What Can We Know About Prehistoric Man? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

It never ceases to amaze me that a certain breed of skeptic will believe everything presented in an hour-long History Channel program about an alleged prehistoric ancestor of Homo sapiens – all of it based on a couple fossils – and yet believe nothing in the voluminous written historical records contained in the Bible.

I have seen hours of TV programming that presents prehistoric man doing all sorts of things which are virtually impossible to derive with any certainty from fossils.  Entire animation departments render complete anatomical drawings of man’s ancestors with only partial skulls and teeth to go by.  Where does all the skepticism go when these far-fetched fairy tales are aired?

Although G. K. Chesterton is not a paleontologist, I appreciated his description of this same issue from the early twentieth century.  He was seeing the same kinds of wild extrapolations that I am seeing today.  Here are his thoughts on this issue, from the book The Everlasting Man:

Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has hardly been noticed. The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make.

An inventor can advance step by step in the construction of an aeroplane, even if he is only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own back-yard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own back-yard. If he has made a mistake in his calculations, the aeroplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree.

He cannot keep a cave-man like a cat in the back-yard and watch him to see whether he does really practice cannibalism or carry off his mate on the principles of marriage by capture. He cannot keep a tribe of primitive men like a pack of hounds and notice how far they are influenced by the herd instinct. If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if he finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull, in the hollow of a hill, he cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones.

In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished, he can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything.

But the habit of forming conclusions, as they can really be formed in more fruitful fields, is so fixed in the scientific mind that it cannot resist talking like this. It talks about the idea suggested by one scrap of bone as if it were something like the aeroplane which is constructed at last out of whole scrapheaps of scraps of metal. The trouble with the professor of the prehistoric is that he cannot scrap his scrap. The marvellous and triumphant aeroplane is made out of a hundred mistakes. The student of origins can only make one mistake and stick to it.

More from Chesterton in part 2, and some closing remarks about the whole issue of historical sciences.

  • Ggodat

    I like you find it amazing that the History Channel and Nat Geo can get away with the rediculous claims thay make in the name of “science”. They almost never back any claim up with factual proof, instead citing words such as “presumed” and “might have”. If you listen to the subtle language it is scary how much trust they place on pure speculation.

  • Shunter1

    Even the radiocarbon datings (that which almost all of the other “science” hangs upon) are of completely unknown reliability. They are extrapolating beyond their data points and then assuming as fact that which is merely conjecture. I was taught not to do this in my first semester of chemistry but here we are with a whole discipline built upon a foundation of sand.

  • VinnyJH

    I think this is just a typical Bill Pratt straw man where he attacks some mythical group of non-Christians who supposedly hold to some absurd position. None of the unbelievers who comment on this blog hold these positions, but Bill assures us that he knows people who do and he is always amazed at the absurdity of these unidentified people’s beliefs.

    Thus the mythical skeptics who believe everything they see on the History Channel join the mythical religious pluralists who believe they understand the entire supernatural realm and the mythical people who believe that science will inevitably lead us to paradise on earth.

  • You know Chesterton died nearly 80 years ago, right? You know that advances in evolutionary biology have continued unabated, right? You know that anthropology continues to build explanations based not on ‘wilrd speculations’ as you describe the entire field but on best evidence – sometimes including reconstruction techniques used in law enforcement – and that this approach self corrects as more information and advanced techniques becomes available, right?

    Right? Well, no. Apparently you do not.

    You know that you would not be a ‘sceptic’ if you believed everything you see and hear from mass entertainment like the History Channel and Nat’l Geo, right? You know that you wouldn’t be a sceptic if you presumed a ‘couple of fossils’ and ‘wild speculations’ were the sum total of evidence, right?

    Right? Well, no. Apparently you do not

    Your amazement, Bill, is entirely self created from a straw man manufactured in your mind that doesn’t exist in reality. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you would find such a ‘sceptic’ amazingly gullible, so it’s a good thing no such ‘sceptic’ exists in reality because such a person would not BE a sceptic.


  • Good grief.

    ‘Completely unknown reliability.’

    ‘Merely conjecture.’

    ‘Beyond their data points.’

    And you were taught not to do this. Well, thank goodness someone has an education… unlike all those thousands of so-called ‘scientists’ like physicists. Your keen observation explains why nuclear fission just doesn’t work!

    Oh, wait a second…

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  • Ggodat


    You know Darwin died hundreds of years ago and there is still no proof for macro-evolution as he described. You know that evolution has absolutely no answer for the origin of the universe or life but your so called scientists are happy to conjecture fairy tales full of unscientific postulates completely unsupported by any data. Talk about a straw man! I do not deny real science. Physics is actually the field my son is going to pursue but just because I don’t believe in evolution doesn’t mean I don’t believe in physics!

    Physics is actually a great proof for the existence of God. You still have no response to the painted corner the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics leaves you in.

    Your denial of God has left you an angry sad person.

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  • Ggodat

    I forgot, “Apparently Not”. Because as we all know that makes my statement more profound…

  • I am not an angry, sad person but I do get disappointed that someone like you can be so easily fooled into re-spouting standardized creationist canards long discredited. It’s disappointing because I think you can do better. But my opinions are always subject to being wrong if better reasons and better explanations come along.

    If you understood what science means, you wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming its job is to ‘prove’ anything. (You’ve bought into this misrepresentation for reasons only you know, but what’s true has nothing to do with that decision.) It’s job is to provide evidence. If you are going to argue against a scientific consensus (like evolution) then you have to come up with a better explanation for the available evidence. Creationism and its modern hybrid Intelligent Design is an utter failure. That’s the problem you inherit when you go with it.

    In a science like evolutionary biology, it has produced nothing but compelling evidence that fits with an agency-less, purpose-less natural mechanism we call natural selection. There is no need to insert agod into it. The effects over time by natural selection produces speciation. This is demonstrable. That you don’t ‘believe’ this to be so in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary is a reflection of your level of understanding. It is not an indictment on the competency of the science that has produced it. The question of competency resides solely with you in this matter.

  • B_o_z

    Bill Pratt, who specifically are you arguing against? What are their names?

  • Ggodat

    Wow, 3 whole paragraphs of utter nothingness! Again, you give no proof for anything you say.

    Answer this, Is the universe eternal? If not, explain using science where it came from.

    You cannot. What are those footprints…. oh, thats you walking away from the painted corner the 2nd Law continues to prison you in.

  • That you attempt to use your misunderstanding of science in general and the 2nd law in particular to support your empty criticism of my comment makes me sad. It’s sad because you fail to see the irony of using science to try to discredit science and then compound your misunderstandings to assume it must mean support for your belief in Oogity Boogity.

  • Ggodat

    Wrong again, I use good science to discredit a bad example of non-scientific thinking. Why won’t you just answer the question as to where the universe came from and then explain how it doesn’t violate actual science?

    Oh, because you can’t (or should i say Kant?)! You are the one believing in this oogity boogity you keep talking about, not me.

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