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NBC’s Origins Show

Dave Thomas

Volume 6.1, March 1996

Quality science was nowhere to be found during the Feb. 25th, 1996 NBC broadcast entitled The Mysterious Origins of Man. This show, hosted by Charlton Heston, was filled with some of the most aggressive anti-science propaganda seen since CBS’s Ancient Mysteries of the Bible was aired a few years ago. The executive producers of Origins for B.C. Video were Michael H. Gerber and Robert Watts. It was directed by Bill Cote, produced by John Cheshire, Bill Cote, and Carol Cote, and written by John Cheshire and Bill Cote.

The show did not include comments from even one token reputable scientist. Instead, Heston would state the conventional wisdom, and then let the scientists interviewed for the show present their fantastic claims unchallenged. The first such experts who testified were Michael Cremo and Dr. Richard Thompson, authors of Forbidden Archaeology. They claimed that Humans of modern anatomical type have been existing for many many millions of years into the past, denying the current consensus that modern man appeared less than a tenth of a million years ago. Anomalous cases, such as the alleged 55-million-year-old tools found in Table Mountain in the 1880s by J. D. Whitney, or the supposed 250,000-year-old artifacts found by Virginia Steen-McIntyre in Mexico a couple of decades ago, were discussed. Thompson then declared that the resistance of mainstream science to these findings is not a deliberate conspiracy, but an automatic rejection by almost all scientists of any evidence that doesn't conform to existing theories. He stated that this routine hiding of anomalous results prevents science from progressing. If the assertion that scientists ignore all unusual or contrary data is true, then indeed, science would not progress. My question is: if this is the case, how can Thompson explain the fact that science has progressed, especially in the last century? Many new ideas have come along to upset existing paradigms: relativity, quantum mechanics, continental drift, and punctuated equilibrium, to name a few. Thompson’s argument that scientists have ingrained antipathy to new or controversial ideas is clearly specious.

The next segment featured Carl Baugh, who talked about the supposed human footprints found alongside dinosaur tracks at the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas. The voice-over introduced him as archaeologist Carl Baugh, but the on-screen title referred to him as anthropologist Carl Baugh. In real life, however, Baugh is best known as Reverend Carl Baugh. Baugh claimed some of the Paluxy trackways include 16-inch human footprints, 12 in a series, alternating left-right-left-right, the right distance apart... No mention was made of the painstaking research performed by Glen Kuban, Ronnie Hastings, Laurie Godfrey and others a decade ago, which showed conclusively that these trackways are made by dinosaurs. When mud fills in the toes of a fresh tridactyl dinosaur print, the resultant track can look similar to a human’s. Some of the alleged human prints belong in the same left-right series as obvious dinosaur tracks. Kuban and associates also found color indications of dinosaur toes in tracks which were supposedly human. At least these tracks are not obvious fakes, unlike Baugh’s next bit of supposedly most compelling evidence which was discussed: the Burdick Print. This and similar prints first appeared in the 1930s. They are clearly suspect: the features (toes, heel, etc.) are abnormally shaped, and much too well delineated. The Burdick print looks nothing like a real imprint of a foot in the mud, and bears little resemblance to human anatomy (even for a supposed giant). However, expert Dr. Dale Peterson, M.D. assured the audience that the print was clearly human. Geologist Don Patton pointed to subsurface contours in a cross-section through the print as evidence that the features were not carved. Next up was a supposed fossil finger, with smooth skin-covered flesh preserved intact, and with what resembles a fingernail. (While a very few fossilized patches of tough, scaly dinosaur skin have been found, preservation of soft human tissue would be extremely unlikely!) Peterson pointed to images of finger bones and joints in a CAT scan of the finger. However, the bones were not clearly distinct; rather, they simply looked like a progressive darkening of the scan in thicker portions of the specimen. Some grooved spherical nodules, from the pre-Cambrian (2.8 billion years old), were also touted as evidence of human artifacts.

Author David Hatcher Childress then claimed that geological time scales are wrong by several orders of magnitude, and that dinosaurs may still be alive today. He showed a photograph of a supposed plesiosaur carcass dredged up on a Japanese fishing boat; Heston condescendingly noted that Skeptics claim it’s the body of a decomposing shark. [It probably is.]

