The one weakness of the Theory of Evolution — if there is a weakness — has always been the lack of fossil evidence. This paucity of “links” from one species to the next has been the primary target of Creationists and other literalists who refuse to accept that God’s creatures — including humans — have evolved over time. Evolution, however, is as much fact as theory, since numerous simpler biological processes have proven its premise — antibiotic-resistant bacteria being a prime example.
Nonetheless, the significance of this week’s announcement of a newly discovered humanoid species can not be overstated.
Until now, the most famous evolutionary link in the human chain has been Lucy, an almost intact skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy, who’s about 3.18 million years old, represented ground-breaking proof of early ancestors that were neither ape nor human.
Two years ago, American paleoanthropologist Lee Berger asked two amateur cavers to look out for fossils as they squeezed deep inside the bowels of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa. The cave system had already yielded most of its ancient treasures in previous expeditions. But this time explorers burrowed further than ever before.
“What they found in September 2013,” The Washington Post reported last Thursday, “nearly took their breath away: fossil fragments of a relative of the human species, and a cache of bones and teeth buried in ancient clay that would eventually number more than 1,500 — the largest hominin fossil discovery of its kind in Africa.”
What’s more, the bone fragments could be from one of the most primitive members of the genus Homo, which includes today’s Homo sapiens. And there are at least 15 individuals in the collection, from what appears to have been a burial site.
Meanwhile, last week’s news included another link of sorts — one not likely to be celebrated among scientists.
The National Geographic Society, which helped support the expedition in South Africa, has partnered with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. It will no longer be non-profit, and with a 73 per cent share owned by Fox, the esteemed publication will now fall under the purview of the world’s most famous anti-scientific billionaire.
Murdoch has railed against climate scientists and scoffed at “greens” for hindering economic growth. Fox News in the U.S. is renowned for catering almost exclusively to right-wing voices, including Christian fundamentalists. (It’s not hard to imagine what many of the latter think of our new South African relative.)
Company executives insist the partnership won’t intrude on National Geographic’s long legacy of rigorous scientific coverage.
But those are just words. And for people like Murdoch, money does the real talking.