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Image of God or image of an ape?

British Museum of Natural History exhibition stumped on evolution


Published: 21 January 2016 (GMT+10)

On 18th December 2015, the British Museum of Natural History (BMNH) opened their new ‘Human Evolution’ exhibition. A few days later, I travelled to London to take a look.

Fig 1. Left to right: the BMNH’s reconstructions of the faces of Homo sapiens (juvenile), Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis (female), Homo antecessor (juvenile), Homo heidelbergensis and Homo floresiensis (female). Credit: Francis Gearty.
Click image to enlarge.

It begins with the usual assertion of ‘the fact of evolution’ with a sign which reads, “The fossil record shows that the human family tree is made up of many ancient relatives, and that ape-like ancestors evolved into us.” Most significantly, however, it goes on to say, “Exactly who our direct ancestors were within this family tree is a subject of scientific debate”, and this admission is reflected throughout the exhibition. Speaking of the first display, museum palaeontologist Professor Chris Stringer commented,

Well, we’ve attempted here to represent about 7 million years of human evolution on one diagram and you’ll notice a lot of skulls there with different species names … But you’ll notice also, unlike many of these depictions, we haven’t joined them up with lines of ancestors and descendents and that’s a reflection of the uncertainty about how these forms are related …1

In other words, despite there being “a lot” of different species, he had found it impossible to put them in an order showing a clear evolutionary progression from ape-like creatures to man.

Also significant is that the chart contains just two main groups, one identified as ‘humans’ and other as ‘australopithecines’—with nothing bridging them. ‘Species’ such as Homo neanderthalensis (‘Neanderthal man’) and Homo erectus (‘Peking man’) are placed in the blue area and described as ‘humans’, with just one species, Homo sapiens, in the subgroup, ‘modern humans’. Species such as Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus are placed in the orange area and described as ‘australopithecines’. Since ‘australopithecine’ means ‘southern ape’ one might reasonably conclude that all these different ‘species’ (collectively known as ‘hominins’)2 should be classified as either ‘apes’ or ‘humans’, with no clear examples of ‘ape-men’.

Fig. 2. Hypothetical reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis by St Louis Zoo, Missouri. Note the ‘whites’ in the eyes giving the creature a more human-like appearance and an impression of intelligence. Credit: Ivan Burgener. 

Further inside the exhibition are reconstructions of the heads and faces of various ‘human species’—Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo floresiensis (fig. 1). What is so striking, however, is their similarities rather than their differences. They are all, clearly, so very human. In contrast the fossil skulls of australopithecines are so clearly ape-like (figs 2 and 3). Again, where are the transitional forms linking australopithecines to humans? Towards the end of the exhibition there is a full reconstruction of a ‘Neanderthal man’, leaving no doubt that, despite all that’s been said about this ‘species’ in the past, the museum scientists understand him to be fully human (fig. 4).

Given their difficulties identifying a plausible evolutionary progression, showing how australopithecines slowly turned into humans, how can evolutionists be so confident that this is what actually happened? The answer, I have come to see, has very little to do with science.

Why are so many scientists convinced of evolution?

First, evolutionists are committed to the doctrine of ‘philosophical naturalism’ (otherwise known as ‘scientism’ or ‘materialism’), the belief that everything can and should be explained only by natural processes. According to Professor Paul Davies, “Science takes as its starting point that life wasn't made by a god or a supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously, as a natural process.”3


Fig. 3. BMNH’s hypothetical reconstruction of Australopithecus africanus in a previous exhibition. Again, note the use of artistic licence to give the impression of human-like intelligence.

Second, living apes and humans share many similarities and this is taken as proof that we share a common evolutionary ancestor. A book on sale in the museum’s shop is titled, 99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up, and argues that our DNA differs from that of chimpanzees by only 1%.4 (See fig. 5.)

Third, they believe the rocks to be millions of years old and that the fossils they contain document the long history of life on Earth. Remains of creatures found in deeper rocks are understood to be older and therefore the ancestors of those found nearer the surface. In their thinking, australopithecine fossils are found in rocks millions of years older than human fossils, so we must have evolved from them.

Science and scientism

Modern science flourished in the seventeenth century because people came to see the universe as being governed by natural laws which act consistently from one day to the next.5 Rainbows, for example, were understood to appear in the sky, not because a god had supernaturally put them there, but because natural processes had produced them. Based on this thinking, seventeenth century scientists such as Isaac Newton sought to discover these laws and, wherever possible, state them in mathematical terms.

People like Professor Davies cited above take this thinking one step further. They argue that, not only is the universe today governed by natural laws, but also that it came into being through natural laws. For them it is axiomatic (self-evident) that the origins of space, galaxies, stars, planets and even life on Earth can all be explained without reference to the act of a supernatural being. This, however, is not science but scientism,6 because no experiments or mathematics or logic have ever shown it to be true. It is simply what some people have chosen to believe. Significantly, this ‘worldview’ is quite different to that held by many of the founders of modern science.7,8 People like Newton believed in a special creation and a universe which, having been produced supernaturally, would thereafter be governed by natural laws. In fact, Newton himself was a biblical creationist and accepted the account of the origins taught in the book of Genesis.9

Fig. 4. BMNH’s reconstruction of Homo neanderthalensis (‘Neandertal man’) showing him to be fully human.

