There’s more than one Lucy: Responding to Buzzfeed’s creationists

Buzzfeed asked creationists if they had a message for evolutionists. Two asked: why is there only one Lucy? Here, I give my answer


Last week Bill Nye and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) had themselves a little debate over whether or not creationism was a viable scientific model. In the aftermath Buzzfeed asked 22 creationists for a message for evolutionists; but they only got back 21 answers. Two people asked the same question, a question I hadn’t heard before: why is there only one Lucy?

lucyMy answer: There is more than one Lucy! We’ve found tens of thousands of fossils belonging to the human family (also known as hominins), representing over a thousand individuals across 20+ species. Although most of these fossils are fragments, there are still dozens that would give Lucy a run for her money in terms of completeness. So, because Buzzfeed isn’t the only website that can create lists, here are 5 of some of the most complete and most important hominin fossils; aside from Lucy.

#1: Big Man

Big man (right) and Lucy (left)

Big man (left) and Lucy (right)

Big man gets top billing for being an immediate refutation to the creationist question. It’s a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, like Lucy, it lived around the same time as Lucy (although at 3.5 million years old, it’s slightly older) and it’s really complete, like Lucy. It short, it’s effectively a second Lucy. The key difference being, as the name suggests, this one was a male. It was a also taller, indicating that Au. afarensis was a sexually dimorphic species, much like modern chimps.

Big Man is also a big deal because he preserves some features missing in Lucy, filling in some of the missing gaps. Most notably he contains a shoulder blade and more complete ribcage, which are substantially more human-like than expected. In fact it’s so similar that Answers in Genesis have actually argued that this Australopithecus is actually a modern human! Lucy’s species was apparently spending much more time walking upright than we’d anticipated; confusing creationists to no end.

#2: Dikika 

The Dikika fossil, with spine intact

The Dikika fossil, with spine intact (some of the rest of the skeleton were also found, but this is the coolest bit)

The Dikika fossil is a young Australopithecus afarensis from Dikika, Ethiopia (turns out palaeoanthropologists aren’t hugely creative when naming things). Like Big Man, Dikika is slightly older than Lucy (at 3.3 million years old) but in terms of age at death, is younger than both; being a mere 3 years old or so when she died. As a juvenile, Dikika can tell us a lot about how Australopithecus matured. Turns out they were very similar to chimps in this regard, growing up faster than your typical human baby.

However, Dikika is also really important because her spinal cord is still sticking out of her skull. As such it provides an opportunity to accurately measure the orientation of the spine; which in turn tells us about how Australopithecus moved. Turns out Dikika’s spine is orientated vertically, indicating an upright body that walked on two legs (compared to a horizontal orientation, which would’ve suggested a quadrupedal body like a chimp). This is particularly relevant because one of Answers in Genesis’s key arguments against Lucy being a “transitional form” is that she walked like a chimp. Dikika kicks this one right out the window.

#3: Australopithecus garhi

Okay, I’m pushing the boundary of “most complete here”. All we have of Australopithecus garhi is a fragmented skull and jaw. We do know they lived ~2.6 million years ago (making it younger than Lucy) and limbs associated with the skull indicate it walked upright. But I’m still going to put Au. garhi on my list because it appears to have been the first hominin to manufacture stone tools.

Creating stone tools is an ability unique to humans and our ancestors. Australopithecus garhi started a tradition that lasted, essentially unbroken, for the next 2.6 million years. In fact, some modern hunter-gatherers still use some of the techniques pioneered by Au. garhi millions of years ago. So if creationists want to argue that Australopiths and humans are unrelated, not only do they have to argue against physical similarities but technological ones too! In fact, some creationists use stone tools to define “humans”. If a hominin – like Neanderthals or Homo erectus  – made stone tools, it’s actually fully human.

No word yet on whether Australopithecus garhi is considered a modern human.

#4: MH1 & 2

The juvenile (left) and adult (right) Australopithecus sediba which were analysed in this study

MH1 & 2

MH1 and MH2 are the only fossils we have of Australopithecus sediba. Fortunately, they’re both very complete so we know almost as much about this species as we do any of the others with more fossils. For example, like everything else on this list it walked upright like humans. Evolutionarily speaking, Au. sediba is significant because it is the youngest known Australopithecus, living 1.9 million years ago. This makes it too young to be a human ancestor, as species like Homo erectus had already appeared by this period.

And that’s the point of MH1 & 2. They show our family tree is not a simple, ladder like progression from Lucy to Homo erectus to us. The hominins were a diverse group and during our heyday there were more than 6 or so species living side by side. We’re a successful family with multiple branches, each specialising into their own unique niche.

Now there’s just us.

