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A tooth, a myth—and creationist lies

by Donald Prothero, Nov 30 2011

People love to touch old objects and feel a connection to the past, whether it be the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, ancient ruins in China or India or Egypt or Europe, pieces of fossil bone on display in a museum, or the oldest objects known, the 4.6 billion-year-old meteorites. Each time I travel to do research in historic old museum collections, it feels a bit like time travel. In my field, the original specimens first described by the founders of my profession, 19th-century paleontologists like Edward Drinker Cope, O.C. Marsh, and Joseph Leidy, are still essential parts of our research. We must examine these “type specimens” to determine whether fossil species these people named and described over 100 years ago are still valid today, when we have much better and more complete and abundant specimens. When I visit the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, I can examine type specimens first named by Leidy in the 1850s. At Yale, nearly every specimen I looked at was first studied by Marsh in the 1870s and 1880s. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I worked not only on fossils first studied by Cope in the 1870s and 1880s, but the Osborn Research Library in the Department of Paleontology even has Cope’s  geology pick where any visiting scientist can touch it, or one can sit down at Cope’s original desk. Cope’s skull (donated to science, along with his entire skeleton) has floated around various museums, and many paleontologists have handled it as well (with lots of jokes about the odd situation).

Vertebrate paleontology is also such a small profession with so few practitioners in its mere 150 years of existence that we’re all connected by our graduate advisors to just a handful of men who founded the profession over a century ago. When I was a student, I shook the hand of Ned Colbert, who was Henry Fairfield Osborn’s assistant in the 1920s, and Osborn bragged that he had shaken both Darwin’s and Huxley’s hand when he did post-graduate study in Europe. So I’m only 3 degrees of separation from Darwin himself. (I also have a friend who was in the cast of the original “Footloose”, so I’m 2 degrees from Kevin Bacon).

When I visited the American Museum this fall to continue my research on fossil peccaries or javelinas (American pig-like creatures only distantly related to Old World pigs), I was keeping a close watch for one specimen in particular. Everyone who has fought in the evolution-creation wars has heard of it, and I wanted to finally see and touch the specimen for myself. It is the tooth that caused a sensation in the 1920s, and has since become something that creationists harp on excessively, even though their version of the story is full of lies and myths. It is the tooth known as Hesperopithecus haroldcooki (“Harold Cook’s western ape”).

As described in a column by Stephen Jay Gould, An Essay on a Pig Roast (1991) and even in more detail by Wolf and Mellett (1985), the true story is quite interesting. Harold Cook was the son of the famous rancher James Cook who lived near what is now Agate Springs National Monument (and who also befriended Indians such as Red Cloud who still roamed the area in the 1880s). Harold, however, took an interest in the fossils that came from his family ranch, since the rich deposits of the Agate bone beds were being excavated by the University of Nebraska and the Carnegie Museum just a few feet from the family homestead when he was growing up. Cook was not a very well-trained paleontologist, but he had a good eye for finding fossils in the incredible bone beds of western Nebraska.

In 1917 he found an odd-looking isolated tooth in what is now known as the late Hemphillian (latest Miocene) Snake Creek Formation of western Nebraska. He sent it to Henry Fairfield Osborn, the President of the American Museum at that time, and the most powerful and influential paleontologist in the world as well. (Today, most of Osborn’s work is not held in high regard by paleontologists, since he was an excessive splitter who named a new species on nearly every specimen  he studied, was too strongly influenced by his weird philosophical notions like “aristogenesis” and “racial senescence”, and did not have a real talent for anatomy compared to some of his peers like William Diller Matthew). Osborn got very excited and thought it might be the tooth of an anthropoid ape, but was cautious at first since it was such a crummy specimen: a single cheek tooth with the crown all worn away and only two roots present. Nonetheless, he was a great believer in the idea that humans and apes originated in Asia, not Africa, and might have migrated to North America along with so many other Miocene mammals that were close relatives of Asian forms. In 1922, despite all the doubts that he and all his colleagues had, he published the specimen as Hesperopithecus haroldcooki.