Does sharing DNA with chimpanzees prove evolution?

Even if humans did share 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, this would not prove that we share a common evolutionary ancestor. A perfectly reasonable alternative explanation could be that we share a common designer.10 Nor would it demonstrate that we are 99% chimp. We share 50% of our DNA with bananas; yet we are clearly not half banana.

In fact, the figure of 99% similarity is very outdated and many evolutionists would agree that it is far lower than this—perhaps no higher than 81%.11 Remarkably, scientific papers as far back as 2007 refer to the ‘myth of 1%’.12 If we consider just the Y chromosome, the chimp has only two-thirds as many distinct genes or gene families as humans and only 47% as many protein-coding elements as humans.13

Are the rocks really millions of years old?

Fig. 5. A book on sale in the BMNH’s bookshop incorrectly stating that we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

Evolutionists claim that this is an indisputable fact of science based mainly on radioactive dating.14 What they don’t tell people, however, is that different radioactive ‘dating methods’ can lead to very different conclusions about the age of the samples being tested. For example, some wood was found buried in basalt rock in the Crinum coal mine in Australia. The wood was ‘dated’ by the radiocarbon method and yielded a result of around 45,000 years. The basalt was ‘dated’ by the Potassium-Argon method and yielded a result of 45,000,000 years.15 Moreover, numerous scientific observations point to the rocks being far younger than evolutionists claim.16 Particularly strong evidence for the fossils not being millions of years old arises from the discovery of preserved organic material in dinosaur remains. This includes DNA, proteins, blood vessels, soft tissues and blood cells. None of these would be expected to last millions of years.17

Biblical creationists argue that the majority of the sedimentary rocks were laid down in the great Flood recorded in Genesis 6–8. Most if not all of the australopithecine fossils might be understood to be the remains of creatures that were buried at this time. The human fossils are understood to be post-Flood, and many are thought to be the remains of people who perished in caves soon after the dispersion from Babel—hence the term ‘caveman’. We would agree with the museum’s classification of the fossils into these two groups (australopithecines and humans), although we would not say the different humans belonged to different species. Significantly, studies of DNA samples have shown that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus both interbred with modern humans making clear that they were not separate species.18 Some modern humans have Neandertal-like features, such as a pronounced brow ridge and a sloping forehead, an example being the Russian boxer, Nikolai Valuev.

Why does it matter?

If we are simply products of a mindless evolutionary process, then we are nothing more than bags of chemicals. If so, then we have no more value than bacteria and we are not responsible for our actions.19 Moreover, our desires—whatever they might be—must be perfectly natural because that’s how evolution turned us out. Can you imagine telling this to a group of teenagers? If human life is of no greater value than that of plants or animals, then abortion, euthanasia, experiments on embryos and human cloning are all perfectly reasonable.

In contrast, if we carry the image of God as the Bible teaches (Genesis 1:26–27), then we have great value and a responsibility to honour that image in ourselves and others. To deface it by hurting others is crime against God and against humanity. To abort a baby or to deliberately end the life of an elderly person is to ‘play God’.

How we view ourselves will be greatly influenced by what we believe about our origins. Museums and churches, therefore, should be very careful what they teach about these things.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Inside Science, BBC Radio 4, 17 December 2015. Return to text
  2. ‘Hominins’ are understood by evolutionists to be the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors (including members of the genera Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus); Return to text
  3. Davies, P., The Origin of Life, Penguin, London, p. 4, 2003. Return to text
  4. Silvertown, J., ed., 99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up, Natural History Museum, London, 2009. Return to text
  5. Sarfati, J., The biblical roots of modern science, 29 September 2009; Return to text
  6.  ‘Scientism’ is the belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry; Return to text
  7. Scientists of the past who believed in a Creator; Return to text
  8. Doyle, S., Einstein’s Heroes—biblical creationists, Creation 36(1):54–55, January 2014; Return to text
  9. Newton, I., The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended, published posthumously 1728, cited in Renfrew, C., Before Civilization, Penguin Books, UK, pp. 22–23, 1976. Return to text
  10. Statham, D., Homology made simple, Creation 34(4):43–45, October 2012; Return to text
  11. Batten, D., The myth of 1%: Human and chimp DNA are very different, Creation 36(1):35–37, January 2014; Return to text
  12. Cohen, J., Relative differences: the myth of 1%, Science 316(5833):1836, 2007. Return to text
  13. Catchpoole, D., Y chromosome shock, Creation 33(2):56, April 2011; Return to text
  14. Return to text
  15. Snelling, A., Radioactive ‘dating’ in conflict!, Creation 20(1):24–27, December 1997; Return to text
  16. Batten, D., Age of the earth: 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe, 4 June 2009; Return to text
  17. Smith, C., Dinosaur soft tissue, 28 January 2014; Return to text
  18. Mayell, H., Our species mated with other human species, study says, National Geographic News, March 6, 2002; Return to text
  19. Statham, D., Are we nothing more than a bag of chemicals? 29 July 2010; Return to text

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Readers’ comments
Hans G., Australia, 21 January 2016

In picture 3...nice mutton chops. A hairdresser had to evolve a bit earlier.

