Nebraska Man and the Scopes Trial

The fossil tooth that became known as Nebraska Man has been given much attention in the creation / evolution debate. It has also been given some publicity in several movies over the last few decades. Sadly, much of what is presented is misinformation about the topic and makes a good example of how people can accidentally or intentionally misunderstand or misrepresent the facts. This paper is an attempt to return to a factual record of events that relate to this topic.

Nebraska Man

Harold Cook

The story begins with Harold Cook who was a rancher and geologist in Nebraska who enjoyed studying fossils. In 1917 he found a tooth in the Pliocene (recently redesignated Miocene) sediments in northwestern Nebraska. In 1922, he sent this specimen to Henry Osborn to help determine what the tooth came from.

Henry Osborn

Henry Fairfield Osborn was a vertebrate paleontologist who worked as president of the American Museum of Natural History. After examining the piece, he decided that it was a fossil molar tooth which belonged either to the Simiidae (apes) or to the Hominidae (humans) as it had common characteristics of both man and ape. Nebraska man was given a scientific name of Hesperopithecus haroldcooki.

Other Scientists

When presented with casts of the tooth, scientists from around the world were more skeptical of the tooth being from mankind or a close primate and never had wide acceptance. The other scientists wanted more evidence because a man / ape fossil in North America seemed unlikely.

The Image

The Illustrated London News printed an article on Nebraska Man which included a drawing of an ape-man family made by Amedee Forestier. It should be noted that this is not a scientific journal nor the illustration scientifically accurate. Osborn himself said the image had ‘no scientific value’.

The Truth comes Out

Further research was done at the original discovery site and by 1927 it was determined that the tooth was actually from a species of Prosthennops (wild pig). This discovery did not get the attention that the announcement of Nebraska Man had made, but a few science journals and newspapers did announce that the error had been made.

Effects on Society

This mistake was relatively short-lived since from start to finish it was only a few years. It probably would have received very little attention from the world except for another event that happened at the same time with much publicity.

Scopes Trial

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan, born in Nebraska, had already reached the end of his political career, which
included presidential nominee, and was now a leader of the fundamentalist crusade against evolution in the 1920’s. He argued against the Darwinian theory that man descended from lower animals.

Bryan vs Osborn

Bryan and Osborn were both well known figures and an ongoing “public” debate through the newspapers began. Ironically, in one episode, Bryan stated that Darwin “… does not even allow us the patriotic pleasure of descending from American apes”. Not long after, the tooth from Nebraska arrived. It seemed like the very evidence Osborn needed to use against Bryan and it was from his own home state of Nebraska. This tooth became a large part of their ongoing public debate and was well known on the eve of the Scopes Trial.

The Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial is an article in itself and, in this paper, will only be mentioned as it applies to Nebraska Man. Locally, this was a trial about John Scopes, a teacher who had taught about evolution which at the time was against Tennessee law and who was ultimately found guilty. As part of the trial, the defense had asked several scientists, which included Henry Osborn, to testify on behalf of John Scopes. William Bryan had offered to be a member of the prosecution and was accepted. It seemed like a showdown between the Bryan and Osborn debate might occur within the trial.

Osborn and the Scopes Trial

In June of 1925, just before the Scopes trial was to begin, Osborn suddenly became quiet regarding the Nebraska Man fossil. Further research had been done at the Nebraska sight where the tooth was found and the evidence had begun to show that the tooth was likely to be from a pig and not an ape or man. The world would not learn this for a couple more years. Osborn had been chosen to defend John Scopes, but instead he opted out without even submitting a written document. At the time of the trial he did write an article in the New York Times which defended evolution, but did not use the tooth as an argument.

Fictional Accounts

The Error

Creationists have been quick to point out the error that occurred in this event. While technically correct, they tend to exaggerate, get information incorrect, or blatantly lie about what actually occurred.

A Fake?

One of the deceptions is to call the Hesperopithecus a fake or a fraud. It may be speculated that Osborn may have been overly quick to make an identification towards a primate in his zeal to defeat Bryan. However, there is nothing to suggest that Osborn did anything that was intentionally false.

Ape-man Family?

One common misconception is that a scientist made an entire ape-man family from a single tooth. Osborn did believe the tooth came from an ape or a human. However, he never tried to make any scientific depictions of such a creature. Instead, it was an artists imaginative work in a newspaper that is to blame for the image of an ape-man family that is associated with the tooth.

XXXIB. Last Updated: 06/01/2016
Todd Elder

Todd Elder

Todd Elder has a deep desire to understand and experience Creation. As a Baraminologist, his current research includes developing the Katagenos Species Concept, the Natanzera Classification System, and the Floral Formula Method of determining Plant Kinds. As an author and speaker, his books and seminar materials are designed to encourage a growing relationship with the Creator.
Todd Elder

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