Disagreement over Homo naledi offers fascinating peek into creationist peer review

Guest post by David MacMillan. David MacMillan is a former creationist and AiG supporter who earned a degree in physics in 2012 and began writing publicly against creationism in 2014. He has written a previous series on creationist arguments for Panda’s Thumb and just completed filming We Believe In Dinosaurs, an upcoming documentary about creationism, science, and the Ark Encounter.

Scientists have recently discovered a new species in our family tree. The unearthing in 2015 of more than 1,550 bones buried in a South African cave, representing as many as fifteen individuals, was one of the most significant finds in the story of humankind’s descent. The new species, Homo naledi, has been described as a small bipedal hominin with a mixture of human and australopithecine traits. Perhaps most exciting was the location of the bones; their burial en masse in a remote, hard-to-access cave suggests that they were intentionally placed there, establishing the earliest signs of deliberate disposal of remains by early hominins.

As I expected at the time, creationists were quick to insist that H. naledi couldn’t possibly be evidence for human evolution. However, though they all predictably agreed that it wasn’t a transitional form, they were completely unable to agree on what it was. Some saw the apparently intentional burial in a cave (which would have required the use of fire for artificial light) as undeniable evidence of humanity, while others pointed to the small cranial size and numerous australopithecine traits as an argument against this. Dr. Joel Duff of Naturalis Historia wrote a series of posts as the various responses emerged, illustrating the utter inability of creationists to reach any sort of resolution.

The controversy gives us outsiders a glimpse into just what makes these groups tick. Creationist organizations are less focused on research and more focused on presenting a veneer of authority, as this earns the greatest amount of loyalty from their followers. So it was important for them to present an authoritative-sounding answer; after all, if there really are no “missing links”, then the true nature of a discovery like H. naledi should be readily apparent. The disagreement in their collective responses, however, only demonstrated what mainstream science already recognized: H. naledi really did have a mixture of modern and plesiomorphic traits.

Dr. Todd Wood is one of the few creationists who seems to make a genuine effort to approach evidence logically and honestly. In fact, Wood’s honesty about the positive evidence for evolution is one of the reasons I originally felt like I could be genuine in my own examination of the evidence, which ultimately led to my accepting science. Wood responded to the discovery of H. naledi rather differently than the larger creationist organizations. Rather than immediately claiming to know what the new species really was, he withheld judgment and advocated systematic research.

Wood’s approach seems to be a bit of a thorn in the side of Answers In Genesis. They can’t really attack him outright, because he affirms their brand of six-day young-earth creationism, but his rejection of their authoritarian mindset and his acceptance of sound research principles has put him at odds with them more than once. He accepts that humans share well over 90% of their genome with other apes and he accepts the evidence that nonavian theropod dinosaurs had feathers. The knee-jerk response of Answers In Genesis to the discovery of H. naledi was to label them nonhuman apes, a view that Wood ultimately rejected in his research paper on the subject.

One of AiG’s researchers, writing under the pseudonym of “Jean O’Micks”, initially agreed with Wood’s conclusions that H. naledi had too many human features to be considered an ape, but then reversed his view in a second article to match AiG’s initial claims. In response, Wood submitted an article to the Answers Research Journal pointing out that O’Micks reached this conclusion by excluding inconvenient data.

While I obviously disagree with Wood’s views on origins and the age of the Earth, this paper was nonetheless an excellent example of using sound research principles to identify poor scholarship. What’s most interesting, though, is how AiG responded.

AiG accepted Wood’s submission to ARJ, but only after O’Micks had an opportunity to write a rebuttal. Then, they posted the rebuttal on their website first, ahead of Wood’s article, as shown by this screengrab:

Screen grab

Now, I only have minimal experience publishing in scientific journals, but this is highly irregular. A reputable journal would either allow a letter to the editor in a later issue, or they would require a rebuttal to be submitted as a full peer-reviewed research project in a later issue. Posting a concurrent rebuttal demonstrates that ARJ’s claims of academic integrity and peer review are pure nonsense.

The rebuttal is obviously rushed and hacked-together, and repeats a litany of long-debunked claims about H. naledi: that the burial site might be a fossil graveyard flood deposit, that the bones might be a mixture of australopith and human remains, and that the location of the remains would have been too remote to be accessed for intentional burial. These have been roundly disproven. The cave itself is carved out of sedimentary rock, meaning it would have had to form after the creationist Flood; the bones were disarticulated in place, meaning they are neither a mixture of different species nor a water-borne deposit, and the cavern’s challenging accessibility is the result of additional sedimentation since the burial of these remains.

What was O’Micks response to Wood pointing out problems with his analysis? He simply argued that identifying the (nonexistent) break between humans and apes is a “holistic” undertaking and that he should be free to weight his analysis based on his intuition of what traits are more important. This, of course, is just special pleading.

The world of creationist peer review is a strange and contradictory one, but this whole exchange between Wood and O’Micks gives us a glimpse into how it works. Publications like the Answers Research Journal and JCTS exist because of an argument commonly leveled against creationists: that if their views really had merit, they could get themselves published in peer-reviewed journals. They create their own “journals” both as a defense against this claim and as a way to legitimize their claims of scientific and doctrinal authority.

These publications aren’t strictly vanity publishers, but like vanity publishers, they lack any actual rigorous peer-review process. Joel Duff has written before (here, here, and here) about the numerous shortfalls in creationist fact-checking and peer review, and this is no exception. Creationists are more concerned with validation of their core religious doctrines (a young earth, special creation, and a recent global flood) than whether their submissions have accurate facts or valid analyses.

So when another creationist submits a pointed article challenging AiG’s claims, what can they do? Why, they’ll just hurriedly pen a generic rebuttal and post it preemptively, thereby reestablishing authority and insulating themselves from criticism. This approach is illustrated well by the creationist controversy over H. naledi. Creationism isn’t about science; it’s about control, and control is what Answers In Genesis does best.