Tag Archives: Human Evolution

March 22, 1785 (a Tuesday)

Adam Sedgwick

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist Adam Sedgwick was born. He was one of the founders of modern geology. Sedgwick was the first scientist to apply the name Cambrian to the geologic period of time, now dated at 570 to 505 million years ago. Twentieth-century research has uncovered so many excellent fossils in Cambrian sediments, especially the Burgess Shale in Canada, that this geologic period is sometimes referred to as the “Cambrian Explosion.”

Sedgwick attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he took holy orders in 1817. In 1818, he became Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, despite the fact that he had no formal training in geology. His lectures at Cambridge were immensely popular; he was a spellbinding lecturer, and – breaking with the traditions of his time – his lectures were open to women, whom Sedgwick thought could make great contributions to natural history. He kept giving his famous lectures until 1871.

After passing his examinations for the Bachelor of Arts degree in January 1831, Charles Darwin began attending Sedgwick’s geology lectures, which he found fascinating. During the summer of 1831, Darwin was Sedwick’s field assistant in north Wales, and Darwin got a “crash course” in field geology from Sedgwick. This was an experience that proved valuable to Darwin over the next five years, on his round-the-world voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. During this voyage, Darwin sent geological specimens and reports to Sedgwick, who wrote approvingly to Darwin’s family:

He is doing admirably in S. America & has already sent home a Collection above all praise. – It was the best thing in the world for him that he went out on the Voyage of Discovery. . .

However, after reading The Origin of Species, Sedgwick candidly wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859:

If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that. . . I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous– You have deserted– after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth– the true method of induction. . .

Sedgwick was opposed to Charles Lyell’s models of slow, gradual geological change and a more or less steady-state Earth. Instead, he followed Cuvier’s idea of multiple “catastrophes” that had destroyed much of Earth’s life. But Sedgwick did not object to evolution, or “development” as such theories were called then, in the broad sense – to the fact that the life on Earth had changed over time. Nor was he a “young-Earth” creationist – he thought that the Earth must be extremely old. Nevertheless, Sedgwick believed in the Divine creation of life over long periods of time, by “a power I cannot imitate or comprehend — but in which I believe, by a legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws of harmonies of nature.” His problem was with the amoral and materialistic nature of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, which Sedgwick thought was degrading to humanity’s spiritual aspirations. His letter of November 24 went on to state:

This view of nature you have stated admirably; tho’ admitted by all naturalists & denied by no one of common sense. We all admit development as a fact of history; but how came it about? Here, in language, & still more in logic, we are point blank at issue– There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause, link material to moral. . . You have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it–& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

Despite their differences, the two stayed friends until Sedgwick’s death in 1873.

March 21, 1925 (a Saturday)

On this date, Tennessee Governor Peay signed into law the Butler Act, “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory” in all public schools and universities and making it unlawful in public schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This set the stage for the Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee during the subsequent summer.

The author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, had introduced the bill into the state House of Representatives on January 25, 1925. Ironically, he later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan’s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous. During the trial, Butler told reporters, “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

February 24, 1871 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published in two volumes. The word “evolution” appeared for the first time in any of his works. This first issue was of 2,500 copies.

February 9, 1619 (a Saturday)

Portrait of Giulio Cesare Vanini, modeled by Ettore Ferrari, for the base of the monument to Giordano Bruno, in Campo dei Fiori square in Rome, Italy. Photo by Giovanni DallOrto.

On this date in Rome under the authority of Pope Clement VIII, the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini, or, as he styled himself in his works, Giulio Cesare, had his tongue cut out and was strangled at the stake; his body then was burned to ashes. Like Giordano Bruno, though considered intellectually inferior to him, he was  part of the movement to break with the dogmas of scholasticism and the authority of Aristotle, and made a courageous contribution to the foundations of a new philosophy.Vanini resembles Bruno, not only in his wandering life and in his death, but also in his unorthodox religious ideas.  What is remarkable about Vanini is that he was the first person to theorize the evolution of mankind — the first since the ancient Greeks of the Miletus School around 800 B.C.E. Anaximander had posited that life began in the sea. Vanini should have gone down in history as a wonderful hero and tribute to human ingenuity, as the man who enlightened two thousand years of ignorance.

