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The Human Condition? Here’s Ardi! October 2, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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 This is a good day for those of us who like to hear, and tell, stories of Human Origins: The current story in the scientific world has been told for a while now, ever since Don Johanson found Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis, in Hadar, East Africa in 1974: We are the children of small-brained, upright-walking primates who lived some 3 million years ago—primates with insignificant canine teeth, and almost-human hands with opposable thumbs. A creature living on the savannah, enforcing the perception that it was the loss of woodlands that made our early ancestors get up on two legs and look around.

But now we have a brand new chapter in our Story of Origin. Ardi is being introduced to the world, in today’s issue of Science Magazine and all over the newsmedia: Ardipithecus ramidus, a new ancestor (perhaps), at least another traveler on the road that lead to Homo sapiens. The painstaking assembly and interpretation of Ardi’s fractured bones (skull, teeth, pelvis, hands, feet) took 17 years, but now the researchers, including Gen Suwa, Tim White, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, C. Owen Lovejoy and others,  have made their findings public. Ardi’s species predates Lucy by more than a million years, and it lived not far from that very same region. You can explore the details yourself if you are so inclined; personally, I am so excited that I can barely contain myself—this is the story I have been waiting for ever since the news of Lucy broke. What came before Lucy? Since 1974 we have known that the previous picture of early hominids as knuckle-walking, big-brained apes was wrong. We didn’t first develop the big brain, and then get up and walk. It was the other way around. But how far back in time did we diverge from the apes, and when did our hands leave the ground for good? We know that there were medium-sized monkey-type creatures dating back some 8 million years, and even dating back to the first early mammals, 60 million years ago, there were little mouse-sized mammals with some primate characteristics. But where the question gets interesting for most of us who are not paleontologists is, when did we start out on the road to becoming “Human”?

Of course this is one of the primary reasons why Darwin’s theory (The Descent of Man, 1871) met with such massive resistance which can still be felt whenever the debate swings in the direction of Creationism and Intelligent Design: Did we descend from chimpanzees? The Darwinist answer has, usually, been No, not exactly: We and the apes we know today descended from a common ape-like ancestor—we just had to look around for a “missing link” that could show us the intermediary version. Since then, the entire concept of a “missing link” has been discredited: Evolution doesn’t work that way—we don’t have links in a straight chain, but rather a multitude of branches that arise and die out, with some branches ending up being more successful than others. And besides, so few fossils are ever found that it would be astonishing to find an exact Happy-Medium form in-between two distinct species. Well, perhaps that’s what we have now. While Ardi is not a “missing link” (because we should stop using that terminology), she is so old that she represents a hominid (or hominim which is the new and more exact term) who is not even as “human” as Lucy who was truly not very human except for her manner of walking, and her hands. So is she more like an ape? And this is where the surprise comes in: Not really, even if her feet look like ape feet. If ever we humans were ape-like, it must be even further back in time, because Ardi seems to have (1) been upright, judging from the position of her head and pelvis, and (2) had smaller canine teeth than apes. Furthermore, this is the end of the fantasy that we evolved bipedalism on the savannah: Ardi lived in and among the trees, judging from other fossil finds in the area! But even so, she was already upright and bipedal at least some of the time. So was she Lucy’s ancestor? They don’t know yet for certain, but there’s a good chance that her species gave rise to Lucy’s species. And if that is the case, then she is also our ancestor. And she was not typically ape-like. Now that has got to please those who have a problem with the notion that we are “descendants of apes,” but that would be a premature celebration—it doesn’t mean we are not related to primates, it just means that some typical ape-like features were lost in the human line much earlier that we thought, and perhaps the human line never had them, such as chimp-style knuckle-walking. And the chimps and the Bonobos are still our closest living cousins on the planet. That hasn’t changed.

Now all this is factual as well as interpretative science. Why am I so excited? For one thing, I’ve always been fascinated by paleoanthropology. But more importantly for a philosopher, I have also for many years thought that our human origin is at least to some degree a determinant for our “human condition.” That’s what today is known as evolutionary psychology, but in more philosophical terms it means that our physical interface with the world (to borrow an expression from Merleau-Ponty) is an integral part of who we are, and how we interact with the world. Our Lebenswelt includes our physical being, and our physical being has an evolutionary history. If there’s anything that unites us as human beings, aside from our DNA, across the lines of politics, religion, race, gender, and so forth, it is this common history, the physical triggers that become the emotional and cognitive triggers. This is not to say that I discount the existence of “free will,” whatever that is—but our immense array of mental choices and possibilities is grounded in our physical abilities, limitations, and history.

Photo: Before â??Lucy,â?? There Was â??Ardi:â?? First Major Analysis of One of Earliest Known Hominids

[From ABC News: Artist’s conception of what Ardipithecus ramidus would have looked like 4.4 million years ago.
(J.H. Matternes/Science/ABC News Photo Illustration)]

So what can Ardi tell us, if the scientists are right? (1) We were upright, in the trees, long before we had the brains to make plans what to do with our freed-up hands, and comfortable being face-to-face with each other, close and personal, as well as probably capable of identifying each other at a distance; (2) we did not have massive canine teeth, meaning that the males probably didn’t fight over the females, meaning that we are perhaps looking at pair bonding and a semblance of gender cooperation (if not downright gender equality) dating back 4 million years—much more like the Bonobos than the Chimps, by the way. Does this mean that we were non-aggressive creatures, food for the predators rather than predators ourselves? Some of us would probably like to think so, but we can’t make that assumption. Look at Ardi’s eyes: Perfect stereoscopic vision, looking forward. Those are the eyes of a hunter, at least potentially, perhaps part-time if not full-time—opportunistic, like chimps. Besides, Ardi was omnivorous, like we are—she was not a vegetarian. The “killer ape” theory probably shouldn’t be declared totally dead yet.

