Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Going over last week's DARWIN IS DEAD Carnival was just the kick in the temple I needed to get me writing again about the basic misconceptions that so often color the ideas held about evolution. While reading the creationist posts I was especially struck by the fallacious assumptions made about our species and its relationship to other primates.

Like Ostriches and Ospreys, Aardvarks and Aye-ayes, Humans are peculiar creatures with no close living relatives—the result of a lone evolutionary line spilling into an obscure crack just big enough for a single species. Looking at such species in isolation provides very few insights about evolution—far better to look at our distant relatives. It's easier to be objective about them, anyway. It's a common assumption that because chimpanzees (Pan spp.) are our closest relatives, they are the most evolved apes. The exact reverse is actually the case; they are the least evolved of the apes. Sure, they're our closest relative, but they're also the closest relatives of the Gorilla and of the Asian apes. Of all those groups, the chimpanzees have changed the least from the ancestors that gave rise to us all. It's tempting to see evolution as a ladder, with all of creation striving to attain the summit occupied by our own species, but it's a far less ordered process than that. Chimps will never evolve into humans. The selective pressure is to excel at being a chimp, a task at which every human I ever met (with one possible exception) would fail miserably.
The falsehood of the evolutionary ladder was illustrated beautifully by the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, the three-foot tall hominid whose 18,000 year-old remains were recently unearthed on the Indonesian island of Flores. The species Homo erectus was the direct ancestor of the tiny Floresian hominids as well our own species. Homo sapiens appeared on the African plains because of a peculiar set of circumstances and a lot of dumb luck. In a different situation H. erectus evolved in a completely different direction. Evolution follows a mindless and random course that is impossible to predict.

There was another exciting and slightly humbling lesson in those diminutive Floresian bones. In getting to Flores, Java Man must have crossed Wallace's line, which more than suggests to me that our species was not the first on Earth to build boats.
upper: BIOPHILIA--GORILLA & CRESTED CHAMELEON (2001) acrylic 22" x 17"
lower: ORANG-UTAN & ASIAN ELEPHANTS (1997) acrylic 40" x 12"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent post, keep 'em coming.

(And I plan on ordering your book next month- if I whine, can I get a signed copy?) ;)

I read the anti-Darwin thread you posted in your blog carnival post, and I couldn't get out of there fast enough! I'm glad you have the knowledge to debate their conclusions because I didn't read much of anything that made much sense to be honest.
keep on keepin on..

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not an evolutionary anthropologist but...

Just a little background reading shows that 'human origins' is an incredibly complex subject. The recent geological record is littered with hominid fossils that are not fully understood (yet).

I started reading 'Darwin is Dead' but gave up after a couple of paragraphs. These people are so unimaginative and egocentric. To paraphrase one contributor: "The universe cannot be eternal because I can't count to infinity". Doh!

1:39 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Cindy: Thanks. You most certainly can get a signed copy. If you whine, though, I'll erase it.
Roger: Yep. I'm obviously no evolutionary anthropologist either, but evolution period is very complex and only partially understood...that's no proof that it doesn't occur! In response to that infinity jazz, one commenter noted: "I can't count to a trillion, so there's no national deficit!"

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can count to a trillion, but I'll have to reincarnated a few times. :)

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, that carnival link was....erm...interesting. Human evolution is fascinating to me for the what might have beens - particularly earlier lines like Paranthopus. Nice post as always.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Alan: Ah, but yout you forget that most reincarnations are as organisms with no concept of numbers. How could you ever keep your place? I rest my case: No Nat'l deficit!
Tai: Thanks for stopping by! Everybody needs to go look at the gorgeous squid photos on your blog!

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most enlightening and thought provoking! I have always found it impossible to believe in Darwin; and I have always wondered - we humans, as we are now - are we evolving in to another species? Has there been any sign of that hapenning? It doesn't seem so at all!

3:59 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Omar: Thank you for stopping by! The speed at which life evolves is still pretty poorly understood. You're right that humans (and most other species) have shown no perceptible change over the past 200,000 years. Gould & Eldridge's model of "Punctuated Equilibrium" has always made a lot of sense to me. My advice to people who have trouble accepting Darwin is to start by looking at the issue outside the context of our species. Incidentally, I visited your blog, and found it fascinating and thoughtful. I will be visiting you regularly, and hope some day to visit Yemen, a country for which I've always had a strong attraction.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Carel; Rob here. I was interested to see you bring up Wallace - an underappreciated contributor to evolutionary thought - and his Line. That Homo erectus crossed it never occurred to me; though that they would seem to have had boats did. Thanks for the stimulus. As a fellow failed biologist turned wildlife artist it ......... well since we are on the phone now, I'll stop writing

11:19 AM  

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