Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Don't get me wrong. If there's anything I cherish more than a great icon of art, it's seeing that icon perverted in a humorous way, even when there's not a lot of originality involved. So I got a little chuckle the other day when I saw a billboard ad for a new local microbrew featuring Michelangelo's God passing a beer to the Roddy McDowell character from Planet of the Apes. But as I closed in on the sign, I noticed a second icon being lampooned as well—one that stifled my chuckle with a little shudder.

It was that old Rudy Zallinger drawing again, Primates On Parade, or whatever it's called—probably the best-known work in the entire pantheon of scientific illustration. In the original, a gibbon-like Pliopithecus on the left appears to transform into a chimpish Proconsul, then through various stages of slouching, “inferior” hominids before emerging on the right as a modern Human. Beautifully rendered though it is, I'm not a big fan of that drawing. Not only does it imply a misleading pedigree for our species (a number of the primates pictured were clearly not human ancestors), it also feeds into the model of evolution as a “ladder,” with all of creation coveting Man's position at the top. It's kind of a creationist inspired view, where nature is improved over time, which is why advertisers love to parody Zallinger. Their product is always placed on the right: the crown of creation. If species evolved in an ecological vacuum, they might actually evolve into better adapted forms, but most often it's just a mad scramble to keep up with a changing system. We like to think of modern humans as the best adapted hominids because...well, because they're the most like us. Once we've survived as a species for 2 million years, like Homo erectus did, maybe I'll start listening to that argument.
In the interest of science, I bought a six-pack of Wasatch Evolution Ale today. I'm now pulling a bottle from the case. I've just popped the top. Not bad...fairly hoppy...a strong hint of silage in the aftertaste. Overall, I'd say I'm not likely to buy the stuff again. Nothing is so red in tooth and claw as market forces in the beer world.
Photographs of Wasatch Beer advertising and packaging used without permission.


Anonymous Roger B. said...

Great advert! I know what you mean about the 'primates on parade' image though. The concept of evolution as a ladder is well and truly entrenched in public perception - just like the idea that "survival of the fittest" means "survival of the strongest".

3:18 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

AFAIK, the original painting is called "The Ascent of Man," which has a nice spiritual ring to it.

7:41 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

i didn't know you were allowed to drink anything with alcohol in it in salt lake city!

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to mention it's a rip-off. Guinness already did this. See the image at:


9:56 AM  
Blogger Colin Burgess said...

As for evolution as a ladder, I've always liked Vonnegut's "Galapagos". Due to a freak mishap we evolve to be much dumber, and as it turns out, much much happier.

Ah, the curse of the big brains!

10:15 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Roger: ...or of the smartest, or most technologically adept, or richest, for that matter.
Derek: I've seen it called that, March of Progress, and Road to Homo sapiens. I don't know that Zallinger ever named it himself. It's too bad that he'll be remembered best for that drawing, because he was a great paleo artist.
Mystery Commenter: HA!! I feel a little better now about posting the Wasatch Beer art without their permission. Thanks.
Colin: Good old Vonnegut.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shorter'd comments. Nice.

7:47 AM  

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