Nebraska Man

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The divine comedy


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This illustration of H. haroldcookii is believed to have been modeled on the Java Man.

Nebraska Man was the name of a hypothetical ape indigenous to North America, which was given the taxonomic name of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. It was proposed in 1922, but the identification was soon determined to be a mistake and the original proposal was formally retracted in 1927.

The tale of Nebraska Man should have ended then and there, and the only reason anyone has ever heard of it today is because the creationist community have latched onto it as another "proof" of the great "evolutionary conspiracy."[1]

[edit] Discovery, proposal and rejection

The existence of the primate was proposed by Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1922 based on the analysis of a tooth discovered by a rancher named Harold Cook in Nebraska in 1917. Osborn strongly believed it to be the tooth of a primate and gave it the genus Hesperopithecus which roughly translates as 'ape of the west'. He published his claim in American Museum Novitates.

Now Osborn was a paleontologist of some note — he was the first to identify both Tyrannosaurus rex, and Velociraptor — and was president of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years (which, incidentally, was the publisher of the American Museum Novitates journal).

Having said that, Osborn was also very keen on eugenics, and among other things insisted that only the "negroid" race had descended from apes in Africa, whereas white people had evolved separately (and earlier). He even received an honorary doctorate from Hitler for his work on eugenics.[2]

So it is possible that Osborn had motivation to find evidence which supported his notion of an alternative evolutionary path for hominids. But regardless of Osborn's motives, his belief that he had found a primate tooth was not completely unreasonable.[3] A fossil of an antelope had been discovered in North America only a few years earlier, and this made the notion of a primate journeying from Africa or Asia plausible. Furthermore as a result of weathering and damage, the tooth did bear a striking resemblance to known hominid teeth.

Prudence would have suggested the best course of action at that time would have been to conduct further investigation. Osborn, however, gave into hubris and had casts made of the tooth and submitted them to 26 institutions in Europe and North America. But the lack of corroborating evidence was a major issue, and for the most part, his discovery was ignored. One exception was the British anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, who was so enthused he arranged for an artist to create a (fanciful) drawing of the new hominid.[3]

However, further investigation in 1925 at the site determined that the tooth was actually from a peccaryWikipedia's W.svg (a prehistoric pig) and was not related to any primate. Osborn did not mention the find in any of his writings after 1925. By 1927 Science magazine had published a formal retraction of the original claim.[4]

And thus, the Nebraska Man was consigned to the reject bin of scientific history, along with the tens of thousands of other discarded hypotheses that are a normal part of scientific progress.

[edit] Resurrection

Seemingly out of nowhere, the story of Nebraska Man appears to have been first revived in 1979 by Duane Gish in a book published by Creation-Life Publishers called Evolution? The Fossils Say No!, where Gish quipped "I believe this is a case in which a scientist made a man out of a pig and the pig made a monkey out of the scientist."[5]

The story was developed further in 1982 in the anti-Darwinist book The Neck of the Giraffe by Francis Hitching. Hitching raised the story of Nebraska Man in his review of the Scopes trial.[6] In the book Hitching claims that during the trial "...the Hesperopithecus tooth was proudly displayed as evidence that man had a long evolutionary past" (p. 211) and that "the trial that became a significant turning point in U.S. educational history...was steered towards its verdict by a pig's tooth" (p. 212). Both of these claims are untrue, court transcripts indicate that neither the tooth nor the concept of "Nebraska Man" was ever mentioned by either side during the Scopes Trial.[3]

Since then, the tale can be found in just about every creationist resource, usually with inflated hyperbole and allegations of scandal and conspiracy:

  • "Many authorities gave Osborn their support (for the discovery)... Then all the drawings of 'Hesperopithecus haroldcooki... were hurriedly removed from evolutionary literature."[7]
  • "But, what exactly was the scientific proof for Nebraska Man? The answer is a tooth. That's right; he found one tooth! The top scientists of the world examined this tooth and appraised it as proof positive of a prehistoric race in America. What a classic case of excessive imagination!... Years after the Scopes trial, the entire skeleton of the animal from which the initial tooth came was found. As it turns out, the tooth upon which Nebraska Man was constructed belonged to an extinct species of pig... What an embarrassment to the scientific community and a noteworthy commentary on our human nature. Needless to say, little publicity was given to the discovered error. Surely, there is a lesson here for us concerning the reliability of so-called "expert testimony," which is so often used to manipulate and intimidate the layman."[8]

While refuting all of the absurd claims made by creationists would take forever, as regards the above quote: there are only two scientists who ever took the idea seriously, the complete skeleton was unearthed just before the Scopes Trial started, and the retraction of the claim was both published in Science and mentioned on the front page of the New York Times in 1928.[3]

[edit] References

  1. "The Nebraska Man Scandal". 
  2. Michael Barker (27 Feb 2012). "The Life And Controversies Of Henry Fairfield Osborn". 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 John Wolf and James S. Mellett (1985). "The Role of "Nebraska Man" in the Creation-Evolution Debate". Creation Evolution Journal 5 (2): 31-43. 
  4. Gregory, W.K. (1927). "Hesperopithecus apparently not an ape nor a man". Science 66 (1720): 579–81. 
  5. Gish, Duane T (1979). Evolution? The Fossils Say No!. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers. 
  6. Hitching, Francis (1982). The Neck of the Giraffe. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields. 
  7. "The Nebraska Man Scandal". 
  8. "Nebraska Man Hoax". 
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