Bill Nye Debates Creationist Ken Ham Tonight. WATCH LIVE at 7PM (ET)

Bill Nye argues that we need a generation of scientifically literate students in order to be successful in the 21st century.

In July, 1925, Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial, the highlight of a theological contest that would determine whether it was unlawful to teach human evolution in public schools. 


Did the evolutionist Darrow get the best of the creationist Bryan? Most historical accounts, as well as the film Inherit the Wind, portray Darrow as the undisputed victor. Indeed, Bryan's death shortly after the trial left a void that could not be filled. Bryan, after all, was a three-time presidential candidate, and the most prominent fundamentalist in the country. The anti-evolution movement, the story goes, faded away with his passing.

Tell that to the Kansas State Board of Education, which voted in 1999 to remove evolution from state standardized tests and left it up to local school districts whether or not to teach evolution at all. Voters later kicked the Kansas board members out of office who had voted against evolution and the new board, in the words of its chairman, Dr. Bill Wagnon, "returned its curriculum standards to mainstream science."

Nonetheless, reports of the death of creationism and intelligent design are greatly exaggerated. In fact, an increasing number of Americans (46 percent in 2012) believe that "God created humans in present form." Only 32 percent believe that humans evolved without God playing some sort of role.

These are troubling numbers to Bill Nye, a 21st century Clarence Darrow who argued in a Big Think video in 2012 that Americans should absolutely be free to believe whatever they want to believe, but - and this is a big but - they should not deny their children access to the basis of all life science. In short, Nye argued that we need a generation of scientifically literate students in order to be successful in the 21st century.

Over 6 million YouTube views and nearly 400,000 comments later, Nye is set to debate Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, tonight. Not everyone is so enamored of Nye's decision to engage in this debate. Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, argues that "theories of creation can superficially sound right to people without a science background."

The Creation Museum, which is based in Petersburg, Kentucky, promotes the so-called "Young Earth" explanation of the origins of the universe. The physicist Lawrence Krauss argues that this literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is "as much a disservice to religion as it is to science." Indeed, even the televangelist Pat Robertson has rejected the idea that our planet is 6,000 years old and therefore, (as some would have us believe) dinosaur fossils must either be forgeries or, just as preposterously, homo sapiens and dinosaurs cohabitated 6,000 years ago. 

In other words, Bill Nye will not only be debating anti-evolutionists, he will be debating an extreme fringe group of creationists. Is he walking into the lion's den?

You can watch the LIVE feed from MSNBC here

You can watch the feed from the Creation Museum here LIVE at 7PM (ET):

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.