations discussed above [this follows Skybreak's analysis of difficulties inherent in any animal model for human origins].

Surprisingly enough, this view is nothing short of heresy among many who attempt reconstructions of early human evolution or who are interested in the possible roots of human social behavior. This is likely because chimps don't do much for the Tarzan and Jane models: they commonly have relatively loose social structures, fluid bands whose size fluctuates frequently depending on food availability; the one consistently identifiable social unit is that of an adult female traveling with dependent young and older offspring and sharing food with them; the females commonly mate with many males, and often initiate copulation; and the males exhibit very few clear dominance relations among themselves, and little or no such behavior towards the females. And such a loose life style might have been that of our ape ancestors? Tsk, tsk, where have all the morals gone? Isn't it common knowledge that male superiority and dominance over females is part of our earliest biological heritage? Or is it? But fear not, there's always the trusty baboon!

Savanna baboons, ... have been the favored primate when it comes to extrapolating about early hominid (and modern human) social behavior. You see, these baboons live on the African savannas and, more to the point, they have extremely rigid social hierarchies, are often spectacularly aggressive and territorial, and organize themselves into bands which are run with an iron fist by one or a few very big macho males (referred to as alpha-males). The younger males and the small and relatively defenseless females seem to cower before these "alphas" in the most abject submission, while these big males strut their stuff, protect bands from predators, and procure meat. Now surely here's a species we can identify with--at least according to assorted behaviorists and sociobiologists. Implicitly or explicitly, savanna baboons have been repeatedly proposed as models for our own earliest origins or as a basis for understanding human aggression, xenophobia, class structure, and the domination of women, all seen as rooted in biological evolution (and by implication, thus very resistant to change). Even assuming for the moment that such things were grounded in our biological evolution in such direct fashion (which they most certainly are not), there would still be a huge problem with selecting baboons as the best source of clues concerning human social behavior: they aren't even closely related to us. In fact they are not even apes, but monkeys, a whole different evolutionary line, and one which is qualitatively more distant from us than the gorillas and chimpanzees with which we at least share a common ancestor. Given this, and even though savanna baboons constitute an interesting species in its own right, it is truly amazing that their social behavior could have been used so blatantly as a reference point for human behavior. ........

Some might ask, even if a chimpanzee-style model of generalized herbivore with loose, fluid, female-centered social units more plausibly corresponds to the ancestral populations which expanded onto the savannas, why couldn't they nevertheless have evolved into a more baboon-like species, complete with heavy male dominance, aggression, etc.? This is not absolutely impossible theoretically, but it is very unlikely given not only the probable characteristics of the ancestral apes (inferred from the "conservative lineage" represented by our chimpanzee relatives) but also a number of trends which we know took place.

f) In her closing, Skybreak once more emphasizes the significance of "origin myths" of any sort in understanding -- and perhaps solving -- social problems that exist today (1984: 150-151). The film "Tales of the Human Dawn" deals with the idea of paleontological "origin myths."

The solution to the problems of social divisions and inequities in the modern world-- including that of the domination and oppression of women--continues to be masked by innumerable unsubstantiated "origin myths" based on biological or cultural determinism. They are all fundamentally idealist, both because they base themselves on assumptions for which there is no evidence and which are rendered unlikely by actual material developments (such as the notion of a specific genetic basis for specific social behaviors in humans) and because they fail to recognize and to take into account existing material social conditions which set the terms for change in human societies (such as the incipient basis for the oppression of women in the earliest social division of labor along sex lines).

EDITORIAL SUMMARY: Sex, drugs, aggression, communism, capitalism, and the oppression of women and minorities--all based on or justified by evolutionary theory and our choice of primate models, according to the above. Not to mention free will vs genetic determinism. Given that the theories and data we cover in biological anthropology are used for such purposes, hopefully you can see why understanding specifics and nuances is important.

SECTION II) Why are the details important (since they change all the time anyhow)?

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I'll briefly give 3 examples.

1) The importance of knowing specifics of chimpanzee social organization: Skybreak (Ie, above) makes a strong case for basing early hominid models on chimpanzees rather than baboons, and ties her choice to issues about gender discrimination, warfare, all sortsa stuff. First off, by now you understand that her grounds for rejecting baboons out of hand are weak; they weren't chosen on the basis of homology, but on that of (potential) homoplasy (as her last paragraph acknowledges). More importantly: she states that chimps live in "loose, fluid, female- centered social units" and that "males exhibit very few clear dominance relations among themselves, and little or no such behavior towards the females." She clearly sees these as desirable features--peaceful animals, and females aren't subjugated. Good sort of ancestral traits.

However, as you will soon learn*, chimp "communities" seem to be defined by males, not females; males are very status-conscious; and under some circumstances males kill both females and males of neighboring communities -- behavior that can easily be compared with "war" among humans, and is more "territorial" than most baboon populations. She's WRONG. These features of chimp society weren't obvious at first (how long would you have to watch a suburban neighborhood before observing a murder?), so her mis-characterization of chimps can be partially understood as just being out of date with the literature--only, she was writing in the early 80s and most of these nasty aspects of chimp life were published in the mid-70s (in National Geographic, even). How much time passes before an author is considered grossly negligent or even deceptive, vs simply being a bit behind the latest studies? There's no set answer. Because she doesn't reference her statements about chimps, there is no way for us to evaluate this--we just know she's wrong, about observations she certainly had access to.

* If you're in ANLD2. If you're not, and are interested, have a look at Demonic Males (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996), which summarizes more recent observations of "warfare," sexual violence and other less pleasant aspects of chimpanzee behavior.

