Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ardipithecus Ramidus: The Discovery Channel Special

I took a lot of notes on the Discovery Channel special on Ardipithecus ramidus. One thing in particular stood out, which is the care that scientists took to be accurate.

The best example was the reconstruction of Ardi's face and cranium. They did it twice, once by computer and once by a human artist. The results were almost indistinguishable, which gives us a lot of confidence in what Ardipithecus ramidus looked like ... at least without skin.

The process of reconstructing her look with skin was just as tedious, though it was done only by a human. It took two years.

Think about this. The guy drew in missing bones and extended partial bones. He consulted with the scientists, then went back and drew again. When he got done, he used his knowledge of anatomy to draw in the muscles. Only then did he attempt to draw a picture of Ardipithecus as we might have seen her 4.4 million years ago.

The work was incredible. They made it clear why this research took over a decade.

Important Features of Ardipithecus Ramidus

The great thing about the Ardi documentary is that the information came directly from the scientists working on the project. This wasn't secondhand, unreliable information. This was straight from the horse's mouth!


The big feature of Ardi is that she was bipedal. She was bipedal despite still having a grasping thumb and living in the forest. She was bipedal despite still having a chimp-sized brain.

All of this was completely unexpected to science.

It also establishes one more time that science is learning from the evidence, not fitting it to a pre-existing theory. Science isn't made up. It's read from the evidence, even if it takes scientists down bizarre roads like multiple universes and gravity leaking into another dimension.

That's quantum mechanics, though. Paleontology doesn't require near as much guessing and quantum physics does ... at least not anymore.

By the way, they know Ardi was bipedal from her pelvis. It is drastically different from a chimp pelvis, though it's not as adapted to upright walking as its Australopithecus afarensis descendants from a million years later.

One creationist blog argued that Ardipithecus is just an ape. That's because they want the earth to be young. The fact is, the scientists referred to Ardi's pelvis as "remarkably non-chimp-like." Sorry, guys, this isn't just an ape. This is an ape that walks on two feet.

And Not a Knuckle Walker

This was a surprise to the scientists too. Great apes have some adaptations that make knuckle walking possible. They have stiff wrists, which Ardi didn't have. They have some long bones in their palm, which Ardi also didn't have. She didn't knuckle walk.

This drives bipedality back so close to our last common ancestor with chimps that it becomes clear that knuckle walking is a later adaptation that happened in the ape lineage after the split off.

Living in the Forest

My wife fell asleep for part of the documentary. She woke up and asked me, "Now how do they know Ardi lived in the forest."

I had taken notes. Here goes:

  • They dug up all the fossils of flora and fauna in the surrounding area and in the same strata.

  • They found arboreal (living in trees) monkeys, fruit bats, pigs, seeds of various forest plants, and fossilized wood, among other things.

  • They studied the soil for chemical composition.

  • They analyzed the chemical composition of Ardi's teeth.

They were going all the way! All the above made it clear Ardipithecus ramidus lived in a forest. She had a grasping big toe on her foot, though it was not quite a thumb like chimps have, and her foot is different than her hand.

Ardipithecus Ramidus' Canine Teeth

Although the partial skeleton they found is female, they have found numerous sets of teeth. Thus they know that even on Ardipithecus males, the canine teeth are very small compared to the great apes. They also are not self-sharpening like gorilla and chimp teeth.

Ardi's Way of Life

All this information really threw the scientists. Bipedality has some real problems associated with it.

If your dog sprains a leg, it has no problem hopping around on three. If there's danger, you'll find a dog can really move out on three legs.

If you sprain an ankle, however, just about anything is going to be able to catch you.

Along with the danger, you lose both speed and agility be going about on two legs.

Ardi lost all this, and her species lost their large, sharp canines. They were much less dangerous. What could make such evolutionary developments beneficial?

Ardipithecus Ramidus, Food Provider Extraordinaire

Your dog notices every day what you can do that he can't. You can carry things. You can carry your dog, but your dog can't carry you, no matter how big your dog is.

If you kill something miles from home, you can throw it on your shoulder and carry it home. Even a horse can't do that. A horse needs you to tie the meat to its back or to sit on its back and carry the meat yourself.

It's not just meat. Berries, fruit, whatever. You can carry far more food than any four-footed animal except the largest predators. (A strong lion can probably carry more meat home to mama than you can, but--believe it or not--not as far.)

Apes use their large canine teeth to fight with one another primarily. They fight for the females.

Ardipithecus ramidus stopped fighting for his females, and he started feeding them. He left mama at home to take care of the baby--probably up in a tree--and he got down from the tree, walked a long ways, and then carried food home. She waited for him because he fed her.

Backing Off a Bit for Creationists

Some Christian friends of mine and my wife--who always helps me know how to be a decent human being, which doesn't come natural for me--pointed out that I don't always word things so that they're easy for Christians to swallow.

So true.

Listen, I believe that God breathed into the nostrils of one of Ardi's descendants the breath of life. Until then, I don't believe we were children of Adam. Before that, we were children of nature, mere animals. Then God breathed into man the breath of life, and we became Adam. We became the children of men.

Even better, many thousands of years later--forty thousand, by my theology/scientific guesswork--Jesus Christ brought our spirits to life by his death and resurrection. Through faith in him, Adam can be put to death, and we can be part of the new Man, children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

You can't put that in a test tube; however, if we'd lay down all our conflicting opinions about things we don't understand, and if we'd LIVE the commands of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, even scientists would stand up and take notice. The love of Christ in a people is breathtaking. It declares a Creator much more strongly than the sky and nature do, although they declare a Creator as well.

You creationists may think my belief in evolution is in the way of my belief in a Creator, but that's far from true. My God had me and you in mind before the first organic molecule. He had me and you in mind when the first star popped into existence. Those stars were factories, made possibly with many purposes, but certainly with one--to produce the molecules that would become you.

Did you know that we are made of stardust? Every supernova blasts organic molecules across the sky.

Is that an accident? Is that purposeless?

I don't think so, but if you think the dust Adam was made of was already on the earth when it was formed, you have to think so. Personally, I think it started in the stars.

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