A few years back, I was skinning a baboon that had died in a zoo, and been given to the museum. Skinning animals is interesting, but rarely stunning. It involves a little cutting, a lot of gentle tugging, and great care when you finally get to the hands and feet. Mouse feet, cat feet, deer feet, all look pretty normal. But a baboon has fingerprints. They don’t have claws, they have nails. There’s something creepy about skinning a hand with fingerprints.
There’s also something eerie about looking at the earliest known hominoid, a possible ancestor of modern humans and apes.
I join PZ Myers in thinking that this is a genuinely awe inspiring discovery. Especially on top of the recent description of Homo floresiensis. This is a special time to be alive. We are in the process of gaining more and more understanding of where we come from. The Spanish team that discovered Pierolapithecus catalaunicus finds it to be the oldest fairly complete skeleton of an early hominoid. That means it gives us the best view yet of what the earliest distinct ancestors of humans and apes evolved from.
One thing the discoverers found is that this early ancestor is more similar to monkeys than some anthropologists had predicted. Hands and arms of this ape are less well adapted to swinging below branches than modern apes, and many people had apparently believed that tree climbing and swinging from branches were skills that were acquired at the same time. This undermines that.
Those eye sockets, the nose, the teeth, are all evidence of the first branch on an evolutionary path distinct from monkeys and gibbons. It is one step in a long and winding path that leads to me typing this. It is also a path that lead Homo erectus to an Indonesian island, where they hunted elephants, rhinos and dragons, getting small with time, living and dying, until a volcano finished them off, right around the time that Homo sapiens showed up on the same island.
A lot has changed in 13 million years, but no one can look at that face and not recognize something familiar in it. It isn’t anything as unique as a fingerprint, but it is special, and human.
When I talk about values, this is one of the places that I think a serious argument has to be advanced. I see these fossils as part of an incredible story that puts humans in a context, but that demonstrates how special we are. Creationists complain that evolution undermines people’s sense of human uniqueness, but that’s absurd. Dozens of artists emerged from quattrocento Florence. I can say that without diminishing the incomparable Michaelangelo.
What we have achieved as humans is partly because of, and partly in spite of, our ancestors. Maybe if Pierolapithecus had a more sensible wrist, computer nerds wouldn’t have to fear carpal tunnel syndrome. On the other hand, that big head and stable lower back seem to have worked out pretty well.
This is who we are. We are the distant offspring of something very much like this. Our skulls and our fingerprints tell us that. What we do with ourselves is always our own choice. Discovering a new skeleton doesn’t change the fact that we have to live each day trying to make ourselves better. Sometimes science shows us a way to be better, but usually it just gives us a better glimpse at how things are, how they were, and offer a good estimate of how they will be. Science informs our values, but couldn’t and wouldn’t replace them.