2) The importance of knowing what K/Ar dating is, and about when it was invented : Morris (1985: 220-221) talks about methods used to date fossils. He claims that "... fossils are not dated by the rocks in which they are found; rather, the rocks are 'dated' and correlated by the fossils found in them. ... rocks are 'dated' on the basis of the stage of evolution of their fossils." (p. 220); he argues that this makes dating follow from a belief in evolution rather than the other way round, and so we should reject estimates of an ancient earth (as well as evolution).

He supports his statements with 3 lengthy quotations from other authors; here's one (Morris, 1985: 220):

"The only chronometric scale applicable in geologic history for the stratigraphic classification of rocks and for dating geologic events exactly is furnished by the fossils. Owing to the irreversibility of evolution, they offer an unambiguous time-scale for relative age determinations and for world-wide correlations of rocks" (O. H. Schindewolf, American Journal of Science, Vol. 225, June 1957, p. 394).
The other two were written in 1952 and 1961. Morris then states "Although the above references are old, they are not outdated, for this method of geological 'dating' has been in use for 100 years and is still standard" (p. 221).

All I can say is, look up "Potassium-argon dating" in any recent physical anthro text; K/Ar dating's been in use since the early 1960s. Morris used good formal procedure, in that he explicitly and properly cited his sources; however, there is not much question that he was deliberately and consciously deceiving the reader in his presentation. He didn't lie; biostratigraphy is still a standard method. Morris just conveniently left out the important point that we now have an independent, absolute standard to check it against, so it can no longer be criticized as circular. And we'd had it for 20 years when he wrote his book.

Point here is to pay attention to dates of articles, and to interpret what you read with those in mind--science does progress, after all.

3) The importance of knowing KNM-ER 1470 as a specimen, as well as what it's been called: The preceding points are brought together in the case of ER 1470. Why memorize a given fossil number? Who cares about the specific date of the specimen (vs when the species lived)?

First, a specimen is a specimen is a specimen, but the "species" it is assigned to depends on the judgment of experts. For transitional forms, which by definition have attributes of the species on either "side of the transition," disagreements are common. To illustrate:

Morris (1985: 181) states that "The current 'star' in this long-running show is a supposed hominid (ape-man) named Australopithecus ... associated with a varied collection of fossil evidence, including ... Richard Leakey's Skull 1470 ..." and he then goes on to argue that current evidence (as he interprets it!) suggests Australopithecus was not ancestral to Homo. OK, fine. Having disposed of Australopithecus as unrelated to Homo, he goes on to argue that Homo erectus was not ancestral to modern humans, because H. erectus was "a true man, rather than an ape-human intermediate of some kind" (p. 184). No evolution, simply early us.

The problem is, look at his supporting evidence: "That he was truly human, rather than an erect ape, has recently been confirmed by studies of the brain endocast from the skull known as '1470,' discovered a number of years ago by Richard Leakey" (p. 183); the endocast studies suggest that the lobe of the brain that controls language was well-developed in 1470 and hence "it seems clear that at least this particular Homo erectus specimen was a true man" (Morris, p. 184).

C'mon, Henry, which is it? The point is that since 1470 is transitional, it has been called different things by different people, and Morris might be able to find a scientific source supporting each of his attributions. Only by knowing 1470 as a specimen, and understanding the relationship of specimens to species attributions (i.e., what the specimen gets called), can you interpret what you read (incidentally, when Morris was writing almost all paleoanthropologists assigned ER 1470 to Homo habilis --a taxon which Morris never mentions).

Basically, KNM ER 1470 is a very "modern looking" specimen relative to other Plio- pleistocene fossils, and it was initially dated at about 2.6 MYBP (million years before present). This juxtaposition of an early date with "advanced" features caused a lot of excitement, and challenged the prevailing view that Homo arose less than or equal to 2MYBP. However, careful examination of the date estimate eventually showed a mistake had been made, and that 1470 lived about 1.8 MYBP. Trust me. Fossils are rare, and 1470 is one of the best we have; when it lived does make a big difference in interpreting human evolution. To properly interpret any model that incorporates it, you MUST know (a) what makes 1470 important; (b) the history of attempts to date it and why there were difficulties with the first date; and (c) when the model was developed, with respect to that history. Why not just accept that H. habilis lived at 1.8 MYBP and go on to the next stage? Because maybe the 1.8 MYBP date is wrong (unlikely, given how many have examined it, but conceivable); maybe some future find will indicate that 1470's taxon was not ancestral to later Homo (you always have to consider new data, and be willing to modify your ideas based on new ideas/observations*); whatever.

Only by knowing the specifics can you understand the overall story. And people use "origin myths," rightly or wrongly, to shape and justify policy today. That's why we care about the details!

* recent analyses have in fact presented good reasons to think ER 1470 was not a direct ancestor of ours -- but that ER 1813 was.

From E. Hooton, "Man's Poor Relations" (1946):
"Sokolowsky describes [violent rape] in captive chimpanzees in German zoological gardens, but possibly the chimpanzee had been modified by the German cultural environment" ( p. 41).

"There can be no doubt of the contrast between these widely separated monkey groups [Old & New World] in their social characteristics. If you have any fascist leanings you will prefer macaques and baboons to howlers and spider monkeys, but if you are democratic or communistic you will share my partiality for American monkey institutions" (p. 234).

Jim Moore, Anthropology, UCSD
In the unlikely event that you're another
teacher and would like to use this, please -- be my guest!

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Last update: 5 Jan 1999