Reports of the National Center for Science Education
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Volume
18
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No.
5
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September-October
1998

Lucy and the ICR: Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

In November 1973, during his first major expedition to the Hadar region of Ethiopia, paleo-anthropologist Donald Johanson stumbled upon a single locking knee joint--a type found only in hominids. Inspired by this discovery, Johanson kept digging and the following year discovered the now famous "Lucy" skeleton that established the existence of Australopithecus afarensis. Although most scientists saw Lucy as excellent evidence for human evolution, creationists were of a much different opinion. On May 28, 1997, I attended an Institute for Creation Research (ICR) lecture series conducted by Richard LaHaye. The lectures were presented at a local church to an audience sympathetic to the ICR's version of Bible-based creation "science". LaHaye's talks were entitled "The Differences between Creationism and Evolution" and "Nature's Challenge to Evolution". Among the more interesting claims LaHaye made were:

  • If humans came into existence millions of years ago as scientists propose, simple arithmetic shows that all of the world's landmass couldn't support the number of graves required to accommodate all those corposes. In his words, "We'd be up to our necks in bodies."
  • Archaeopteryx was a simple bird, nothing more. In particular, LaHaye erroneously claimed that other birds have teeth like Archaeopteryx and that the claws on the specimen are not particularly interesting because "other birds, like bats, also have claws on their wings."

LaHaye's lecture continued with standard creationist arguments including, "What use is 1/5th of an eye?", "Horse evolution is simply the breeding of bigger horses," and "There are no transitional fossils." He also offered $200 000 to anyone who can prove to him that evolution is a fact.

The audience was sympathetic to LaHaye's testimony, punctuating his discourse with words of "amen" and nodding their heads in approval. Up to this point in the lecture, LaHaye's basic argument was that evolutionists were intelligent, but because of their bias, they had made serious mistakes in their interpretation of the available data.

LaHaye then started discussing Lucy. Instead of attacking the evolutionist interpretation of Lucy's skeleton, however, LaHaye described how Lucy clearly was an apelike creature from the waist up (anatomically speaking), but below the waist, had a locking knee joint, indicating that she walked upright. How to explain such a strange, transitional discovery to an audience of creationist believers? LaHaye's answer was to recount a lecture Donald Johanson delivered at the University of Missouri in 1987. LaHaye claimed that when Johanson was pressed with a question by a member of the audience, he admitted that the knee was found 2-3 kilometers away from Lucy, a stratigraph separation of nearly 70 meters.

As LaHaye made this startling revelation, a chorus of gasps emanated from the audience in the church. To their minds, LaHaye had established that evolutionists were not only wrong about the data, but that they lie and conceal information in order to promote the dogma of evolutionism. Unfortunately for LaHaye and his audience, however, his claim wasn't true.

Of course, Johanson had in fact discovered the locking knee joint prior to his discovery of Lucy (who has a knee joint of her own), but the two discoveries have always been treated as discrete specimens of the same species. All of the bones shown in photographs of Lucy were found at a single location during Johanson's subsequent expedition of 1974. And anyone who actually read Johanson's Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind would have come away with the same understanding. Other speciemsn of Australopithecus afarensis have been discovered and have occasionally been referred to as "Lucy" in the interest of brevity, but there is no mistake among members of the paleontological community regarding the details of Johanson's "Lucy" skeleton.

In the course of researching this controversy, I discovered that NCSE member Jim Lippard had already waged a long battle with creationists over this very issue (a full account is available at Lippard's web site <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/knee-joint.html>. According to Lippard, ICR President John Morris, in a 1993 telephone interview, indicated that he was aware the claim was false, but didn't feel it warranted a retraction of his 1989 article, "Was 'Lucy' an Ape-man?"

I sent a letter to LaHaye on June 9, 1997, explaining what I had discovered, including what Morris had said during his interview with Lippard in 1993. In the letter, I asked LaHaye simply to retract his statement and have it noted on Lippard's talk.origins FAQ page on the knee joint controversy. I also included the latest edition of the FAQ which noted the creationist track record on the Lucy myth.

Since I received no response to my first letter, I wrote to the pastor of the church where I heard LaHaye's lectures. I remained bothered that all those attending the lecture did not know what had previously transpired in regard to his Lucy claims and might be continuing to perpetuate this erroneous claim. In the letter, I recounted my research, Morris's acknowledgment, and the apparent continuing willingness of the ICR, as I put it in my letter, "to bear false witness against thy neighbor." In conclusion, I expressed concern that "the ICR is not only corrupting science, but the good deeds of the Christian faith as well. Ultimately, their strategy may wind up chasing individuals away from Christ if they are not called to task." Then I sent 2 more letters--one to Morris and a second one to LaHaye. In each, I again noted that they were "bearing false witness" and that I had contacted the pastor ofthe local church where the lecture had been conducted.

