Cope’s rule, named for paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, states that lineages tend to increase in body size over long periods of time. A pattern of body size increase over time appears to apply to most observed lineages. It has been identified, for example, in canids, marine animals, humans, and even dinosaurs.
Cope's rule is widely accepted by the scientific community. It doesn't leave much room for giant humans in the past, however, which is a problem if you really want such things to have existed.
Chris Lesley, proponent of a notion of “Greater Ancestry” theory, proposes that Cope's rule is exactly backwards. Lesley states that every life form had a greater ancestor in the past, meaning that as species evolve they get smaller rather than larger. According to his website
"Every animal, plant and microbe from the blue whale to single cell organisms, every life form has a GREATER ANCESTOR in the past. This creed is without exception, there are no animals living today that do not follow this model of science. GREATER ANCESTRY is a scientific model of origins and boldly superior to all previous and existing models globally."
Lesley cites an astonishing amount of evidence for his claims. I chose to examine just a few, none of which held up to scrutiny.
A Greater Rabbit Ancestor?
Lesley claims that the rabbit’s greater ancestor, Nuralagus, has been discovered. His post on the subject is littered with pictures of the ancient lagomorph skeleton compared to today’s European rabbit. In the images the older remains are significantly larger than the remains of the rabbit we know today.
The pictures are real (one of them even has a scale!), but five minutes of research shows why this is a poor piece of evidence for his claim. The skeleton shown is actually not the greater ancestor of the modern rabbit.
Nuralagus was discovered on the island of Menorca in Spain. Its size is explained by a concept called “island gigantism”. According to Ted Case, there are two common factors that lead to island gigantism: lack of predators and consistent availability of food. There are also multiple variables that have to be just right in order for a species to head toward gigantism, such as a lack of physical restrictions on why an animal can enlarge. For Nuralagus, food was so readily available that it was advantageous to give up the ability to dig for their food like smaller European rabbits do. Nuralagus grew to its immense size because of the lack of predators on Menorca. The modern rabbit’s size works to its advantage because it allows them to escape predators easily. Nuralagus, not having any predators to worry about, was perfectly conditioned to grow and grow and grow as it evolved. As a result of this island gigantism, we can safely say that Nuralagus is not the greater ancestor of the European rabbit; he is just an anomaly within the lineage of the lagomorphs. (Source for image of Nuralagus.)
What's Bigger than the Blue Whale?
The blue whale (still living today) is the largest animal that we know about. How could the biggest animal to ever live have a "greater ancestor"?
Lesley claims that a species called Balaenoptera sibbaldina is the biggest whale that has ever lived, and is therefore a "greater ancestor" to the blue whale. He writes an article with various pictures of this whale and quotes this 2005 article from the Journal of Mammalian Evolution (pg. 115):
"Van Beneden (1880, p. 15) established this species on an isolated petrosal and some vertebrae from different parts of the axial skeleton. Later, in his monograph Van Beneden (1882) listed and illustrated a partial occipital shield (of a juvenile individual), a right petrosal, an isolated posterior process of the petrotympanic, a partial rib, and isolated thoracic, lumbar, and caudal vertebrae. Because no holotypewas designated and the syntypes are almost certainly from different individuals, it is not possible to unambiguously diagnose this taxon. Van Beneden (1880, 1882) aligned (presumably based on size) this fossil species with the extant blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus, known to Van Beneden as Balaenoptera sibbaldus), emphasizing that relationship with a similar specific name. Van Beneden emphasized that he was naming the fossil taxon sibbaldina presumably referring to the similar large size of the fossil and living blue whale."
Lesley does a lot of cherry picking in this claim. He takes quotes that only conform with the point he’s trying to make. As shown in the quote above, the authors state that the recognition of Balaenoptera sibbaldina as a valid species is suspect because of problems concerning the type of remains discovered and the lack of a type specimen. Additionally, a French scientific journal entitled Geodiversitas published an article stating that a lot of the remains found are based in speculation because some of the bones are broken and others don’t have enough Balaenopteroid characteristics. These are inconvenient for the "greater ancestor" theory, and Lesley ignores them.
Lesley doesn’t stop with animals. In the large section of his website dedicated to “greater humans,” Lesley asserts that humans are only getting smaller over time. He cites his evidence as everything from the usual accounts of eight foot skeletons (some of which have been debunked) to a quote from Abraham Lincoln.
The most frustrating thing about Lesley's assertions is that he absolutely refuses to accept any evidence that doesn't accord with his own ideas. According to the Smithsonian, known fossils related to human evolution follow Cope’s rule: our lineage generally increases in size over time. Fossils possibly related to our early hominin ancestry (e.g., Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Ardipithecus ramidus) were small in body size. Ardipithecus ramidus had an estimated height of 3'11." The height of Australopithecus afarensis is estimated at 4'11" for males and 3'5" for females. A trend of increasing body size continues throughout our evolution, with species such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and finally, Homo sapiens (that’s us!). The pattern of increasing body size in our lineage is clear.
The "greater ancestor" claim, much like other pseudoscientific claims, struggles to garner some concrete evidence that holds up to scientific scrutiny. Cope’s rule has been shown to apply to numerous lineages, which is why it has gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community. Perhaps the most important part of Cope’s rule is the fact that it embraces exceptions. It acknowledges that not every single species within a lineage will follow the "rule;" rather it’s a general observation about trends in body size within lineages over evolutionary time.
Lesley's clear statement that there is no animal alive today that doesn’t have a "greater ancestor" is easy to falsify if you understand evolutionary lineages: the giant bunny from the Spanish island isn't the ancestor of today's rabbits. The inability to accept and account for contrary evidence points to a belief system rather than a scientific approach.
These blog posts were written by students in Forbidden Archaeology (Fall 2016)