Author Lynne Schultz states:

For Vanini, natural law was the divine. He rejected the idea of an immortal soul and was one of the first thinkers to view nature as (an entity) governed by natural laws. He also suggested that humans evolved from apes.

Born in 1585, Vanini studied theology and became an ordained priest. He went on to travel Europe promoting freedom of thought, rationalism, opposition to dogma, and opposition to the Catholic Church. After traveling Europe he returned to Italy, but was forced to flee for his life to avoid the Inquisition and charges of atheism. In an attempt to clear his name and satisfy the authorities he published a book of opposition to atheism in 1615, entitled Amphitheatrum Aeternae Providentiae Divino-Magicum, that ostensibly affirmed his belief in God. This was the first book he had ever published.

Once his name was cleared by this book, however, Vanini published another book in 1616, entitled De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (Of the marvelous secrets of the queen and goddess of the mortal ones, nature), that made it clear his first book was a parody of religious belief and was not really reflective of his true views. This second book, which held that divinity could not be rationally conceived outside of Nature, triggered his condemnation and savage execution in Toulouse at age 34, just 19 years after Bruno’s martyrdom.

Vanini displayed incredible courage to the end — he pushed back a priest assisting the torturer and exclaimed “I’ll die as a philosopher!” Described as a charismatic man with verve, irreverence, and charm, who “collected patrons like flies around honey,” many mourned his death.

References:

  • Richard Corfield, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils (London, UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).

February 6, 1913 (a Thursday)

Laetoli Site (Feb 2006)

On this date, the English archaeologist and paleoanthropologist Mary Douglas Leakey was born. She made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach. After Louis’ death in 1972, she enjoyed her most spectacular find: three trails of fossilised hominid footprints 3.6 million years old, which she discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania (1978-9). They incontrovertibly demonstrated that ancestors of Homo sapiens were walking upright at a much earlier period than previously believed.

February 4, 1893 (a Saturday)

Raymond Dart with the Taung skull.

On this date, the South African physical anthropologist and paleontologist Raymond Arthur Dart was born in Australia. His discoveries of fossil hominins led to significant insights into the evolutionary origins of human beings.

In 1924, working with students in the Taung limestone works in Bechuanaland, Dart was rewarded with a most interesting find. It seemed at first to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. He recognized it as the remains of a transitional form in the evolution from ape to man. Dart had found the “Taung child”, only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus, “australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape. At a time when Asia was believed to have been the cradle of mankind, Dart’s discovery substantiated Charles Darwin’s prediction that such ancestral hominin forms would be found in Africa.

Dart’s claim that a creature with an ape-sized brain could have dental and postural characteristics approaching those of humans initially met with hostile skepticism because his theory entailed the principle of mosaic evolution, or the development of some characteristics in advance of others. His claim also differed sharply from the mosaicist position of Elliot Smith, who held that hominization began with an enlarged cranial capacity. Nevertheless, Dart lived to see his theories corroborated by further discoveries of Australopithecus remains at Makapansgat in South Africa in the late 1940s and by the subsequent discoveries of Louis Leakey, which firmly established Africa as the site of mankind’s earliest origins.

February 3, 1925 (a Tuesday)

First fossil skull of Australopithecus.

On this date, a report of a fossil closely related to humans, found by Raymond Dart in 1924, was published in a newspaper. The Star of Johannesburg, South Africa announced the find, instead of the professional journal Nature, when the editors of the journal changed their mind. With his students, Dart had made the discovery in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley of Bechuanaland. When an endocranial cast was found, at first it seemed to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. He had discovered the remains of what came to be known informally as the “Taung child“, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus,” australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape. His theory is now generally accepted, but was originally very controversial.

January 28, 1858 (a Thursday)

Eugene Dubois

On this date, the Dutch surgeon, anthropologist, anatomist, and paleontologist Eugene Dubois was born. Dubois vowed to prove Darwin right by finding “the missing link”, the evolutionary connection between apes and modern humans. In October of 1891, while digging into fossil-rich ash and river sediments on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, he found skeletal remains of what he later named Pithecanthropus erectus. The name meant “ape-human which stood upright.” Now known as Homo erectus or informally as “Java Man”, it is considered to be the direct ancestor of modern humans. Dubois was the first person to ever deliberately search for fossils of human ancestors. Only a handful of fossil humans had already been discovered, all Neandertals, and those were by chance.

