To study the history of the theory of human evolution is not to study the development of a science. Soon after beginning such an enterprise, we soon realise that what we’re faced with are, in fact, the differing attitudes and beliefs that man has deemed to be politically correct over the centuries about who he is, and where he stands in the universe.
Ever since ‘killing God’, science has had to assume the mantle of the storyteller, to give man his story about who he is in the form that he’s always heard it ~ that of metaphors within myths. It’s just that the myths and metaphors we were given pre-religion and science (the same thing, in some respects) served us much better in that they gave us a more holistic and holographic view of our identity as spirits undergoing the journey of the human experience and our place in the universe.
The scientific evidence for whether our evolution as a species is subject to the whims and whimsy of the random, meaningless, clockwork processes of a Blind Watchmaker or is woven at the loom of the Sisters at the Back of the North Wind has yet to be found, despite the massive industry which has been invested into looking.
Ever since Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in the mid 19th century, scientists have been amassing a body of evidence with which they’d hoped to prove that we descend from a common ape ancestor. However, to date, that evidence is both quantitatively and qualitatively sparse … so sparse, in fact, to render any speculation virtually useless.
Anthropologists, palaeontologists, geneticists and biologists are still arguing over where we originally came from, and whether to opt for the Out of Africa theory or the Multi Regional theory. There is disagreement as to whether or not Homo sapiens sapiens (HSS) was descended from Homo erectus (HE), their taxonomy, who Homo erectus actually was, and where he originated. HSS seemed to appear from nowhere about 50,000 years ago … until recent finds pushed the date back to 195,000 years ago.
Still the fossil record is unable to show a smoothly evolving gradation terminating in HSS – in other words, the Missing Link is still missing. And the fact that HSS lived alongside the Neanderthals (HN) for tens of thousands of years, with very little admixture, if only we could determine what we mean by ‘species’.
In addition, virtually the whole of this investigation proceeds on the premise that cognition (intelligence) evolves. However, this premise is not only unproven — there is actually no evidence for it and in fact, the reverse. If intelligence is to be measured by how successfully we manage our place on the planet and are able to hand on that stewardship with a clean conscience to future generations, I think all the earlier hominids have us beaten hands down on that.
By seeking to understand the origins of man through the aperture of Western science, are we looking through a glass darkly? As William Irwin Thompson points out in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture:
“Because we have separated humanity from nature, subject from object, values from analysis, knowledge from myth, and universities from the universe, it is enormously difficult for anyone but a poet or a mystic to understand what is going on in the holistic and mythopoetic thought of Ice Age humanity. The very language we use to discuss the past speaks of tools, hunters, and men, when every statue and painting we discover cries out to us that this Ice Age humanity was a culture of art, the love of animals, and women.”
Perhaps by looking at the timeline of how the theory of evolution developed, we can find some clues as to how to retrace our steps.
Masters of the Universe
In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin rushed to publish his Origin of Species, knowing that Alfred Wallace was about to publish his own paper on evolution in which Wallace expressed some doubts about it, based on his knowledge of the human mind and language.
Darwin’s work took the world by storm, or at least the chattering classes in England. However, the fact that the book got so much publicity was because the general public was ready for a theory that would break the iron-cold, dead hand of established religion on their lives. So a theory, that, if it were true, would disprove the existence of the jealous, manic Old Testament Jehovah was very welcome, especially when you have the brilliant advertiser Sir Julian Huxley coming up with great one-liners like:
“Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.”
He also said: “I suppose the reason we all jumped at the Origin was because the idea of God interfered with our sexual mores.”
So perhaps if Huxley had been getting more action in the sack, the theory of evolution would never have taken off? Just a thought …
Anyway, whatever the reason, the theory of evolution entered into what’s known as the zeitgeist of the age, an age when its readers, mainly upper-class white Europeans, were taking over the world. Thus the imperialist invaders of Africa, Australia and the New World regarded themselves as just living proof of the theory of the survival of the fittest, with their colonial vassals as mere evolutionary left-overs, or living fossils if you like, of a more primitive age that was well on its way to extinction.
But it was Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, which really focussed on the idea of man having a common ape ancestor. His view appeared to be based on the following observation:
“In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is, therefore, probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”
That’s it … just an observation — nothing more ‘scientific’ than that, as it wasn’t until half a century later that fossilised remains of what became known as ‘hominoids’ began to be dug up all over Africa by the white ‘Master Race’.
At the same time, the Masters of the Universe worldview had permeated the thinking about these fossils. So it was assumed that these ape-like creatures had been superseded by the more evolved and fitter HSS, like the white Europeans who had found them.
