Review: The Genesis Mystery

Dr. Jeffrey Goodman's book The Genesis Mystery (1983) attempts to show that humans could not have evolved by natural selection, and that some form of outside intervention must be responsible for our most distinctive characteristics.

Goodman's book discusses topics including shamanism, human evolution, and the archaeological record of the Americas. This review will be confined to his treatment of human evolution.

Goodman says that:

"For example, while modern man's brain is not particularly larger than that of his immediate predecessor, Neanderthal man, most experts acknowledge that it represents a great leap forward in its improved organization and its infinitely wider range of abilities." (p. 17)

This is news to me. It is true that, for unknown reasons, Neandertal culture does not display all the refinements of the Cro-Magnons, but the same is true of many early modern humans and archaic forms of Homo sapiens. While many have suggested that Neandertals may have differed behaviorally from us, I know of no modern scientist who claims that the Neandertal brain is visibly any different from, or worse organized, than ours. (In fact, rather than being larger as Goodman claims, modern brains are actually smaller than Neandertal brains on average, although this may be related to body size.) Trinkaus and Shipman, in a statement that seems representative of modern views, say:

"Anatomically, the Neandertals are quite similar to ourselves, having a skeletal arrangement identical to ours, brains as large as ours, and - to the best of our knowledge - the capability to perform any act normally within the ability of a modern human." (p. 412)

Goodman claims each hominid species has a discrete cranial range that does not overlap with the range of the species supposed to succeed it. As evidence, he cites (p.180) a graph in a paper by Cronin et al. (1981), which supposedly shows that the cranial ranges of A. africanus, H. habilis, H.erectus, and H. sapiens do not overlap. In fact the bars in the graph (except for H. sapiens) do not represent the entire cranial range, but only 1 standard deviation on both sides. Cronin et al's data, given in text below the graph, clearly show that ranges do overlap. For example, the highest H. habilis value is 752, compared to 727 for the lowest H. erectus value, and 1225 for the highest H. erectus value, well into the normal human range, and well above the value of 1100 that Goodman claims is the top of the H. erectus range.

A similar graph taken from a book by Birdsell is similarly claimed by Goodman to show separate cranial ranges. Instead, it seems to be a graph plotting average brainsize against time for various species. The fact that these average values are separate tells us nothing about how widely brain sizes were spread about the mean. For example, the lowest point of Birdsell's line for Homo erectus is about 900cc, even though some H. erectus skulls are known with values smaller than that.

Goodman says:

"Needless to say, there is no evidence of this transition [from H. erectus to H.sapiens sapiens] in the fossil record to date." (p.137)

Again, a statement that most scientists would find puzzling, to say the least. Fossils such as Petralona, Steinheim, Swanscombe, Saldanha, Rhodesian Man and Arago are excellent candidates for this transition. Goodman ignores most of these. Two he does mention, Rhodesian Man and Saldanha, he claims are Homo erectus, in spite of the fact that their brains sizes of about 1280 and 1250 cc are above the maximum H. erectus brain size of 1225 cc, which is in turn well above the value of about 1100 cc that Goodman claims is the maximum H. erectus brain size. These skulls are intermediate between H. erectus and H. sapiens in morphology, time, and brain size, nicely filling the gap which Goodman claims exists between them.

Goodman says that:

"According to the traditional view, approximately 50,000 years ago, at the start of the last 1 percent of hominid evolutionary time, a natural miracle took place: Within a critical period of 5,000 years - just one-seventh of 1 percent of the time that has elapsed since the first-known australopithecine's day - we get more significant evolutionary change than in the other 99 6/7 percent of that time; ..." (p.186)

This statement can only be described as bizarre. Goodman gives the impression modern humans are thought to have evolved from Neandertals about 40,000 years ago, but even if that were true, the statement would still be absurd. The differences between Neandertals and modern humans are trivial; far, far less than those between either of them and australopithecines. Even Homo erectus is far more similar to modern humans than to australopithecines.

In fact, as Goodman was writing, newer finds were pushing back the earliest dates for Homo sapiens sapiens to a little over 100,000 years. Before that, there is a fair-sized group of intermediate fossils that are (and were, even in the early 80's) assigned to H. sapiens, but because of archaic features are not considered to be fully modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens). These fossils include Arago, Petralona, Steinheim, and Swanscombe and a number of others. Goodman ignores most of them, but misrepresents at least one: he calls the Rhodesian Man skull a late-surviving H. erectus, when it is, at 1280 cc., larger than any erectus skull and falls nicely into the morphological and temporal gaps which he claims separate H. erectus and H. sapiens.