Within two weeks, I received a letter from LaHaye informing me that "more pressing matters" had kept him from responding to me earlier. He also advised me that his letter was his personal stance on the subject and should not be considered the policy of the ICR. Basically, LaHaye refused to acknowledge that he was in error. He wrote, "I do not conisder the information you forwarded as evidence, of truth, that Johanson's statement was in fact not made." Of course, no one disputes that Johanson made the comment about the knee joint's discovery in a separation location from the Lucy skeleton. The issue in dispute, however, was whether Johanson implied that the knee joint was consolidated into Lucy's skeleton. Johanson never made this implication, and all of his published works prior to the 1987 speech at the University of Missouri are also quite clear that the first knee joint, AL 129, is a spearate fossil from Lucy. Furthermore, the ICR seems to be unaware that the very way the specimens were classified (AL 129 for the original knee joint and AL 288-1 for the Lucy skeleton) indicates that the two were found in different locations.

LaHaye's letter continued, "Please furnish me with written evidence that ... Johanson did not say what has been stated that he did say [at the University of Missouri on November 20, 1987]."

Of course, I already had the evidence that LaHaye demanded--courtesy of Lippard's web site outlining his previous correspondence with Johanson on this very controversy.

Even though LaHaye wouldn't acknowledge his error, he nonetheless revealed, "For your information, ICR has directed me not to bring up the subject of 'Lucy's knee joint' in my lectures and I will abide by their request. But for me to retract my statement for you or Jim Lippard, I don't think so. If you think I am going to jump through some kind of hoop for the Skeptics Society or the FAQ (who or what ever they think they are), forget it."

Before I could respond, I received a letter from Morris in his capacity as President of the ICR. In it he noted, "I was unaware that Dick LaHaye was speaking on subjects that would include the details of Lucy's anatomy and have since discussed this with him. His lecture topics were to include biblical creationism and its societal relevance, not the scientific details. Not being a scientist, we had intended for him to point people to the ICR materials for scientific content." Unfortunately for his audience, that directive did not prevent LaHaye from making reference to research he conducted at the ICR's facilities with the aid of other creation "scientists".

What impressed me the most, however, was Morris's contention that, "While I am grateful that Lippert [sic] pointed out to me the details, correcting my misunderstanding, no scientist here at ICR uses the questionable knee in their scientific writings or lectures any more. It is regrettable that LaHaye picked up on something that was written years ago." What Morris didn't include in his letter, though, is that he noted Lucy's "questionable knee" (using that very term) in several published articles after speaking with Jim Lippard. But each time, he didn't clarify what was "questionable" about the knee joint.

Furthermore, 3 months after I received Morris's reply, ICR adjunct faculty member Donald Chittick lectured at North Seattle Christian Fellowship, repeating the knee joint allegation to an audience ofmore than 200. When I confronted Chittick after the lecture, he appeared completely unaware that Morris had retracted the bogus claim regarding Lucy. Even though I presented Chittick with a copy of Morris's letter, he refused to retract his claim and demanded to see the evidence that was already provided to him by Lippard 3 years earlier. I subsequently sent those materials to Chittick again and asked him to clarify his stance on Lucy. He did reply shortly after receiving my letter, but did not discuss Lucy at all. Instead, he claimed that he had very little to do with the ICR, even though he is listed as an adjunct faculty member of the organization, praises their work in his lectures, sells their literature, and encourages his audience to sign up for ICR monthly reports. Nevertheless, subsequent monitoring of his lectures indicates that he has dropped the claim regarding Lucy's knee joint.

Meanwhile, my follow-up letter to Morris requested a clarification on his own writings regarding Lucy's "questionable knee" and suggested a rigorous peer review of all ICR materials. I sent a second letter to John Morris immediately following Chittick's lecture and one more letter to LaHaye. I explained to LaHaye that he appeared to be even more confused about Lucy than I had originally thought. In an attempt to clarify the issues, I enclosed a personal letter from Johanson to Lippard that not only detailed Johanson's research regarding Australopithecus afarensis, but also discussed the lecture that led to the bogus accusation.

As yet, I have received no further responses from either LaHaye or Morris. Why they decided to respond to me at all and institute some form of damage control is still a mystery. It is possible that my attempt to contact the pastor may have gotten their attention. It is also possible that my specific use of wording, such as "bearing false witness against thy neighbor", may have struck a chord that they found impossible to ignore. It could have been a combination of both. In any event, creationism watchers should be on the lookout for any future attempts by creationists to propagate this fallacious accusation.

Addendum:

On September 5, 1998, the official ICR website updated its content with the full archive of "Dr. John's Q&As" which also appears as a section of the monthly ICR publication, "Back to Genesis". Despite Morris's assurances that the ICR would no longer propagate the bogus knee joint myth, his November 1989 article "Was Lucy an Ape-man?" now appears on the ICR website without a disclaimer or retraction.

By Pierre Stromberg
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

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