Image of the Hesperopithecus tooth (middle column) compared to two equally worn chimpanzee teeth (left and right columns).

Image of the Hesperopithecus tooth (middle column) compared to two equally worn chimpanzee teeth (left and right columns). Click image to enlarge it

The remaining story is quite simple. Although Osborn had his doubts, and only said it might be the tooth of an anthropoid ape, the press (in this case, the Illustrated London News) jumped way past  his original cautious interpretation, and coined the term “Nebraska Man” and even published a famous “reconstruction” that was actually based on the “Java Man” specimens of Homo erectus. Meanwhile, many paleontologists got to work, excavating more specimens from near the Hesperopithecus site and uncovering a lot more fossils that gave us our first good picture of mammalian evolution in the late Hemphillian. Sure enough, they began to find specimens of peccaries such as the genus Prosthennops (which I am working on revising right now) and began to realize that these animals had teeth which could easily be mistaken for primates.

The 'reconstruction' of 'Nebraska man' by the 'Illustrated London News' (actually based on Homo erectus, 'Java man,' not the Nebraska tooth, which no scientist claimed looked like an advanced species of Homo).

The ‘reconstruction’ of ‘Nebraska man’ by the Illustrated London News (actually based on Homo erectus, ‘Java man,’ not the Nebraska tooth, which no scientist claimed looked like an advanced species of Homo).

After a few years of excavation in the region and the discovery of many more fossils, it was clear to the much more competent anatomist (and primate specialist) William King Gregory (to whom Osborn had entrusted the analysis) that Hesperopithecus was not a primate at all, but a peccary. In 1927 Gregory wrote a paper that quietly corrected the mistake, and the story was over as far as paleontologists are concerned. If it hadn’t been trumpeted by the press and creationists so much, the fossil would be among the hundreds of specimens given species names by Cope, Marsh, Leidy, Osborn, and others, which are too incomplete to be the basis of any presently recognized species. They are usually consigned to the taxonomic trash heap of nomina dubia (“doubtful names”) and are forgotten to all but the specialists.

But the story is a favorite of creationists, who usually tell a false version of it and conclude with the laugh line “and it turned out to be the tooth of an extinct pig!” To the creationists, any mistake about interpreting fossil human ancestors is prima facie evidence that there are no valid hominid fossils, and therefore humans didn’t evolve. Both the Talkorigins.org and other sites, as well as the references below, correct most of these creationist lies:

  1. The mistake was an honest one by a not-too-competent Osborn, who only suggested that it might be an anthropoid ape, NOT a  hominid. It was the tabloid media who called it “Nebraska man” and reconstructed it like Homo erectus. Osborn actually rejected the efforts of the media to overhype the specimen.
  2. Contrary to myth, Osborn did not go around trumpeting his find to embarrass William Jennings Bryan, and the specimen was never mentioned at the Scopes Monkey Trial. He did write a book The Earth Speaks to Bryan to point out that The Great Commoner was out of touch with science with his embrace of creationism. Osborn must have been tickled that the specimen was found in Bryan’s home state of Nebraska but it never figured in the Scopes trial.
  3. Contrary to creationist lies, Osborn was no atheist or Marxist,  but a political conservative and a devout Episcopalian who was raised as a Presbyterian and attended church regularly. In fact, Clarence Darrow planned to have Osborn testify at the Scopes Trial, precisely because he was a devout Christian and a famous evolutionist. (The judge did not allow Darrow to call any of his scientific witnesses who were also Christians to testify, ruling their testimony as irrelevant, which prompted Darrow’s famous cross-examination of Bryan instead).
  4. It’s an easy mistake to make, because primates, pigs, peccaries, and even bears and raccoons have highly similar cheek teeth: the crowns are simple squares or rectangles with four bulbous cusps on each corner. This is a classic bunodont dentition that nearly all omnivorous mammals evolve, because it is generalized and suitable for chewing up both meat and vegetation. I’ve shown a peccary tooth and a primate tooth side-by-side to creationists many times, and they can’t see the difference—yet they laugh at Osborn’s innocent mistake.
  5. The specimen is from a peccary (Family Tayassuidae, an American group), not a pig (Family Suidae, restricted to the Old World)! Over and over again, creationists make this mistake, showing their complete incompetence in basic biology. The two are completely different families which are only distantly related to one another, and would never be mistaken for one another by anyone with even rudimentary experience in field biology or mammalogy. Heck, even my youngest son could tell a pig from a peccary since he was 3 years old!
  6. Finally, the most crucial point of all: the mistake was corrected by scientists (not by creationists who can’t tell one tooth from another) soon after it was made. This is the way science is supposed to operate. Science is always tentative, subject to revision as better ideas or evidence comes along, never final.  Scientists are human, after all, and we all make mistakes. But peer review and further scrutiny by the scientific community usually fixes them. This is in stark contrast to creationists who believe in a final truth that cannot change, and never admit their own mistakes, but create huge webs of ad hoc lies and storytelling to salvage their ideas that have been shot to pieces. (Just look at their bizarre notion of “created kinds” or “baraminology” to salvage the idea that Noah’s ark contained two of every living creature).

