Lucy's Skeleton

The ICR and Lucy: Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

Last update: June 26, 1999

Richard LaHaye's Lecture

On May 28th 1997, I attended an Institute for Creation Research lecture conducted by Richard LaHaye at the Union Hill Alliance Church in Redmond, Washington. Some of you may know Richard's sister-in-law, Beverly, who runs Concerned Women for America. Others may remember Richard's brother, Tim, who founded Christian Heritage College, the Institute for Creation Research, and cofounded the Moral Majority.

For those who are unaware, the Institute for Creation Research is a Christian fundamentalist organization who believes the universe was created by God instantly approximately 8,000 years ago. They have a remarkable amount of support from the Christian Right and encourage their followers to vigorously oppose the teaching of evolution in local school districts.

LaHaye's lectures were titled "The Difference Between Creationism and Evolution", and "Nature's Challenge To Evolution." About sixty people attended the lecture, a third of whom appeared to be under 18 years of age. Among the more interesting claims LaHaye made were...

LaHaye's impressive expertise is not limited to the field of biology. He also ventured into the subject of astronomy with a long and rambling speech preceded with the caveat, "I don't want to dwell on astronomy." At one point, he recalled a recent comet that collided with Saturn but in fact, Shoemaker-Levy collided with Jupiter.

LaHaye continued with the standard creationist arguments like, "What use is 1/5th of an eye?", "Horse evolution is simply the breeding of bigger horses," and "There are no transitional fossils." He did add a mildly interesting twist by offering $200,000 to anyone who can prove to him that evolution is a fact.

The audience was sympathetic to Richard LaHaye's testimony, punctuating his discourse with words of "amen" and nodding their heads in approval. Up to this point in the lecture, Richard 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 noted that when Johanson was pressed by a member of the audience, he admitted that the knee was found 2-3 kilometers away from Lucy, a stratigraphic 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. At the time, I didn't recall the exact details so I decided to make a note on this and investigate.

Between lectures, I took a look at the books they were selling. Of course, there were other examples of bogus claims made in the books, claims that had already been retracted by another creationist author John Morris(ex. the Paluxy River tracks). But what really caught my attention was a man who appeared to be of Indian descent, speaking to one of the women selling books. "I work at a high tech company with a lot of Indians," he said. "I tried inviting some of them to come...because Hinduism is equal to evolutionism."

I stood there wishing I could say something to that poor man. He had been seriously misled by the ICR. But I was pretty certain that there was very little I could do to convince these folks that the ICR was the modern day equivalent of a snake oil salesman.

What I Did

After doing some research into Lucy, I felt I had enough evidence to confront Richard LaHaye about what I discovered. I wrote a somewhat polite letter to LaHaye and included the current FAQ on Lucy from the talk.origins website.

A month and a half passed and I still hadn't heard a word from Richard LaHaye. Based on Jim Lippard's previous experiences with this issue, I honestly didn't expect LaHaye to answer me at all. So I decided to increase the pressure. I wrote LaHaye another, more pointed letter. But I also made it a point to write a letter to the ICR's president, John Morris, and a letter to the pastor of Union Hill Alliance Church, Tom Osborne.

Richard LaHaye's Response

Whether LaHaye would have answered me had I not sent those extra letters is a mystery that will perhaps never be answered. But nevertheless, he did answer. Here's his response...

From Richard P. LaHaye, Sr.

July 30, 1997

Dear Mr. Stromberg,

Your letter dated June 9, 1997, was received on July 3, 1997 as I was out of the office and taking care of more pressing matters at that time. Your letter dated July 21, 1997, was received on July 23, 1997. You should understand that the content of this letter is my stance on this subject and in no way is to be considered a policy of The Institute for Creation Research.

I want to thank you for sending me the printed information from "The Talk Origins Archive," but I have a problem with Mr. Lippard's article (whoever he is) taking the liberty of determining what the question to the questioner was intended to mean on page two, paragraph two. I do not consider the information you forwarded as evidence, of truth, that Johanson's statement was in fact not made.

Please furnish me with written evidence that Tom Willis has recanted his statement and that in fact Johanson did not say what has been stated that he did say (at the University of Missouri on November 20, 1987). Or furnish me with the evidence that about 100 people in the meeting that day, no, 50 people, no, 25 people out of the 800 people who were there in the audience did not hear Johanson make the statement. In other words, show me the evidence.

I am sorry that you missed the point of my lecture that night. What I was showing in that part of the lecture was that man did not come from apes and never evolved from animals. A number of examples were given about "Lucy"that indicated the fossils were not of a transitional form and you zeroed in on one statement. Again, show me the evidence. Many of the textbooks in our high schools and colleges today, state that "Lucy" is a missing link or on the way to evolving into one. Is this not misleading our students? Now who is "bearing false witness?"

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.

In all honesty, Mr. Stromberg, I am sorry that you do not have anything better to do with your time. Nitpicking is such a waste and you are missing the whole picture.

If you have the evidence, show me. After it has been analyzed and I find that I am in error, I will be happy to respond. Now, when I say evidence, I am not talking about what someone other than the parties involved have said, only Johanson and Willis. Statements made in a book that do not allude to the subject, does not affirm that the statement was never made.