The Homo erectus skullcap (Trinil 2, holotype) discovered by Dubois.

Early African Homo erectus fossils (sometimes called Homo ergaster) are the oldest known early humans to have possessed modern human-like body proportions with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms compared to the size of the torso. These features are considered adaptations to a life lived on the ground, indicating the loss of earlier tree-climbing adaptations, with the ability to walk and possibly run long distances.

The most complete fossil individual of this species is known as the “Turkana Boy” — a well-preserved skeleton (though minus almost all the hand and foot bones), dated around 1.6 million years old. Microscopic study of the teeth indicates that he grew up at a growth rate similar to that of a great ape. There is fossil evidence that this species cared for old and weak individuals. The appearance of Homo erectus in the fossil record is often associated with the earliest handaxes, the first major innovation in stone tool technology.

Generally considered to have been the first species to have expanded beyond Africa, Homo erectus is considered a highly variable species, spread over two continents (it’s not certain whether it reached Europe), and possibly the longest lived early human species — about nine times as long as our own species, Homo sapiens, has been around.

January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

References:

December 23, 1924 (a Tuesday)

First fossil skull of Australopithecus.

On this date, Raymond Dart completed his work removing the first fossil skull of Australopithecus from its matrix of rock. Being one of the “missing links” in man’s evolution, Dart had taken exquisite care during 73 days to separate skull and stone, at work in his laboratory in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dart with his students made the find in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley of Bechuanaland. When an endocranial cast was found, at first it seemed to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. Dart had discovered the Taung child, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus. (Australis means “south” and pithecus means “ape”).

December 19, 1944 (a Tuesday)

Richard E. Leakey

On this date, the Kenyan physical anthropologist and paleontologist Richard E. Leakey was born. Leakey, second of three sons of noted anthropologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, decided at an early age that he wanted nothing to do with paleoanthropology and started a expedition business. In 1964, he led an expedition to a fossil site which sparked his interest in paleontology. Since then he has been responsible for extensive fossil finds of human ancestral forms in East Africa, including a Homo habilis skull found in 1972, and a Homo erectus skull found in 1975. His discoveries showed that man’s ancestors used tools, which shows intelligence, and lived in eastern Africa at least 3 million years ago – almost doubling the previously accepted age of human origins.

December 18, 1832 (a Tuesday)

HMS Beagle off Tierra del Fuego
(from an original by Raymond A Massey)

On this date, after passing through the straight of Le Maire at Tierra del Fuego, HMS Beagle anchored at Good Success Bay. Here Charles Darwin had his first encounter with savages. He was shocked by the primitive way of life they led but was also fascinated by them. A group of four male Fuegians (Yamana) met the landing party. After an attempt to communicate with the Fuegians the party presented them with some bright red cloth and the Fuegians immediately became friendly with them. The natives initiated a dialog by patting the crewmen on their chests. Apparently they had the most amazing ability to mimic the crew’s gestures and even the words they spoke, often repeating whole English sentences back to them. Darwin was bewildered by all this, and it left a lasting impression on him.

In chapter 21 entitled “General Summary and Conclusion” of his Descent of Man published years later in 1871, Darwin wrote:

We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped probably arboreal in its habits and an inhabitant of the Old World.

(…)

I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion, whether or not we are able to believe that every slight variation of structure,– the union of each pair in marriage, the dissemination of each seed,– and other such events, have all been ordained for some special purpose.

(…)

The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to say, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians.

Darwin then reiterated his assessment of the Fuegians:

The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind – such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

It is often pointed out that Darwin frequently used the term “savages” when discussing the tribal people whom he wrote about. In his use of the term savages, however, Darwin was simply using the standard lexicon of his time; it was a term that everyone, from Popes to Presidents, used. Also, Darwin was hardly alone in his attitude towards tribal people, and his observations of “savages” are indeed accurate. The cultures that he came into contact with did engage in these practices, and it can hardly be surprising that he felt displeasure towards these qualities. Virtually everyone in Western civilization was repulsed by these traits in other cultures, as they should have been.