Many have to do the next step to 'evolve', become born again and all the apes disappear from the family tree.

Neal P., United States, 21 January 2016

GREAT article, again, as usual!

Gian Carlo B., Puerto Rico, 21 January 2016

Yesterday I started university and I'm taking General Chemistry II and Precalculus I this semester. Of course, in Social Science Into. II we will be taking about social change and will no doubt be introduced to evolution (again..) and they'll reference the fossil record especially the so called 'hominids'. It is true, from the Australopithecines and 'lower', they are all ancient apes, while the Homos are all humans - no transitional forms. It is scientific dishonesty still in university to claim that the Neanderthals and Australopithecines are transitional forms when data say otherwise. The more I hear about fossils, the more I expect either erroneous information or confusion about the findings.

Funny about the comment, "Can you imagine telling this to a group of teenagers?" Well in my social science class and in conference specifically regarding sexuality, they don't push the evolutionary implications very explicitly (they claim evolution isn't an absolute truth but teach it anyway as I have observed), nonetheless, we keep reading literary works whose authors push the evolution tall tale axiomatically and don't honestly examine the evidence. So in a way, they are teaching our students that our desires are 'normal' but don't necessarily connect the implications (as far as I have observed). Great article! Evolution really is bankrupt and will continue to view it that way. ;) God bless!

Murk P., Canada, 21 January 2016

If we are a bag of chemicals (which is a necessary consequence of believing great grandpa is an ape) then our thoughts cannot comport with truth - since there is no such thing. Good old chance is king.

So then why do they have museum displays that purport to explain truth ?

Sebastián F., Chile, 21 January 2016

Hello :) Im an agnostic creationist i believe but im not certain (has nothing to do with my belief in God which is permanent) Ive concluded it's uncertain whether we evolved or were created. I have an open mind and give everything a possibility to be true. I've heard about evolution and how supposedly evolved, but also these articles which i consider great as they give an alternate explanation to what happened in the past. I have 2 questions which makes me wonder. 1- Cats and lions share 95% dna and they are in fact related so, how come apes and humans are not related if they share 96% (or probably less who knows) DNA with us.. what if we are the primate kind after all. whats the difference between those felines' relation and ours with primates. 2- I have been answered this question before but tbh i did not understand. We can take a DNA test and find out whether a person is our child (or parent) which means it somehow shows our "common ancestry" somehow, Question is.. doesnt DNA show common ancestry with older species as well? That's all. Keep up the good work and thanks in advance. God bless.

Dominic Statham responds

Thanks for your questions.

I would encourage you to turn first to the Bible rather than ‘science’ in order to decide whether to believe in special creation or evolution. At CMI, we follow Christ and His apostles in understanding Scripture to be the inerrant Word of God and in taking Genesis to be a historical account of origins. Along with the sixteenth century reformers, we argue against putting the Bible under the thinking of men and therefore argue against using ‘science’ to interpret Scripture. Rather we endorse the principle that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’.

If I want to be sure that I’m understanding the first chapter of Genesis correctly, I don’t turn to what scientists say, but to what the rest of Scripture says. For example, when God gave the ten commandments to Moses he said, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8–11).

Many however, don’t accept this and try to fit millions of years and evolution into the Bible. They say the days of creation were really long periods of time, or that there was a gap of millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 or that Genesis 1 is poetry rather than a historical narrative. But why do they argue in this way? I believe for many the explanation is that they have been persuaded that ‘science’ is an unassailable authority and that this unassailable authority has proven that the world is millions of years old and that evolution is true—so they think they’ve got to fit all this into the Bible somehow. But this is bad theology because it puts ‘the Fall’ before sin and makes God out to be responsible for disease, violence, suffering and death. Genesis makes clear that none of these things existed in God’s original perfect creation and that they are here only because of our sin. Evolution is also bad science as many articles on demonstrate.

Different ‘species’ within the cat family (Felidae) are known to interbreed. Even jaguars from S. America can produce fertile offspring when mated with leopards from Africa. This supports the biblical view that they share recent common ancestors—i.e. that they are descended from a pair of the cat kind that were preserved in Noah’s Ark. In contrast, humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees.

Figures for DNA similarities vary widely according to how they are measured, so these must always be taken with a generous pinch of salt. DNA tests for paternity and maternity are valid because it is certain that humans are descended from humans and there is only one generation separating parents and children.

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