#5: Skull 5

Skull 5 is the latest discovery from Dmanisi and is attributed to the species Homo erectus; which is thought to be the descendant of Australopithecus and the precursor to later humans (including, eventually, us). Skull 5 lived ~1.8 million years ago and is the most complete skull we’ve found from that period. We also found some of the rest of the skeleton; but that’s rather boring and can be summarised as “human-like.”

The skull is the really cool thing because, despite the human-like skeleton, it is rather primitive. The brain is very small and the face protruding, like a chimp or Australopithecus. Yet it’s still clearly a member of Homo erectus. This makes skull 5 significant for 2 reasons. First, creationists often try and dismiss H. erectus as “just a modern human.” However, when you plot skull 5 on a chart comparing face size and brain size between different species it appears very far from modern humans, rendering this creationist argument null and void. What’s more, when you start plotting other hominins on the chart you witness a beautiful progression from chimp-like to human-like. If you want a great piece of evidence for evolution, look no further than this graph.

The X axis is face size, from chimp-like (left) to human-like (right). The Y axis is brain size, from chimp-like (bottom) to human-like (top)

The X axis is face size, from chimp-like (left) to human-like (right). The Y axis is brain size, from chimp-like (bottom) to human-like (top). The (5) is skull 5.

It’s also significant because it shows Homo erectus could be highly variable. As such, many similar fossils which had been previously classified as a different species may actually have to be re-classified as Homo erectus, dramatically simplifying the hominin family tree. And you won’t hear me complaining about that, learning the differences between Homo erectus and Homo ergaster was tedious.

Also, skull 5 is hilarious because the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) can’t decide what it is. Shortly after it was discovered they ran an article arguing it’s actually a modern human, before writing a second one the following week dismissing it as just an ape. In fact, they went so far in the opposite direction they argued claiming it was a human is to misrepresent the facts so badly it borders on fraud!

Conclusion

There’s only one Lucy but there’s loads more hominins just as complete; a few of the important ones I’ve listed here. As I was looking up some links for this article I found loads in the mainstream press. These aren’t obscure fossils, in fact many of you might remember the hubub over skull 5 from the end of last year. So I wound up asking myself: why were these creationists convinced there is only one Lucy.

Then I realised, many are still bring up Piltdown man. In fact, if you look at the hominin fossils creationists regularly discuss you see the same few being repeated over and over again. Piltdown man, Java man, Nebraska man; all dismissed as hoaxes or mistakes. The Neanderthals or Homo erectus might get a mention too, only to be classified as “fully human” and ignored. Lucy is the only fossil they present as genuine (and even then it’s typically claimed to be just as an ape).

As such, it’s easy to see how if your only exposure to human evolution is through a creationist lens you’d come away with an out of date, limited and distorted view. You’d be missing out on a wealth of fossils and evidence that maybe, just maybe, might prompt you re-evaluate your position. At the very least, I’d hope it would cause you to ask why these fossils are so often ignored by creationists in favour of out of date, irrelevant finds like Piltdown man.

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25 thoughts on “There’s more than one Lucy: Responding to Buzzfeed’s creationists”

  1. ThQ says:

    It’s sad to see that creationist believe pictures of teenagers showing up (stupid and misinformed) questions purportedly showing the fallacy of evolution as the appropriate counter-argument to over a century of serious scientific work by thousands if not tens of throusands of people. After all, why would the truth have to simple? You cannot argue against evolution after 5min spent reading about it with the idea of absolutely refuting it in mind.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      One of the interesting things I found was comparing the 22 creationist questions with the 22 evolutionist questions Buzzfeed also collected. The ones by evolution-proponents were either snarky or “LOOK AT THE SCIENCE/EVIDENCE”. The creationist ones, conversely, could be broken down into either morals or “gotcha.” As though scientists really hadn’t considered the second law of thermodynamics.

  2. john zande says:

    Great article. A keeper for when the Creationists come ‘a calling.

  3. mgm75 says:

    I think a lot of the issues regarding Lucy in the public imagination is because the media have and do play on Lucy so much. It’s no wonder that so many don’t realise that she is not the only Australopithecus afarensis ever discovered – I think the media uses the term “Lucy” as a byword for fossils from the species. That poor science reporting in the media has a lot to answer for.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That’s certainly a valid point; but at the same time Lucy is often brought up in the context of other fossils. As such I’d hope that the mainstream media is, on balance, contributing to the public’s understand of the field. At the very least, making it seem like there’s more than one Lucy.

      That said, the use of Lucy as a synonym for the species (often even the entire genus) is appalling.

      1. mgm75 says:

        but at the same time Lucy is often brought up in the context of other fossils.