Another oddity is Goodman's claim that the coexistence of two species (specifically, H. erectus and H. sapiens) shows that they cannot have an ancestor-descendent relationship. Many of the examples he uses to illustrate this point are faulty, due to the dubious dates and classification he gives for many fossils, but even if they were valid, the argument fails because evolution does not require an ancestor species to go extinct when a new species evolves from it.

Goodman points out, correctly, that the brow ridges of Homo erectus are more massive than those of H. habilis and H. sapiens and that this constitutes an evolutionary reversal, but says that:

"Such a pattern of successive turnabouts in skull-wall thickness and brow size stand in direct opposition to the continuous developmental process Darwinians espouse." (p.179)

However no Darwinian process requires that evolutionary trends always continue in the same direction; natural selection can reverse a trend if it is beneficial to do.

I think Goodman misrepresents modern views. For example, he cites Lieberman and Crelin's attempts to reconstruct the Neandertal vocal cavity as if it was universally accepted, when in fact the opposite is much closer to the truth. The reconstruction not only had severe problems, but was based on a Neandertal skull (La-Chapelle-aux-Saints) later found to have been incorrectly reconstructed by Boule. (Trinkaus and Shipman, 1992)

Many minor factual errors show that Goodman is not very familiar with the literature on human evolution. He says that Olduvai Gorge is in Kenya (p. 50) when it is actually in Tanzania. Pithecanthropus IV, discovered in the late 1930's, "was a nearly complete skull", when it actually consisted of the back part of a brain case and an upper jaw. Goodman calls the Homo habilis fossil OH 7 discovered in 1961 by the nickname "Twiggy", when Twiggy is the nickname of OH 24, discovered in 1968. He misunderstands the mitochrondial Eve concept (p. 14), apparently believing that the age of mitochondrial Eve and the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens must coincide, when there is not necessarily any relationship between the two. He calls the skulls found at Kow Swamp in Australia H. erectus when they are modern humans (this claim is probably derived from creationist literature).

When I read the words "outside intervention" in the subtitle of Goodman's book, I flippantly guessed that he either had a religious agenda, or was an "ancient astronaut" nut. This turns out to be fairly close to the mark, since Goodman's four options are: God, spacemen, hitchhiking spirits, or "other". Contrary to my expectations though, Goodman claims no committment to any of these alternatives.

Even if there was no fossil evidence of the evolution from H. erectus to H. sapiens, Goodman's theory would be unconvincing. There is no justification given for his belief that the changes involved in the origin of H. sapiens could not have been carried out by natural selection. Even if the fossil gap he claims exists really did exist, it could be that the transitional forms had not yet been detected. Such a conclusion would be far more parsimonious than Goodman's way-out theories.

Goodman claims that modern humans evolved (or that scientists think they did; it's hard to say which) in the space of 5000 years, but he never makes clear when this supposedly happened, and what the before and after points of the transition were. Some of his writing only makes sense if one assumes that Cro-Magnons evolved from Neandertals in the period of 40,000 to 35,000 years ago. A sudden change could only be documented with reasonable confidence if there was a good record of non-modern fossils going up to a particular point in time, followed by the appearance of fully modern humans. The fossil record documents no such thing; we have modern humans appearing about 100,000 years ago, preceded by a number of more primitive fossils spread over the previous few hundred thousand years.

Goodman spends some time arguing that fully modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, is older than 40,000 years. In this he is correct; when he wrote, recent discoveries were pushing back the appearance of modern man to over 100,000 years ago. But this wrecks his argument that modern man appeared suddenly. One can (or could, in 1981) argue that modern humans evolved in only a few thousand years from Neandertals, but by claiming that modern humans appeared over 100,000 years ago, Goodman wrecks his own claim, since there is no evidence a sudden appearance of modern humans at that earlier date.

In short, Goodman's work has no merit. His understanding of evolutionary theory is flawed, his knowledge of the human fossil record is superficial, he ignores or defines away data which does not support his ideas, and even some of the evidence he cites in his support is so badly misrepresented that it contradicts his claims instead of supporting them. The problems that Goodman's "outside intervention" hypothesis is supposed to solve simply do not exist. File this book under 'crackpots'.


Cronin J.E., Boaz N.T., Stringer C.B. and Rak Y.: Tempo and mode in hominid evolution. Nature 292:113-122, 1981.

Goodman, Jeffrey: The Genesis Mystery: a startling new theory of outside intervention in the development of modern man, New York:Times Books, 1983

Johanson, Donald C. and Edey, Maitland A.: Lucy: the beginnings of humankind, New York:Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Trinkaus E. and Shipman P.: The Neandertals: changing the image of mankind, New York:Alfred E. Knopf, 1992.

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

Home Page | Species | Fossils | Creationism | Reading | References
Illustrations | What's New | Feedback | Search | Links | Fiction, 07/10/99
Copyright © Jim Foley || Email me