In addition, National Geographic Magazine comes out with this spin: Why did we start walking upright? What can you do with free hands? Some of us would immediately say, You can hunt. But others would add, And you can gather. And bring what you have gathered to—your mate. Or the one you want to become your mate. Jamie Shreeve suggests just that scenario: We began embarking on the road to humanity by realizing that there was a sexual advantage to being able to bring food to one’s potential partner, in our freed-up grasping hands. And the upright female has another advantage: When she’s in estrus (heat) it doesn’t show. Which, according to Shreeve, would mean that she could string along the food-bringing male, even when she wasn’t ovulating, and even play around if she was so inclined. Now that opens up new vistas for the pair-bonding theory…

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Comments»

1. Robert - December 8, 2009

This post is fascinating. I’ve always been one to find attraction in the grand or ultimate answer. Growing up in a Christian household, I was taught to value inherent characteristics; love, the soul, the spiritual in general all hold in me a sort of guilty fascination. I use the word guilty in response to my intrigue towards and agreement with modern scientific knowledge and modern non-religious philosophy. In the world today, neuroscience, biopsychology, and science have taken a strong hold on the positions previously held by “inherent ideas” It’s easy to see the mind as a computer, a B. F. Skinner box containing little more than A=B and equations. This Ardi follows those ideas. It allows scientists to make rational interpretations on the origins of fundamental human characteristics. That we could have developed sexual-coexisting-relationships in response to not being able to determine if a female is in heat is in ways the most soul-sucks equation, yet still, the knowledge stirs inside me the same feelings as ideas of inherent characteristics. At root, I think this similarity is the results of my love for complexity. Equation oriented sciences focus on reducing complexity through explanation, and can in that way suck the soul out of concepts and ideas. Ardi though bares witness to the infinite complexity of our equations. We can as humans understand what we came from and how we evolved; we can place evolution into the frame of an equation, but the bottom line is that the equation is still quirky, it is still odd and unpredictable, infinitely complex and subject to nuance we can understand without a time machine. We may be machines, but that doesn’t mean we can be understood.

2. hilary (phil 108) - December 10, 2009

This is very interesting. Now, we have found another early human beside Lucy, Ardi, a female is about the same size and weight as a modern chimpanzee, but looked very different – many components (such as its hand) are more primitive than that of a chimpanzee. If Ardi shows that we are not apes, it means we are non-aggressive creature, but she is not a vegetarian. And like before we thought that humans are kill apes; therefore, we are aggressive by nature. Ardi or Lucy, who will show us the truth? We never know because there are still have a lot of things we haven’t found out yet. However, it is very interesting when we can find out that we know how please our mates to have a sexual advantage. And some people think that early human began walking because of sex. Moreover, the second interesting is the upright female has another advantage: when she’s in estrus (heat) it doesn’t show. Conclusively, finding Ardi is a base point for us to discover more about our early human.

3. Ji young Kang - November 18, 2010

Never even heard about human ancestor like founding before Lucy! Fascinating subject! Still one of the top debated topics in all fields of study is human evolution and creationism. Anybody with any college degree most likely heard about or talk about Darwin’s natural selection and how we evolve till today. Where did it start and what triggered mutations? It is very interesting topic with answers in our hands. Homo sapiens possess extraordinary adaptive skills and we can easily notice it everywhere, anytime. Like Nina mentioned in this article, I think that we should be more focus on conditions of our specie’s history rather than physical founding to generate new hypothesis. All world known research founding by world known scholars in psychology and philosophy and even anthropology has one thing in common. We are extremely adaptive to our environment and society. We need to focus more on this original hypothesis and try to fit in the puzzle with historical founding just as basic scientific method taught us to do. I really like her expression in this article when she said “Those are the eyes of a hunter, at least potentially, perhaps part-time if not full-time—opportunistic, like chimps”. Like Nina stated, we can’t look for the ‘missing link’ to map out our evolution. Is time to move on and give up on drawing map of evolution and rather focus on how our conditions and environment change affected our ancestor one step at a time.

4. Donald Johnson - December 8, 2010

I recall the incident of learning that one of my newest friends was a creationist a while ago. It didn’t fully occur to me that people truly believe against the evolutionary process we have experienced and are currently experiencing. Artie will be one of many discoveries we will come across that slowly builds our knowledge of our evolutionary past. Yes, there are small pot holes where and there such as naming our lack of current evidence the “missing link”, but that entirely explores beyond the point.

So much of our science points to this beautiful process of evolving into smarter and more capable beings. I just find that incredible and beautiful. We evolved our speech so we could better communicate our ideas. Our brains grew larger and our thoughts more abstract and robust to make way for creating things such as tools and other survival instruments.

The missing link mentality is used against evolution to point to the fact that we don’t have everything yet, therefore we must me wrong, right? Absolutely not. Its completely alright to say we don’t know everything yet, because exploring and discovering is the exciting part of the process. We don’t know but continuing on we will know. Discoveries of our evolutionary origins are something I welcome whole heartedly.


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