        Do you mean stuff like “this new species has been dated to three million years before Lucy….” sort of thing?

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Yeah. “This new fossil is older than Lucy” or “scientists believe this fossil to be a descendant of Lucy”

  4. Paul Braterman says:

    I wasn’t impressed by the “22 questions”; sneering is no way to win people over. However the “Only one Lucy” question was informative. It must be based on something Ham has said. I have seen (forget reference) creationists dismissing the entire hominid fossil record as “a handful of fragments”, or “would fit in a shoe box”, with no regard to the actual findings of the past 50 years.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      The “fit in a shoe box” is an egregiously out of date claim; but by no means the worst claim about the size of the hominin record I’ve heard. A creationist I was talking to once was under the impression that Java man represented the whole record of Homo erectus. And because that is “fake” that species doesn’t exist!

  5. Andrew C. Holmes says:

    The thing I really noticed about these 22 creationist questions, is they are all refuted by a simple google search and a few minutes of reading. It seems as though the individuals holding up these signs aren’t really interested in getting answers to the questions they asked. To me they appear willfully ignorant. They not really interested in evidence, but are instead focused upon propagating the idea that “science” is only one way to look at the world (which is true) and it’s on par with other ways of “knowing” (which is demonstrably false – science rules, ok?). It’s really quite post-modernist.

  6. shehannahgans says:

    Reblogged this on Anthropos.

  7. Jeshyr says:

    The mh1 and mh2 being described as ‘very complete’ gave me initial pause – they don’t look very complete to my uneducated eye!! When I think very complete I naively expect that 90% of the bones are available or something – clearly not what the picture shows. But when I stared at it a bit I realised that there was at least some of each hand/foot, some of each upper and lower arm/leg, some pelvis, some spine and ribs, some jaw and skull – is that what ‘very complete’ means in this context? Clearly you can extrapolate a lot with a skeleton that works in mirror symmetry! Can you tell more about what information you can get from small parts like what exists?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      What is considered “complete” varies with age. Obviously younger fossils will be better preserved; and when dealing with the most recent hominins (like Neanderthals or Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens) it’s quite common to get effectively complete skeletons. The older you get, the less complete skeletons are. Lucy, for example, is only ~43% complete. That was my yardstick for completeness when dealing with similarly aged fossils (with the exception of garhi, which I wanted to include for other reasons).

      Of course, even the less complete skeletons can tell us an awful lot about our relatives. Generally speaking, there are two sorts of information you can get: adaptations and lifestyle. As you go through life your actions influence your body, which we can detect from the bones. Things like diet, how you walk etc. can all do this. The other sort is adaptations, traits that our ancestors evolved. This provides a more “long term” view of how they were behaving (as evolution works over several generations). So we might find a shoulder blade that shows signs that this particular individual wasn’t doing much tree climbing, although their species still has some adaptations for it (and we have found such a shoulder blade).

  8. Neanderthal says:

    I think the point about there only being one lucy was to do with tracking mitochondrial DNA wasnt it? I recall this Eve character being branded as lucy by the evolutionists as there was only one, one mother, one eve, one lucy, one source of the mitochondrial DNA.. ???

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That’s Mitochondrial Eve (mtEve); the common maternal ancestor of all living humans. That’s not to say she was the only human alive at the time, just all that the families of all the other women who lived alongside her have since died out.

  9. Neanderthal says:

    Ive been looking through the list of 80’s Horizon episodes, but no joy in tracking this down yet.
    it could of been the 90’s, but i definitely recall a uk documentary about one common ancestor for everyone on the female mitochondrial DNA side,dubbed lucy. of coarse i could of got some of this wrong.

    1. johnkutensky says:

      Usually that individual is called Eve, so far as I know.

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  14. Anonymous says:

    *your* only exposure to evolution…
    (last paragraph)

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Fixed, thanks

  15. TTFN32 says:

    Looks to me like a bunch of bones that may or may not fit together. Like other skeletal structures evolutionist don’t tell people about. Also how can you tell what something looked liked are is true ancestral history if you weren’t there. You can go go into the heart of Africa and due to high mutations in small groups of people you have a number of different features from the same people and lifestyles and disease also makes a huge difference on cranial and bone structure. Also were did the giant skeletons come from they have been finding all over the planet. The bible says there were giants back then. They Their have been burial grounds for giants found all over the planet. Does evolution have an answer for those that are concrete evidence.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      There are numerous factors which indicate they are part of the same specimen. If you’re interested in what this tells us about our ancestry then there are several posts on this site that can provide further information. Oh, and there weren’t giants.

  16. datadroid says:

    The picture of Big Man and Lucy is labeled backwards. Big Man is on the left.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Oops, how embarrassing. Fixed now though

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