These are all points that I discussed in my evolution book and have lectured about again and again. After all these years, I was eager to see the real fossil. However, once I found the right cabinet and drawer, it was a bit of a disappointment. The tooth is extremely tiny and featureless without any anatomical detail on its completely worn crown. Today we have hundreds of such specimens which are usually tossed into the “unidentified” tray because there is nothing one can do with them. Only its square shape and two roots would even suggest that it might be a primate, but no competent paleontologist would go that far today—as Osborn should not have done even then.

Instead, we have a creationist lie that keeps on going and going since they copy each other without ever checking the facts or asking whether the legend is accurate. What it reveals more than anything else is the intellectual and scientific bankruptcy of creationists, who endlessly recycle myths (both of Nebraska Man and of Genesis) without ever bothering to seek the truth.

References

  • Gould S.J. (1991): An essay on a pig roast. In Bully for brontosaurus. (pp. 432-47). New York: W.W.Norton.
  • Osborn H.F. (1922): Hesperopithecus, the anthropoid primate of western Nebraska. Nature, 110:281-3.
  • Wolf J. and Mellett J.S. (1985): The role of “Nebraska man” in the creation-evolution debate. Creation/Evolution, Issue 16:31–43.

Recommended Reading

25 Responses to “A tooth, a myth—and creationist lies”

  1. Wesley Goodford says:

    The problem is that if a creationist fires this one off at a dinner or something, and I should start to explain these things, the other guests’ eyes will quickly glaze over with boredom and they’ll go away thinking the creationist was right and I was just poking at irrelevant little details.
    How can I turn this dry information into a one-two put-down?

    • Try to find the most scientific literate person of the bunch or the person who is interested in science – and direct the response to that person. Or if there’s any teenagers, direct the clarification/correction to them, since they may be inclined to seeing adults shown wrong. If the others ignore you, at least you’ll have one person who’s got your attention. And chances are the Creationist might half-listen to your counterpoints.

  2. I googled “pecca” and looked at them. I can see the difference between them and a pig, but I could also see if someone just looked at a picture of a pecca and was asked “what animal is this” most laypeople would say “a kind of pig.”

    So response #5 isn’t probably going to be too effective.

    But very interesting article. It’s nice to have a good explanation of the “Nebraska Man” topic.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      It’s true that lay people don’t know the difference, and they can be excused for it. But creationists like Dr. Duane Gish with a Ph.D. in biology and Jonathan Sarfati with DVM or others with biological science degrees have frequently used “Nebraska man” as a punchline–and THEY don’t know the difference, which is inexcusable and shows their profound ignorance of biology. Worst of all, when they are corrected, they go on and repeat the same lie to the next unsuspecting audience, showing that they are dishonest as well…

    • Mike Keesey says:

      Excellent overview. I particularly appreciated the insight on Osborn.