Sincerely,

Richard P. LaHaye, Sr.

Click here if you want to see page one of the original letter.

Click here if you want to see page two of the original letter.

John Morris Also Responds

A few days after I received Richard LaHaye's response, I received a letter in the mail from John Morris, President of the Institute for Creation Research. I've already noticed some peculiar problems with Morris' letter but read it for yourself.

From John D. Morris, President of the Institute for Creation Research

August 1, 1997

Dear Mr. Stromberg,

Your letter of July 21st chagrined me for more than one reason.

I was unaware that Dick LaHaye was speaking on subjects which 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.

The second reason your letter chagrined me was that this is an issue which should have died long ago and is kept alive only by Jim Lippert. While I am grateful that Lippert 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.

For the record, let me explain my involvement. I read Tom Willis' article in 1987 and thought his point was an effective one. I asked him to supply me the documentation for his perspective, which he did. It has been a long time and my memory fades, but his packet included xeroxes from Johanson's Lucy: the Beginning of Humankind which described the knee in question as being found at a different location from that of Lucy, and on the previous year's excavation. On page 157, a photograph of that first knee was displayed. A second publication from the November, 1985 National Geographic, page 593, was also included in which a nearly identical (if not identical) photograph of the anomalous knee was displayed and wrongly labeled as Lucy. At Johanson's lectures he reportedly used that very same slide of the first knee and intimated that it was from Lucy. Since Lucy's knee was not completely intact, it was that knee which appeared to be the basis, to a large degree, for Johanson's claim of erect stance for Lucy, based on "anatomical similarity". Certainly I think that you would agree that creationists concerns of impropriety were valid, especially with Johanson's answers to questions at his lectures.

Subsequent documentation from Johanson through Lippert convinced me that the second knee had not been the only one involved in the analysis, although the presentation of it had been somewhat misleading. I am grateful for the correction in my misunderstanding and have not used that argument since, nor has any scientist here at ICR, and nor will LaHaye.

I do get weary of Lippert's constant harangue that scientists make an official "retraction" of specific statements which are later shown not to be entirely correct. This is not how science progresses. You do the best you can with the research available at the time. As more becomes available you fine tune both your understanding and your statements. A public retraction would be in order for a wilful distortion, but that does not apply here. (I wonder, did Lippert demand a retraction from National Geographic? Or is his crusade for truth one-sided?)

Pierre, here's the point. Even if the various knees was handled properly, and even if Lucy and her kin stood more erect than other primates, we are still dealing with a chimp. There is no evidence other than Johanson's reconstruction, questioned by many evolutionary anthropologists, to support the claim of human ancestry. The most that can be said is that Lucy was a chimp that stood somewhat erect. This claim is perfectly compatible with creationist views, but it shows the utter weakness of evolutionary ideas. To launch a decades-long fixation on a creationist misstatement based on an evolutionist's poor presentation may feel good, but it misses the real point and serves no lasting good.

Lippert's early work may have corrected an error begun by evolutionists and continued by creationsts, and thus he has made a contribution. His childish continuance of the story grows wearisome. I would hate to see you join his Quixotic quest.

Sincerely yours,

John D. Morris

JDM:mt

Click here if you want to see page one of the original letter.

Click here if you want to see page two of the original letter.

How I Responded To Their Letters

On August 19, 1997, I sent the following letter to John Morris. Some may think that I made an outrageous demand at the end of the letter. But I don't think so.

I also sent a letter to Richard LaHaye on the same day.

The Aftermath and National Geographic

I never received a response from either gentlemen regarding my final letters, but one thing that still bothered me was Morris' claim that...
I read Tom Willis' article in 1987 and thought his point was an effective one. I asked him to supply me the documentation for his perspective, which he did. It has been a long time and my memory fades, but his packet included xeroxes from Johanson's Lucy: the Beginning of Humankind which described the knee in question as being found at a different location from that of Lucy, and on the previous year's excavation. On page 157, a photograph of that first knee was displayed. A second publication from the November, 1985 National Geographic, page 593, was also included in which a nearly identical (if not identical) photograph of the anomalous knee was displayed and wrongly labeled as Lucy.
Was this really the case? Were those two photographs nearly identical? Let's have a look.

The photograph you see on the left is from the November 1985 issue of National Geographic. As you can see, the middle distal femur is labeled, "Lucy". If you click on the picture, you can see how the photo was set on the page in its full presentation.


This photo is from page 157 of "Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind" by Donald Johanson. The middle knee joint is AL129. If you click on the picture, you can see how the photo was set on the page in its full presentation.


I think it's pretty obvious to most individuals that the two photographics are hardly identical. But I wanted to be sure that the National Geographic photo was indeed Lucy's distal femur or AL129 so I decided to ask Donald Johanson himself. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the answer was "neither." Here's his response...

thanks for inquiry

you will notice that in the book LUCY we labelled the knee afarensis knee.

this is what NGM should have done in Nov 1985, because, in fact, it is not the Lucy knee or the AL 129 knee which is illustrated, but one from AL 333w-56 (The First Family site).