But in contrast to the existing views on race, Darwin showed that:

  • People cannot be classified as different species.
  • All races are related and have a common ancestry.
  • All people come from “savage” origins.
  • The different races have much more in common than was widely believed. [He also freely admitted to having had sexual relations with a black woman, something else unheard of in his time. (Darwin, 1874, p. 178)]
  • The mental capabilities of all races are virtually the same and there is greater variation within races than between races.
  • Different races of people can interbreed and there is no concern for ill effects.
  • Culture, not biology, accounted for the greatest differences between the races.
  • Races are not distinct, but rather they blend together.

The language of some of Darwin’s work on race was crude by today’s standard, but it was revolutionary in its opposition to the established ideas of the day, which held that the “savages” were inferior and had no hope of ever living in a state of equality with whites. Instead of being criticized as a racist, Darwin should rightfully be honored as one of the leaders of opposition to racism. He showed through his careful study and through his theory of evolution that we are indeed all related and that the key to social success as a species lies in extending our cooperation, sympathy, and assistance to people of all races and all nations. If Darwin had any social message, that, certainly, was it. In chapter 4 in Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. … This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and “not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.” Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

References:

December 18, 1912 (a Wednesday)

Working at Piltdown.

On this date, the discovery of the skull known as Piltdown man, the first important fossil human skull ever to be unearthed in England, was announced at a meeting of the Geological Society of Great Britain. Charles Dawson, steward of Barkham Manor, an attorney, and secretary to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum, announced their remarkable find had been made at Piltdown Common. The specimen, known as Piltdown man, occupied an honored place in the catalogues of fossil hominids for the next 40 years. But in 1953, thanks to some rigorous scholarly detective work, Piltdown man was revealed to be nothing more than a forgery, manufactured from modern human and animal remains.

November 29, 1974 (a Friday)

The remains of an adult female Australopithecus afarensis, known to all the world as "Lucy."

On this date, the paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson discovered “Lucy”, a 3.2 million-year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, on the slope of a desert channel at Hadar located in Ethiopia.

The discovery of Lucy was a significant development in the search for clues to understanding hominid evolution. Lucy was unique in that, as she was a very old, primitive, and small hominid (human-like species) that did not fit into the known hominid types. She was also the oldest and most complete hominid skeleton that had been found. Although only 40 percent of the skeleton was recovered, bones from both sides of the body were present, allowing paleoanthropologists to reconstruct approximately 70 percent of her skeleton by using mirror imaging. With mirror imaging, existing bones are used to determine what the missing counterpart on the other side of the body looked like. Lucy’s discovery confirmed the evolution of ape-like ancestors to human-like descendants.

When he was in high school, Donald Johanson was told by his guidance counselor to forget about going to college. The only son of a widowed Swedish immigrant mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Johanson had done so poorly on his SATs that the counselor did not believe he was capable of performing college-level work. Johanson ignored the counselor’s advice, pursued higher education, and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Johanson’s books include Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and, most recently, From Lucy to Language. Dr. Johanson hosted the Emmy-nominated NOVA television series In Search of Human Origins.

November 26, 1911 (a Sunday)

Sherwood L. Washburn

On this date, the American primatologist and anthropologist Sherwood L. Washburn was born.

November 13, 1874 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the second edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin was published. It was generally the edition most commonly reprinted after Darwin’s death and up to the present. In the introduction to the first edition, Darwin gave the purpose of his treatise:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

One of the more controversial scientific questions of Darwin’s day was whether the different races of human beings were of the same species or not. Darwin was a long-time abolitionist who had been horrified by slavery when he first came into contact with it in Brazil while touring the world on the Beagle voyage many years before. [With the passage of The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Parliament had finally ended slavery throughout the British Empire.] He reasoned that most of the visual differences between the human races were superficial – issues of skin color and hair type – and that most of the mental differences were merely cases of “civilization” or a lack of it. For example, Darwin interpreted the “savage races” he saw in South America at Tierra del Fuego as evidence of a more primitive state of human civilization. He concluded that the visual differences between races were not adaptive to any significant degree, and were more likely simply caused by sexual selection – different standards of beauty and mating among different peoples – and that all of humankind was one single species. Darwin never argued nor implied that human races had been evolved at different times or stages, nor that any of the races was inferior to the others.

