On 18th December 2015, the British Museum of Natural History (BMNH) opened their new ‘Human Evolution’ exhibition. A few days later, I travelled to London to take a look.
It begins with the usual assertion of ‘the fact of evolution’ with a sign which reads, “The fossil record shows that the human family tree is made up of many ancient relatives, and that ape-like ancestors evolved into us.” Most significantly, however, it goes on to say, “Exactly who our direct ancestors were within this family tree is a subject of scientific debate”, and this admission is reflected throughout the exhibition. Speaking of the first display, museum palaeontologist Professor Chris Stringer commented,
Well, we’ve attempted here to represent about 7 million years of human evolution on one diagram and you’ll notice a lot of skulls there with different species names … But you’ll notice also, unlike many of these depictions, we haven’t joined them up with lines of ancestors and descendents and that’s a reflection of the uncertainty about how these forms are related …1Also significant is that the chart contains just two main groups, one identified as ‘humans’ and other as ‘australopithecines’—with nothing bridging them.
In other words, despite there being “a lot” of different species, he had found it impossible to put them in an order showing a clear evolutionary progression from ape-like creatures to man.
Also significant is that the chart contains just two main groups, one identified as ‘humans’ and other as ‘australopithecines’—with nothing bridging them. ‘Species’ such as Homo neanderthalensis (‘Neanderthal man’) and Homo erectus (‘Peking man’) are placed in the blue area and described as ‘humans’, with just one species, Homo sapiens, in the subgroup, ‘modern humans’. Species such as Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus are placed in the orange area and described as ‘australopithecines’. Since ‘australopithecine’ means ‘southern ape’ one might reasonably conclude that all these different ‘species’ (collectively known as ‘hominins’)2should be classified as either ‘apes’ or ‘humans’, with no clear examples of ‘ape-men’.
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