Paradise lost – or at least, forgotten
By the 20th century a veritable industry had emerged, with the expressed purpose of proving our descent from an ancestor we shared with the apes. However, the Western academic world, funded by corporate interests anxious to justify capitalism, and the newly developing Marxist world, did not wait for such confirmation. Assuming that, any day now, the Missing Link would come strolling down from the African plains, we all began to be mentally conditioned with pictures like this one:
In addition, pictures of trees began to appear in educational textbooks. These trees had thick trunks (representing the white Europeans) and thin spindly branches growing off them showing those species which had become extinct – the Pithecanthropus and the Neanderthals for example. Even the native Australians and Africans were included; however, rumours of their impending extinction had been greatly exaggerated.
This racial hierarchy stereotyping reached its zenith during World War Two, with the horrors that stemmed from the Nazis’ ideas about the superiority of the Aryan race. But soon after that, in the middle of the 20th century, we start to see the fall of Empire, with the loss of India in 1948 probably being the harbinger of a sea change in thinking.
What we need is a great big melting pot
The end of our imperialistic ambitions had killed the Masters of the Universe theory. But we didn’t have long to examine its entrails. We were soon thrown into a massive love-in. The Swinging Sixties was the age of Martin Luther King and race riots that led to the repeal of the laws on ‘bussing’ and segregation. In just a couple of decades, apartheid in South Africa would fall and so by then, no reputable anthropologist would dare to mention evolutionary status and hierarchy of race in the same breath.
Thus the old hierarchical way of reading the fossil record was also discarded and, in fact, the pendulum swung the other way. Now it was almost considered to be racist to exclude any fossil ape-like primates from our ancestry – which is why the field of palaeontology is in the mess it’s in today.
The old taxonomy had to make way for new ideas about who we are, and the word ‘variant’ disguised any negative connotations of not being socially acceptable in the salons of London hostesses. Everyone was welcomed into this New Age, hands-around-the-world love-in, from the most ancient primates called Australopithecus, to Homo erectus, Homo hablis, Homo heidelbergensis and even the Neanderthals, to name but a few.
So did this mean that the old racist ideas were now, truly, a thing of the past? Well, no. As we all know from bitter experience, when you don’t have laws in a country just about anyone can walk in. It isn’t so much that Nature abhors a vacuum ~ She actually takes positive steps to fill it, and so She came up with an American anthropologist named Carleton Coon, and his book The Origin of Races.
Sex, lies and salamanders
By juggling his dates and his taxonomy, Dr. Coon decided that evolution was in fact racist, with different races evolving at different times into HSS from HE. So his view was based on the Multi Regional model and, in it, he postulated that the whites made the transition first (natch!). Then came the Orientals, then the Africans and then finally the Australians, who were the last to become fully human.
The idea that one single interbreeding population could change species, and especially in such a racially hierarchical way – Coon had little proof beyond some birds and salamanders displaying a similar arrangement – naturally caused outrage. And to cut a long and very painful story short, the outcome was such that some anthropologists began to view the whole Multi Regional theory as racist … and this led to more of them leaning towards the Out of Africa theory, which is where we are today.
So there it is … all because Huxley wasn’t getting enough sex we have to consider ourselves to be apes. And some of us even use that as a justification to behave like apes, as if was life was just one long stag party or a lost boys’ weekend.
The Pithecanthropus remains of Java were originally thought to be that of HSS’s ancestor, Homo erectus (HE), from about a million years ago. But recent dating of their teeth shows that these guys were living in the jungles of Java only about 50,000 years ago.
A further recent find of one finger in Siberia has upset the thinking even further. The newly-discovered DNA is from a human-like being who lived there between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago, but one unlike any other so far identified.
And even as we speak, scientists are arguing about whether the recently discovered 4.4 million years old primate Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus) was or was not human. These two photos below are an example how much assumption is built into so-called objective enquiry. The first shows the remains that were actually found of Ardi; the second is an artist’s impression ~ an artist using a lot of artistic licence, if you ask me.
But science is not unaminous in its view that we are descendents of the ape family. Some geneticists and molecular biologists are getting a little tired of it all, and are starting to point out that the Naked Ape has in fact, got clothes on. Some of them are starting to question even the term ‘species’ and to ask the question:
“If we all evolved from one common gene pool, how did the different species arise?”
Geneticist Professor Maciej Giertych of the Polish Academy of Sciences says he knows of no biological data relevant to tree genetics which would require evolutionary explanations. He adds that he could easily pursue his career without ever mentioning evolution.
And it is notable that one of the molecular biologists that discovered DNA, Frances Crick, had never believed in the ape common ancestor theory.
Recent studies show that HSS was not physically more fit than anyone else, and if anything, what’s become known as ‘gracialisation’ and ‘juvenilesation’ had rendered him nowhere near as fit as his then contemporaries, the Neanderthals.
And if we still insist on thinking that we modern folk represent “the best” that evolution has been able to do up until now, well, that’s just plain hubris!