For a while now I have been fascinated by the narratives of human evolution. The stories told about how humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor, or a species that split into a line dedicated to become “human” and one dedicated to become “chimpanzee” and “bonobo”, are thrilling examples of historical and contemporary scientific paradigms, social theories, and more often than not – wishful thinking (for futher reading on this I recommend Raymond Corbey: The Metaphysics of Apes). Of course no one in their right mind would seriously debate the development of human form (homo) from diverse ‘anthropuses’ (pithecanthropus, plesioanthropus, paranthropus, praeanthropus) and ‘pithecuses’ (australopithecus, ardipithecus) (Roland Borgards Primatographien and Raymond Corbeys The Metaphysics of Ape). But you cannot deny either the systematic underestimation of apes fostered therein, or the appeal of the still lingering teleological feel to the narrative of human evolution. It even survives into the economic models of contemporary evolutionary biology, where everything and everyone is regarded as a behavioural slave to their reproductive success. That is why I appreciate the Smithsonian Institute’s attempt to make use of the phylogenetic tree model without overdetermining the interconnections and time line of various species. Ingeniously they depict an African acacia with greenery, so you can make out general branches, but not individual twigs: Human Family Tree | The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program.
Nevertheless it makes a colourful impression of how many different forms there were along the line of roughly 6 million years (and makes you wonder, how many chimpanzee forms there migth have been in the same time span). The Smithsonian also provides me with impressive modelling art, that lends sometimes curious sometimes suppliant faces to almost every one of those plentiful forms, now extinct.
I have spent precious hours at night clicking through wikipedia lemmata of human and pre-human and post-simian forms and couldn’t ward off thrills and chills vis-à-vis the murderous story that can be told by fossils mixed with a decent anthropological interpretation and some carbon dating: about the rise of our species from the remains of not only a vast legacy of previous forms – but also quite an array of then-contemporaries. Along the way of human evolution lie a lot of extinct other species and genera. One has to wonder if their extinction wasn’t a deliberate attempt of a very rumbunctious and fierce, fast-breeding and lethal omnivore. Who just had to sit on top of the tree, all by itself, excercising its linguistic and cognitive faculties solely to its own pleasure, homo loquens spitting on all else.