You’ve probably seen the image or one of hundreds of parodies of it. The original shows fifteen males, starting with an ape on the far left and ending with a modern human on the far right.
The simplified version frequently uses only six. The artist who painted the original illustration, Rudolph Zallinger, said it wasn’t meant to imply a straight or simple path from ape to human, but in fact that’s exactly what it did. From the moment it appeared in Early Man, the 1965 Time-Life book, it became conflated with the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection. Currently, the article “What is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?” on Livescience.com sports a simplified March of Progress illustration right at the beginning, one of many such references.
Criticism of the image is loud and ongoing. All of the figures are male, culminating with a contemporary white male. It’s sexist, racist, ethno-centric, and stupidly self-congratulatory. Though so common it’s hardly noticeable anymore, it reinforces Social Darwinism, grossly over-simplifies the story of human history, and blinds us to the abilities of our ancestors. Its only saving grace is that it spawned dozens of funny variations, including these:
Survival of the Fittest
Implied in the original March of Progress illustration is the theory of Survival of the Fittest. Darwin noted that more individuals of every species are born than can survive. Therefore, the ones that have an edge, perhaps through an adaptation, are more likely to survive than the others. Those who survive are more likely to reproduce. He uses many examples from the natural world, including the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands.
Though they share a common ancestor, they have developed different beak shapes and sizes to help them reach and process the different foods they eat. Thus, adaptation allows for survival.
In the 19th century, Darwin’s idea of survival of the best-adapted, or fittest, was frequently applied to social situations, especially as a way to explain why some people had all the money and power while others starved to death. It was simply Nature’s plan, the rich people argued, unfortunate, perhaps, but inescapable.
Survival of the Fittest – and Luckiest
Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Gould modified the idea of survival of the fittest by saying that chance also plays a huge part in the success of individuals and species. His book, Wonderful Life, published in 1989, explores the concept using the fossilized sea creatures in the Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia, Canada, as examples. He points out that they were well-suited to their environment yet all perished because of an overwhelming environmental change. Basically, he thought survival was a function of luck as much as ability.
About that Linear Progress
Another problem with the March of Progress image is its assumption that the hominids that preceded us were much less capable than we are. New finds challenge that idea. In fact, they pretty clearly indicate that long before there were modern humans, there were great explorers.
The oldest dates for modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) are hard to pin down because experts argue over what defines a modern human and because new evidence contradicts older theories. According to skull shape, modern humans first appeared in East Africa somewhere between 115,000 and 160,000 years ago. According to genetic studies, anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago and first migrated out of Africa 125,000 years ago. According to Archaeologydaily.com, modern humans arrived in Europe between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.
And yet, consider these finds:
Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia – hominid remains dated to 1.8 million years ago which show dental wear consistent with frequent use of a toothpick. Also thousands of extinct animal bones and a thousand stone tools
The Sima del Elefante rockshelter in the Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain – remains of Homo antecessor, dated to 1.1 million years old
Happisburg, near Norfolk, England – 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into cutting tools, dated to between 840,000 and 950,000 years old
Pakefield, near Lowestoff in Suffolk, England – flint tools dated to 700,000 years old
Boxgrove, England – stone, antler, and bone tools dated to 500,000 years old
A cold phase that began around 470,000 years ago probably killed or forced out the resident hominid populations in Britain. New settlers arrived during the next warm spell.
Swanscombe Heritage Park, northwest Kent, England – hand axes and skull fragments dated to 400,000 years old. The skull, dubbed “Swanscombe Man,” was subsequently found to belong to a woman.
Bilzingsleben, Germany – 200,000 stone artifacts and hundreds of bone, wood, and antler artifacts, fragments of two hominid skulls, probably Homo erectus, remains of a circle of oval huts, all between 320,000 and 412,000 years old, a fragment of elephant tibia incised with lines (illustration)
Schoningen, Germany – wooden throwing spears found with 16,000 animal bones, the first evidence of active hunts, dated to 300,000 years ago
So these ancestors were apparently long-distance explorers with a social structure, counting and building skills, as well as collective hunting ability. Those assume some sense of geography and an accurate communication system (language). Since rivers were the easiest way to get from one forested or mountainous area to another, boat building was probably also necessary for survival. If they were out after dark, some form of navigating by the moon and stars would enable them to return to their village or camp.
Hardly grunting dim-wits.
It’s curious now that research has shown many of us to be related through our DNA to the Neanderthals or their Denisovan cousins, attitudes toward them have changed. Suddenly, the earliest cave art in Spain, a painting of two seals, and a series of negative hand prints and rows of red dots, have been ascribed to Neanderthal painters.
We have a fascinating history that we’re only beginning to understand. Perhaps someday, instead of the March of Progress, we’ll come up with an equally compelling but far more accurate illustration of that story.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Ancient Britons were earliest northern Europeans,” Natural History Museum (UK), 07 July 2010
Borenstein, Seth. “Cave art suggests that Neanderthals weren’t such Neanderthals, after all,” The Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 2012
“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” All about Science. http://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com
“Devon jawbone reveals earliest NW European,” Natural History Museum (UK) 02 November 2011
Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Norton & Co., 1989
Hirst, K. Kris, “Bilzingsleben (Germany)” About.com Archaeology
Hirst, K. Kris, “Lower Paleolithic Sites in Europe,” About.com Archaeology
“Homo heidelbergensis” Wikipedia (an excellent article)
“Hunting for the first humans in Britain” British Archaeology magazine, May 2003. http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba70/feat1.shtml
“March of Progress,” Wikipedia
“More Findings Emerge from Oldest Known Hominin Fossils Outside of Africa” Popular Archaeology, 07 October 2013 http://popular-archaeology.com/issur/09012013
O’Neil, Dennis. “Early Modern Homo sapiens.” Evolution of Modern Humans: Early Modern Homo sapiens. http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm
“Recent African origin of modern humans” Wikipedia (an excellent article)
“Resourceful Neanderthals in France,” Popular Archaeology, 01 November 2013
Sample, Ian. “First humans arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought,” The Guardian. 07 July 2013 http://the guardian.com/science/2010jul/07/first-humans-britain-stone-tools
Than, Ker “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic Daily News, 14 June 2012