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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.