October 4, 4004 B.C.E. (a Monday)

*The Creation of Adam* by Michelangelogo

On this date, the Earth was created by God, according to an Irish theologian, Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher [or Usher] (1581-1656), in his Chronologies of the Old and New Testaments, which was first published 1650-1654. Ussher arrived at his conclusion by carefully counting the “begats” in the Bible. His contemporary, Sir John Lightfoot (1602-1675), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, arrived at the same date through independent calculation and added the detail that the world began at 9:00 AM Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT), or midnight Garden-of-Eden time.

Needless to say, modern scientific research has discovered that the Earth is, in fact, much, much, older.

September 10, 1788 (a Wednesday)

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes

On this date, the French geologist and archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes was born. His discovery in 1846 of whole handaxes, tools, and fragments embedded in and scattered about the fossilized bones of extinct mammals in the Somme River valley showed that man existed at least as early as the ancient creatures. He announced his discovery in the first volume of a work he published in 1847, Antiquites Celtiques Et Antediluviennes (Celtic and pre-Flood Antiquities).

The very title of his book showed that Boucher de Perthes at first regarded these implements and weapons as having belonged to men overwhelmed at the Deluge of Noah; but it was soon seen that they were something very different. Being found in terraces at great heights above the Somme River indicated that they must have been deposited there at a time when the river system of northern France was vastly different from anything known within the historic period. This would have required a series of great geological changes since the time when these implements were made, disproving the prevailing theologically-based idea that 4004 B.C. was the year of the creation of man.

The type of handaxe discovered by Boucher de Perthes.

Although Boucher de Perthes was the first to establish that Europe had been populated by early man in the Pleistocene or early Quaternary period, he himself was not able to pinpoint the precise period because the scientific frame of reference did not then exist. Today, the handaxes of the Somme River district are widely accepted to be at least 500,000 years old and thus the product of Neandertal populations, while some authorities think they may be as old as one million years and therefore associated with Homo erectus.

September 3, 1907 (a Tuesday)

Loren Corey Eiseley

On this date, the highly respected anthropologist, ecologist, science writer, and poet Loren Corey Eiseley was born. He published books of essays, biography, and general science in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Eiseley is best known for the poetic essay style called the “hidden essay”. He used this to explain complex scientific ideas, such as human evolution, to the general public. He is also known for his writings about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. These helped inspire the environmental movement.

Eiseley’s first book, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature (1946), a collection of writings about the history of humanity, established him as a writer with the unique ability to combine science and humanism. In the essay from it entitled “The Snout”, he wrote:

The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.

Eiseley’s book, Darwin’s Century (1958), focuses on the development of the theory of evolution and was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Science prize in 1959. His other books include The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), the memoir All The Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists (1979).

When Loren Eiseley was 3 his father held him up to watch Halley’s Comet blaze across the sky and told his son to look for its return in 75 years. But Loren Eiseley did not live that long. He died July 9, 1977, having used his brief seventy years to leave behind a heritage that continues to enrich the lives of all who come to know his work.

August 26, 1909 (a Thursday)

Otto Hauser

On this date, an almost perfectly preserved Cro-Magnon male skeleton, about 34,000 years old, was discovered by Swiss-German antiquities dealer and historian Otto Hauser. He was a member of a party hunting fossils in the Combe-Capelle rockshelter, France. The following year, Hauser sold this and an earlier discovery of Neandertal skeletal remains from Le Moustier (1908) to the Berlin Völkerkunde-Museum. Most of the skeleton itself is believed to have been destroyed during WW II by allied bombing raids.

The Cro-Magnons are the earliest known European examples of Homo sapiens, living between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, whose skeletons were first discovered in March, 1868. They were anatomically identical to tall and muscular modern humans, but slightly more robust on average. Finely crafted stone and bone tools, shell and ivory jewelry, and polychrome paintings found on cave walls all testify to the cultural advancement of Cro-Magnon man.

August 12, 1950 (a Saturday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis (Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine), condemning ideologies which threatened Roman Catholic faith but allowing that evolution did not necessarily conflict with Christianity. The document made plain the Pope’s fervent hope that evolution would prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacked those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.” Nevertheless, Pius XII stated that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one species might evolve into another – even if that species is man. According to the Pope:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, insofar as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter…

The Pope asserted, however, that Catholics must believe that the human soul was created immediately by God and that all humans have descended from an individual, Adam, who has transmitted original sin to all humankind.