      My only (very minor) quibble is that describing peccaries (Tayassuidae) and pigs (Suidae) as “distant” relatives makes it sound like they have little do with each other, and that their similarities are superficial. In fact, they are each other’s closest living relatives, both descended from the ancestral suoid, a creature that would have looked broadly similar to a pig or peccary. (Although, to be fair, that ancestor lived around the same time as our last common ancestor with New World simians, so it’s certainly not wrong to say “distant”.)

      • Donald Prothero says:

        It’s all relative, Mike. If they had diverged in the Pleistocene, I’d call them close relatives. But the key point is that they diverged WAY BACK in the middle Eocene at least 40 m.y. ago (earliest true peccary), and had independent and distinct histories in the New World (peccaries) and the Old World (pigs), with no interaction or connection since they remained isolated in different parts of the world. That’s why it’s important to stress how distinct they are and why is it NOT OK to confuse pigs and peccaries if you’re a legitimate biologist or paleontologist. Their separation is not as “distant” as ours with the lungfish or coelacanth, but it’s quite distant by the standards of the major orders of mammals (one of the basal-most splitting points in the Artiodactyla).
        And no, I’m not counting Eurasian palaeochoerids as peccaries, nor do most modern workers. They are peccary-like but their similarities are all symplesiomorphic.

      • dsc says:

        Additionally, pigs, as humans and peccaries, are bunodonts, meaning the same type of teeth.

  3. Tori says:

    So a pig is related to a peccary in much the same way a human is related to a chimp? Because I would love to shoot that one back at someone.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Yes, pigs and peccaries are sister-taxa, just as humans, chimps, and gorillas are. The only difference is that the split between the two lineages occurred over 40 m.y. ago between pigs and peccaries, and only 7 m.y. ago between chimps and humans. So that’s why I refer to peccaries as “distant” relatives of pigs, while chimps are our closest living relatives.

    • Mike Keesey says:

      Yeah, see above. In terms of divergence dates it’s more like the same way a human is related to a marmoset.

  4. j m rowland says:

    Because the author says “the 4.6 billion-year-old meteorites” (emphasis on the “the”), I expect he’s speaking about some specific meterorites…? …located… where?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      There are a bunch of meteorites (both carbonaceous chondrites and Fe-Ni meteorites) that give ages at 4.6 b.y. or just slightly younger. You can look it up on line, or in Brent Dalrymple’s book “The Age of the Earth”. They are our best evidence that the solar system as a whole formed at that time (including some moon rocks which date to 4.6 b.y.). And they are the oldest objects that we can touch…

  5. MadScientist says:

    I only have an Erdos number of 3. :( It’s not surprising that the creationists can’t tell one animal tooth from the next; after all they have such great difficulty telling their head from – well -.

    What is the etymology of “Hemphillian” – did that have something to do with the smoldering mountain of hemp as seen in The History of the World?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Cute idea, MadScientist, but no, it’s more prosaic than that. The late Miocene beds in the northern Texas Panhandle near the town of Hemphill, Texas, are the basis for the latest Miocene Hemphillian land mammal age. Nearby Mt. Blanco, Texas, is the basis for the Blancan (early Pliocene) land mammal age. And the beds and fossils in Clarendon County, Texas, are the basis for the middle-late Miocene Clarendonian stage. That was just what the Wood Committee did when they set up the mammalian time scale in 1941.

  6. Markx says:

    The creationist statement of “…. the tooth of an extinct pig..” surely in itself evokes some thoughts of acceptance of evolution, implying knowledge of the relationship between pigs and peccaries, and that pigs (or peccaries) like that no longer exist today, having evolved into the modern types.

    • Wrong says:

      I’ve seen this one before, but most creationists don’t have any trouble acknowledging that species become extinct, or that many species are similar. Of course, their illogical arguments would lead to a reduction in biodiversity over time, but if you ever suggest that to them, they’ll just interject that “God wouldn’t let that happen.”

