Evolution Is Not Progress

image by Zephyr Pfotenhauer

Don’t worry, I haven’t become a creationist! But for heaven’s sake, can we please stop using this misleading evolution graphic?? AND all the endless permutations of the same misleading “progress of man” theme…OK, some of them are funny, & some are probably an appropriate commentary on the silly notion of evolutionary progress, but enough already! BBC, bloggers, even the Leakey Foundation for heaven’s sake – get a grip on the latest!  We know this isn’t how it happened, & I know we can come up with something more accurate & trendy.

First of all – duh – our ancestors weren’t all male & they certainly weren’t caucasian. Secondly, some of our ancestors were on average taller than humans. Third, one of our closest cousins, the Neanderthals, had larger brains (note to self: no more labeling a dense person a neanderthal). Fourth, there wasn’t any kind of straight-line progression from our common ancestor with chimpanzees & bonobos (6-7 million years ago) to Australopithecus, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, & Homo sapiens. In fact, the hominin family ‘bush’ looks sorta like a favorite Italian dish:

Caroline Vansickle, An Updated History of the Human Pelvis, American Scientist, November 2016. "Mapping the Path of Human Evolution: Paleoanthropologists used to think that the evolution of our species was a simple one-way street, with early hominins such as Ardipithecus at the start and modern humans at the end. But as more fossil species have been found, the map of our past has been expanded, revealing new pathways and hominin species we never expected to be part of the map. Today, when paleoanthropologists describe evolutionary relationships among fossil hominins, the result is a complicated arrangement of two-way streets, dead ends, and new roads with species whose connections with the rest of the map are not yet clear, as indicated by the cloud cover that obscures some areas. Illustration by Barbara Aulicino."

Notice that some of the noodles are cut off – extinctions of some of our ancestors. Notice too that some show clouded areas – maybe more extinctions? maybe that hominin line continues to evolve into other hominins, into humans? …we don’t know for sure, yet. We may never know. Primate fossils are hard to come by, which is why when a new one is uncovered (most likely in Africa) , it’s always big news. But we do know that we had many close relatives over the past 6-7 million years, and that we are the only one, the only hominin, still living on earth.

So next time you see something like this  – & it’s ubiquitous, believe me – instead remember spaghetti…it’s our human primate heritage.

[updated 9/8/19]

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11 Responses to Evolution Is Not Progress

  1. Jean says:

    I love this stuff, Linda! Thank you for voicing the oft misunderstood point: evolution does not mean “progress” (like the old General Electric advertisement). I’m looking forward to a future blog on the other misunderstood and misused term: the “fittest.”

  2. La Sue says:

    thanks for the timely reminder that there are no straight lines in nature. In Mostar, Bosnia we saw a tee shirt with the sequence of hominids at the top of your page except that the last “ape” was looking back and the caption underneath was “Stop following me”. Well the Croatians thought it was hilarious.

  3. Tammy says:

    What a great post. You have me laughing and I love it. I will always think of spaghetti now. Love a good rant.

  4. brooks says:

    Most of those dudes & dudettes on the spaghetti diagram are not our ancestors– just cousins.

  5. liveoaklinda says:

    hmm, that’s an interesting point. If they became extinct, could they still be an ancestor to the species which eventually evolved into us? One thing I like about this particular graphic is that it shows that we don’t yet know the ‘line’ from them to us.

    • brooks says:

      Only if there is some “intermarriage”. Looks like some homo sapiens sapiens carry some Neanderthal DNA. (discovered in the last couple years) BTW, which– by definition– if there is fertile offspring, then the “cousins” are the same species.

    • liveoaklinda says:

      yep that’s right…interesting that we haven’t heard much about how humans & neanderthals may be the same species…

  6. liveoaklinda says:

    lee berger recently characterized human evolution as a “braided” or “meandering” stream. i love that image – kinda like spaghetti, dontcha think?

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