The discovery of a nearly 7-million-year-old skull has been hailed as "a small nuclear bomb" for evolution, "the most important fossil discovery in living memory," and a "challenge to human origins." Time said that the fossil might be "your very first relative."

An international team of scientists uncovered the mostly intact cranium—nicknamed Toumai (meaning "hope of life")—along with two jawbone fragments and several teeth in Chad's Djurab desert last summer. Some paleontologists say the find, announced in the July issue of Nature, rewrites the map of human evolution.

Under previous evolution theories, the new species, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, is too advanced for its age. Its presence at that period of time, advocates say, does not jibe with evolution's traditionally straight line of gradually developing species of primates (called hominids) who eventually became homo sapiens. This discovery (coupled with earlier ones) has led some scientists to argue that the human family tree is actually a bush with various species branching out to different types of life or to dead ends.

Toumai's combination of ape and hominid qualities blurs the commonly held timeline, which portrays a world of abundant apes around 10 million years ago with the first hominids showing up about five million years later.

According to scientists, Toumai looks like a chimpanzee from the back but has human features in front: an ape with a flat human face. Though a million years older than any other hominid, some of the skull's attributes are considered to be more human-like than 3-million-year-old hominid skulls. It has a thick gorilla-like brow, a chimpanzee-type brain cage, and human-like teeth. The opening for the spinal cord suggests it might have walked on two legs.

"It is not what you would expect to find if you had a nice, cozy view of evolution that says, 'Here we are gently descending from something more apelike, and gradually acquiring modern features,'" Nature's paleontology editor told Radio Free Europe. "The reason is: this is a shocking mix of the ancient and the modern."

But critics of Darwinism say the discovery of Sahelanthropus tchadensis isn't as explosive as it's made out to be.

"I think that it simply shows the tenuousness of science's understanding of where humanity came from," says Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist and author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. "If the discovery of one new set of bones makes paleontologists reevaluate what they knew, they really didn't know all that much."

Article continues below

Behe says that the find is largely irrelevant to those who argue intelligent design theory, which challenges Darwin's view of evolution by chance. "It just made everybody smile a little bit that [evolutionists] change their scenarios every year or so," he told Christianity Today. "If you are not committed to thinking as they do, it is fun and amusing to watch them try to piece things together."

In fact, Behe said there has been little discussion in the ID community about Toumai at all. Comments made have been along the lines of, "Here's the latest spectacular fossil find."

(Another "spectacular fossil find" came just a week before Toumai was announced. A 1.75-million-year-old skull found in Georgia surprised scientists who thought it was much smaller than it should have been given its age and location.)

Why are ID theorists largely ignoring Toumai? Behe said ID is "several levels of biology removed from the hominid versus chimp distinction." The point of contention between evolution and intelligent design is whether design or chance guided human development—not how humans developed.

"Darwin's claim to fame was not so much that he thought that organisms might have evolved from common ancestors," Behe said. "Other people had put forward other theories but had always invoked guiding intelligence. His main point was that it might happen by chance."

But with the complexity at the cellular level found in the last 50 years, Behe said, "it is difficult to see how [complex systems] could have been put together in small steps as Darwinian evolution requires. Our argument is that it is a good conclusion to think that instead of chance inflection, things were really designed instead of apparently designed."

Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a pro-ID think tank, agreed that paleontological finds do little for ID. "Fossils don't tell us one way or the other whether God created us in a divine image," he said.

Besides, Wells argued, most evidence of evolution really only supports micro-evolution (the small changes over time within a species) that "nobody denies." Regardless, he said, evolutionists often trump up their evidence in an attempt to support their theory—even when it doesn't.

"This is being hyped all out of proportion by those who want to prove the Darwinian viewpoint, which I find rather comical actually because it doesn't prove it," he told CT. "At best, this finding complicates it. At worst it is irrelevant."

Article continues below

He said that Toumai could be just a chimpanzee and not evidence of evolution at all. No one is exactly sure yet where—or if at all—the new skull fits into human lineage. "The truth is the fossil record of chimpanzees is totally empty," he said. "Every time a fossil like this is found, it is shoehorned into the human lineage instead of the chimpanzee lineage, so there are no chimpanzee fossils."

Bill Hoesch of the Institute for Creation Research, says that evolutionists realize that Toumai hurts their case by making the ancestral line more blurry. Their defense, he says, is to turn it around to help them.

"You have got to attach more bluster to something that makes your case even weaker," Hoesch told CT. "They are crying out for help. They are using words like, 'This makes the picture look more bushy' and 'more complex.' We really ought to translate and say, 'It's a mess.'"

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

After the announcement of the Chad skull, U.S. News ran an evolution cover package including:

How evolution really works, and why it matters more than ever
Species: Life's mystery packages
Evolution timeline: An idea's brilliant career
A new breed of anti-evolutionists credits life's grand design to an unnamed intelligence

For more articles, see Christianity Today'sarchives and sister publication Books & Culture's Science Pages.