Heston’s next target was Charles Darwin himself. Richard Milton, author of Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, stated that not one missing link supporting the common ancestry of man and apes has ever been found. Milton stated that Lucy is just an ape; he made no mention of the fact that Lucy’s teeth are more human-like than ape-like in many respects. A cartoon of a tree, with Man on the top branches, and Apes below, was shown; as the animated branch broke, Heston declared So far, conclusive evidence of a missing link has not been found. Milton went on to say that the lack of an ape-human missing link was sufficient to topple the entire edifice of evolution. No consideration was given to the tremendous amount of data that support evolution in non-primate species (fossils, comparative anatomy, molecular structures, etc.).

In the last half of the show, Neil Steede argued that the perfect fit of stones in Incan monuments indicated a high culture, and that the present-day misalignment of solstice markers can only be explained if the monuments were built over 12 thousand years ago. Steede based this conjecture on a 41,000-year, half-degree wobble of the Earth’s axis (which turns out to be a real phenomenon). While recent-era astronomical solstice locations are not aligned with the rounded markers Steede interpreted as the real markers, the solstice locations do appear to be aligned with the sides of the tower walls where they cross the horizon. The fact that Steed can conjure up an alignment consistent only with his 12,000 year age hardly proves that this is what the actual builders intended. Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods, cited similarities in the megalithic cultures of Mexico, South America, and Egypt, and then claimed that these prove the common influence of a third, unidentified culture. Robert Banval employed more vague astronomical alignments to prove that the Sphinx was built 12,000 years ago. Hancock continued with a discussion of crustal displacement. Unlike continental drift, crustal displacement (developed by a Professor Hapgood) involves a radical motion of the Earth’s entire outer crust. Hancock and others put forth the idea that 12,500 years ago, Antarctica was not at the South Pole, but in a moderate latitude, and that Atlantis was located there. When too much ice built up on the poles of that era, the entire crust slid around, suddenly moving Atlantis/Antarctica to its present cold location. No evidence supporting this fantastic claim was presented, and no one bothered to mention that readily available data clearly refute this hypothesis. For example, most climatologists agree that the Antarctic ice shelf is a stable feature that has been around for 14 million years, and the Vostok ice core from Antarctica was carefully dated back to at least 150,000 years ago by a variety of independent methods. [Why this idea was refuted just a few minutes earlier in the same show, when we were told that 12,000 years ago, the Earth’s axis was tilted by just one half of a degree, not the 90 ° required for an Antarctic Atlantis.] Heston concluded the show by stating that It’s been said that man has made the climb from Stone Age to civilization more than once, and that our present time is just the latest in this cycle.

Ironically, scientists are not the only ones fuming over Origins. Arch-creationist Ken Ham slammed the production in the Feb. ‘96 Answers in Genesis newsletter. In a review entitled Hollywood’s ‘Moses’ Undermines Genesis, Ham attacked fellow creationist Carl Baugh’s ‘manprints,’ stating that “According to leading creationist researchers, this evidence is open to much debate and needs much more intensive research. One wonders how much of the information in the program can really be trusted!” Then Ham noted that the book Forbidden Archaeology “ dedicated to ‘His Divine Grace: A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.’ It appears the authors are Hare Krishna adherents!...Everything cycling continuously over millions of years fits well with Krishna philosophy! That seems to be what this program is all about!”

Ken Ham is right to note that the teachings of Hare Krishna are not a basis of good science. It seems quite unlikely that he will ever realize that his peculiar brand of fundamentalist Biblical inerrancy is similarly flawed. In the meantime, NBC has sunk to a new low in this latest promotion of pseudoscientific claptrap. I encourage anyone who doesn't appreciate NBC’s latest assault on science to respond by calling the complaint number (212-664-2333), or by writing Bob Wright at NBC New York, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112, or by writing the NBC staffer who actually purchased the show: Todd Schwartz, 3000 W. Alameda, Burbank, CA 91523. The company that produced the show can be contacted at: B. C. Video Inc., P.O. Box 97, Shelburne, VT 05482.

Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, a physicist and mathematician, is president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is currently a scientist/programmer at IRIS/PASSCAL in Socorro, New Mexico, and also teaches classes in physics, psychology, and critical thinking at New Mexico Tech.