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Why is this famous picture of human evolution wrong?

Why is this famous picture of human evolution wrong?

Everyone recognizes the image shown in this article: a line of primates mutating to become Homo sapiens. In some more recent representations, a man has been added to the right on a computer or mobile phone, for example.

Although there are countless illustrations of the “march of progress,” this linear sequence has earned its place in our minds as a symbol of human evolution. No wonder it’s been incorporated into countless textbooks, scholarly articles, cartoons, and memes. However, despite its popularity, it is completely wrong.

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What is the origin of the march of progress?

Human evolution was first represented in a book by Thomas Henry Huxley. Image: Wellcome Collection via IFL Science/Reproduction

The origin of this image goes back to a drawing in Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1863 book entitled “Proof of Man’s Place in Nature,” he says. IFLScience.

This was one of the first efforts to discuss human evolution, suggesting an evolutionary link between humans and other primates – something that shocked society at the time. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the artist who illustrated these skeletons for Huxley’s book, was also not a fan of traces of drawing.

Human evolution: why is the picture incorrect?

As the years passed, the image gained new life and popularity, especially after it appeared in the “Early Man” volume of the Natural Life Library book series, published by Time Life. On that occasion, the photo was modified to show human ancestors in an artistic way instead of skeletons.

However, the modifications followed the same logic: from smaller or larger ancestor, indicating a clear progression from “beast” to “sapient”.

“Nowadays, scientists hate this image because they believe it misrepresents the genre and their modern view of evolution. It was scientists at the time who wanted it to be painted,” explained Joan Dawson, professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Leicester, England, and author of From Ape to Man. In this way, not artists: an image of progress’s evolution into IFLScience.

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The theory of evolution
Photo: Frank60/Shutterstock

Today, many scientists reject this picture because it conveys a wrong view of evolution, suggests an ultimate goal and inevitable progress, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of how natural evolution actually works. Evolution is a process of continuous adaptation without a predetermined “end point,” and is often complex and non-linear.

Despite scientific criticism and contradictions, the March of Progress persists in popular culture for its visual impact and ability to communicate a simple narrative about human evolution. It is this simplicity and aesthetic appeal that keeps the image alive, even in the face of objections from those who understand evolution deeply.