NGM used "Lucy" as a metaphor for the species Australopithecus afarensis.

hope this helps.

dr. don

So it looks like Tom Willis was right about National Geographic but for the wrong reason. I've come away from this controversy with several lessons. I've learned that no matter what a creationist says, no matter how obvious the statement, it's likely that they're mistaken about some very basic assumptions regarding events in our past. After all this investigating, I'm still unable to find the evidence of a malevolent conspiracy that Tom Willis insists exists. If Donald Johanson was so interested in promulgating a conspiracy, why was he so open about the mislabeling of the knee from National Geographic? And what made Tom Willis even think that Donald Johanson had anything to do with the mislabeled photo from the start? All of the published research Donald Johanson has provided since the day of his Lucy discovery shows that he treated AL129 as a specimen distinctly separate from the Lucy skeleton. In fact, he credits AL129 as providing the inspiration to continue digging.

But what troubles me the most is, why didn't any of these creationists even lift one finger to check out any of these claims? Anyone with a library card can do this. One would think that an organization called The Institution for Creation Research would actually conduct some "research." But I guess I was mistaken.

Donald Chittick Resurrects the Controversy

On November 20, 1997 at North Seattle Christian Fellowship, Donald Chittick appeared to an audience of over two hundred to discuss "The Puzzle of Ancient Man." Chittick is listed as an adjunct faculty professor on the ICR website. During the lecture, he repeated the knee joint claim. When I confronted him after the lecture, he reiterated his claim and wouldn't retract it unless he saw "the documentation." Chittick had already been provided the documentation three years earlier by Jim Lippard and I told him so. Chittick balked and retorted, "Jim Lippard? I wouldn't trust him farther than I could throw him."

Then, I presented him with a copy of John Morris' letter to me. Chittick became slackjawed and was unaware that Morris had retracted the claim. It looks like John Morris wasn't quite correct again when he said that "no scientist here at ICR uses the questionable knee in their scientific writings or lectures any more."

I have since sent John Morris another letter expressing my concern that ICR personnel are still propagating this myth, despite his assurances. John Morris never responded. And as Donald Chittick requested, I sent him Jim Lippard's FAQ again on December 15, 1997. I also asked him some rather pointed questions in an enclosed letter.

Not surprisingly, I received the following non-reply to my questions about Lucy...

Thank you for your courtesy in sending me the materials enclosed with your letter dated December 15, 1997. You asked about my association with ICR. My wife and I have our own organization known as Creation Compass. It is true that I sometimes lecture with ICR, but our relationship is a very loose one. They are in San Diego and I am near Portland, Oregon.
So will Donald Chittick continue to bear false witness against thy neighbor? That's anybody's guess.

Donald Chittick Quietly Recants?

On May 15, 1998, Donald Chittick delivered a lecture at the Northwest Workers Conference at the Lakeside Bible Camp in Whidbey Island, Washington. He did not mention Lucy at all. To be doubly sure, I personally attended another "Puzzle of Ancient Man" lecture by Dr. Chittick at Westminster Chapel in Bellevue, Washington on June 28, 1998. Again, he did not repeat the allegations regarding Lucy's knee joint.

The ICR Resumes Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

On September 5, 1998, the official website of the Institute for Creation Research updated their content with the full archive of Dr. John's Q&As, also known as a section of the monthly "Back to Genesis."

Despite John Morris' previous assurances that the ICR would no longer propagate the Lucy kneejoint myth, his November 1989 article, "Was Lucy an Ape-man" now appears on the ICR website, without a disclaimer or retraction. (June 26, 1999 update: Please see the next section for a followup on the ICR's lack of a retraction.)

Morris' article, as well as his subsequent comments in other Back to Genesis articles, will easily lead readers to conclude that Dr. Johanson did indeed consolidate Lucy from multiple sites. Dr. Morris was contacted regarding the article on his website but has never responded.

This entire series of events has left me mystified as to how the Institute for Creation Research can be considered an ethical evangelistic ministry. The notion of the ICR as a serious scientific organization is in even further doubt.

At Last, A Retraction

On June 24, 1999, I was contacted by an alert website visitor who claimed that the ICR had at last posted a retraction of the knee joint claim. Indeed, a quick check of Morris' website "letter" confirmed this news.

While Morris' retraction introduced even more dubious claims and assumptions about Lucy that have already been addressed by the talk.origins website, he expressed dismay how evolutionists would make such a big deal about such a "minor error." What Morris once again fails to note is that the ICR, and other creationists, did not use Lucy as a simple example of data misinterpretation. They crossed the line into accusations of fraud, conspiracy, and coverup on the part of Donald Johanson. The claim was repeated on numerous occasions, to numerous members of the public, over a period of ten years. And these repetitions continued even after Morris had privately acknowledged that the ICR's claim was totally without merit.

John Morris and the ICR have been repeatedly warned, according to their own set of moral standards, that they were "bearing false witness against thy neighbor." Study of the tactics used in the decades-long harangue by creationists to tarnish the pedigree of Lucy’s knee is instructive.


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