  7. Somite says:

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. It has that gouldian feeling that has been missing for too long in evolutionary science writing. Thanks Dr. Prothero.

    • Thanks, Somite! As a former protege of Steve, I’m flattered to be compared to him! I can see why it was such a struggle to come up with a good column every month, but now I’m finding it’s an even bigger task to come up with one a week! That’s a lot of writing, either way…

  8. Loren Petrich says:

    I did an image search for peccaries and wild pigs, and I discovered that they look very similar — at least if one does not look very closely. Peccaries have much narrower snouts than pigs, for instance.

    As to bones in museum shelves, might a good way of making them more readily available be to create 3D scans of them? Or is the technology still not yet ready for that or cheap enough?

    But if one could, then one could then distribute the scans over the Internet.

    • Loren,
      Ideally, in a world where museums had unlimited money and staff, that would be great! But most museums have tiny budgets and few staff, just barely enough to put the specimens in the right drawers and have correct info on their labels. Those which have a bit more money have begun to put their catalogue information online (AMerican Museum, Smithsonian, Berkeley, Yale, among others), and a few (like Berkeley) even have color photos of key specimens which helps a lot.
      But for what I’m doing, there’s no substitute for handling the actual fossil itself, making my own measurements and photos, and seeing it next to other crucial specimens–none of which would be replaced by 3-D imagery. Paleontologists embrace technology whenever they can, but certain things still must be done the old-fashioned way…

      • Oh, and I forgot to mention: MANY museums have almost no budget or staff, so they have large collections that are completely uncurated, so even THEY don’t know what they have. PLUS the work I’m doing will change the species (and sometimes genus) name on a LOT of specimens that were crudely (and incorrectly) identified when they were first catalogued decades ago. Yet even big museums like the American Museum don’t have the time or staff to recurate and update the labels on specimens that I published on over 30 years ago… so I learn never to trust the online species ID, or even the label in the tray, but ID it myself…

  9. Ambidexter says:

    Many if not most creationists don’t see evolution as a scientific theory but as a competing dogma to their Biblical-literalist Christian fundamentalism. Darwin wasn’t a scientist, he was a prophet. Also they see the conflict between evolution and their dogma as a zero-sum game. If evolution loses then creationism automatically wins. Creationists’ rejection of the real world is multifaceted.

    • Allen says:

      As a proponent of intelligent design, I would hope to offer a measured response to these concerns. I would be the first to agree that there are Christians that engage in a fundamentalist zero-sum game with a bent toward anti-intellectualism. So, please understand that my response is in no way meant to flame or otherwise troll these comment streams, but rather to approach this as open dialogue. By observation, the concerns the creationists and proponents of intelligent design seem to be thus: conflicting theories regarding the evolutionary mechanism, marginalization from the academy which seems to result in the afore mentioned rejection of the real world, and the political structures which make first hand testing and observation of new fossil discoveries difficult. Unlike the anti-intellectual fundamentalists, there are many of us who would enjoy a place at the proverbial table where honest discussion could take place. For many of us, the lack of informational input in the Darwinian mechanism, irreducible complexity of microscopic cellular structures, and a lack of transitional fossils are a hard pill to swallow.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Allen, anyone who claims there are no transitional fossils should read Don’s excellent book, Evolution, shown at the head of this blog. I am sorry to be blunt, but this claim of yours shows that you are not really interested in honest dialogue.

        Yours is an especially odd claim, because it is even inconsistent with many IDers’ ideas about evolution. I thought IDers believed in god-directed evolution (hence implying transitional fossils). If you don’t think there are transitional fossils, does that mean you believe in multiple special creations?

  10. Havok says:

    Allen, as Lou points out, transitional fossils exist.
    Also, evolutionary processes have been shown to increase information, and irreducible complexity of the sense required by ID (ie. not evolvable) has not been shown for any structure.

    Your objections to evolution seem to be without merit :-)