Sunday, 10 February 2008

UNESCO's science newsletter tries to rehabilitate Lucy

Joel Kontinen

UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) publishes a quarterly newsletter entitled A World of Science. The current issue (January-March 2008) takes up the theme it began last year. UNESCO has decided to provide its readers with an in-depth orthodox account of evolution. Thus, the authors of the two-part article, Patricia Vickers-Rich, Peter Trusler and Draga Gelt, present the “Great Story” of our planet, taking the neo-Darwian explanation of the emergence of all life from non-life and its random evolutionary development at face value.

True to the Darwinian story, they do not neglect to mention our supposed foremother Lucy. The most spectacular detail in their article is the use of her old species name Praeanthropus afarensis instead of the more current form Australopithecus afarensis. It seems that Vickers-Rich and her collegues found the term ”Southern ape” (Australopithecus) less convincing than "pre-human" (Praeanthropus). However, in this case changing the name will not change the facts.

Although the authors acknowledge that Lucy has curled figers and toes like modern monkeys, they speculate that this ”pre-human” could well have walked upright in addition to climbing trees. At least they remember to include an illustration of a very ape-like Lucy walking upright in their article.

Perhaps Lucy really needs some support. Lucy’s status as a link between apes and humans has been contested almost since its discovery in 1974. Recently, professor Yoel Rak at Tel Aviv University and colleges published a study in the online version of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they compared the jaw bones of gorillas, chimpanzees and modern humans with those of extinct Australopitheces. They concluded that the ape’s jaw bones were morfologically almost identical with two representatives of the Australopithecus family (Australopithecus robustus and Australopithecus afarensis), but differed considerably from modern man. Rak’s study suggests that Lucy cannot be the foremother of Homo sapiens.

It thus seems that Lucy is just an extinct ape. The authors of the UNESCO newsletter have got it wrong.


Siegel-Itzkovitch, Judy, 2007. Israeli researchers: 'Lucy' is not direct ancestor of humans. (16.4.2007)

Vickers-Rich, Patricia; Trusler, Peter and Gelt, Draga. 2008. The Rise of animals (Part II). A World of Science 6:1, 2-8.

You can read more about Lucy here and here.