August 8, 1856 (a Friday)

The skullcap of type specimen, Neandertal 1.

On or about this date, quarry workmen in search of lime blasted out the entrance of the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany. They found a skeleton, and guessed they had found the remains of a cave bear. Although they discarded many of the bones, they also set some of them aside, including the skullcap, for examination by a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist, Johann Fuhlrott. When Fuhlrott looked at the long, narrow skullcap with prominent brow ridges, he realized its significance. Two weeks after the initial discovery, he returned to the quarry in hopes of finding the rest of the skeleton, but it was too late to retrieve any more bones. Fortunately, Fuhlrott had enough to identify the remains as those of an ancient human population, different from contemporary humans. This was the find that gave the species its name. It marked the beginning of paleoanthropology and initiated the longest-standing debate in the discipline: the role of Neandertals in human evolutionary history.

However, Fuhlrott’s view was not immediately accepted as it contradicted literal interpretations of the Bible and came before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It took some years before the Neandertal man gained acceptance as a species of the genus Homo that inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia.

Because the area where these Neandertal bones were found was landscaped after the limestone quarry closed without a scientific geological analysis, and there were no associated finds, the site has been considered undatable. It is now the location of a museum of Neandertal life. The museum has also recreated the man’s appearance in a full-body model holding a spear.

However, the bones of over 400 Neandertals that have been found in different parts of Europe and the Middle East since (and even a few before) this discovery have permitted accurate dating. As a result, it is now known that the first proto-Neandertal traits appeared in Europe as early as 350,000 years ago, by 130,000 years ago full blown Neandertal characteristics had appeared, and by 50,000 years ago Neandertals had disappeared from Europe, although they continued in Asia until 30,000 years ago.

August 7, 1903 (a Friday)

Louis Leakey

On this date, Louis S(eymour) B(azett) Leakey, an archaeologist and anthropologist, was born in Kabete, Kenya, of English missionaries parents. Leakey was largely responsible for convincing scientists that Africa, rather than Java or China, was the most significant area to search for evidence of human origins.

A Christian evolutionary biologist, Leakey is remembered for saying, “Nothing I’ve ever found has contradicted the Bible. It’s people with their finite minds who misread the Bible” (quoted in chapter 3 of Virginia Morell, 1995, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings).

A passage from the last page of the fourth edition (1955) of Adam’s Ancestors: The Evolution of Man and His Culture by Louis Leakey is especially noteworthy as we begin the twenty-first century:

We know from the study of evolution that, again and again, various branches of animal stock have become over-specialized, and that over-specialization has led to their extinction. Present-day Homo sapiens is in many physical respects still very unspecialized− … But in one thing man, as we know him today, is over-specialized. His brain power is very over-specialized compared to the rest of his physical make-up, and it may well be that this over-specialization will lead, just as surely, to his extinction. … if we are to control our future, we must first understand the past better.

August 3, 1908 (a Monday)

Marcellin Boule’s vision in 1909 of Stone Age Man.

On this date, a nearly complete, buried skeleton of a Neandertal was discovered in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France by two young clergymen, brothers Amédée and Jean Bouyssonie. It was examined by Marcellin Boule who overlooked its arthritic condition and as a result, his published description, which characterized the Neandertal as a shuffling, bent-kneed, and hairy creature capable of “rudimentary intellectual abilities,” became stereotypical.

Sculpture of a Neandertal man from the Ancestors exhibit at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.

This mistake was corrected by research in the 1950s.

July 26, 1925 (a Sunday)

William Jennings Bryan in a Dayton pulpit.

On this date, after eating an enormous dinner, William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep. Bryan’s personal physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, concluded, “Bryan died of diabetes melitis, the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial.” Clarence Darrow was hiking in the Smoky Mountains when word of Bryan’s death reached him. When reporters suggested to him that Bryan died of a broken heart, Darrow said, “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.” In a louder voice he added, “His death is a great loss to the American people.”

Bryan’s death triggered an outpouring of grief from the “common” Americans who felt they had lost their greatest champion. A special train carried him to his burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people lined the tracks. Historian Paul Boyer says, “Bryan’s death represented the end of an era. This man who had loomed so large in the American political and cultural landscape for thirty years had now passed from the scene.”