Lowly Origin: Where, When, and Why Our Ancestors First Stood Upby Jonathan Kingdon
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Titled after the last two words of Darwin's Descent of Man and written by a leading scholar of human evolution, Lowly Origin is the first book to explain the sources and consequences of bipedalism to a broad audience. Along the way, it accounts for recent fossil discoveries that show us a still incomplete but much bushier family tree than most of us learned about in school.
Osbjorn M. Pearson
Ann Haley MacKenzie
"Lowly Origin is brimming with information, insight, experience and speculation about how we became human. . . . [A] comprehensive and evocative rendition of who we are and how we fit in to the natural world."Donald Johanson, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Elegant and thoughtful. . . . Jonathan Kingdon commands a unique position at the interface of science and art . . . Whether or not [he] manages to convince you of his larger thesis, you will be provoked along the way by the many connections he makes. And just as important, Lowly Origin is a landmark for its thoroughness in integrating the story of human evolution (which he brings up to the present day) with that of the evolving landscapes and habitats of the African continent."Ian Tattersall, Natural History
"Lowly Origin . . . provides much new food for thought for lay readers and specialists alike."Osbjorn M. Pearson, Journal of Anthropological Research
"Naturalist-artist Kingdon is well known for his books on African mammals and his beautiful illustrations of them. . . . [This] book is well written and charmingly illustrated."Choice
"Every so often . . . a new concept comes into being. In Lowly Origin, Jonathan Kingdon puts forward just such a new concept. . . . Lowly Origin is full of insights and displays the profound knowledge of African geography and ecology that is the hallmark of all Kingdon's work."Peter Andrews,Times Literary Supplement
"Jonathan Kingdon is a subtle amalgam of artist and scientist. He has a deep and up-to-date knowledge of human prehistory, and of the topology and geography of Africa, the continent where most of human prehistory happened. But he is also our leading zoological artist, and I think it must be his artist's eye that gives his writing style its vividness. . . . Kingdon is a wonderful example of a "Third Culture" writer: a scientist who communicated his original ideas to fellow scholars in books that can be readand enjoyedby any educated person."Richard Dawkins,Times Literary Supplement
"Lowly Origin is an evocative book that highlights one of the key factors that makes us humanour bipedality. . . . Kingdon's writing is lucid and his illustrations are beautiful in showcasing just how this important component of human evolution took place. . . . A must read. A must have."Ann Haley MacKenzie, American Biology Teacher
"Jonathan Kingdon is . . . singularly well equipped to cast an eye over the thorny problem of human origins. . . . Kingdon has read widely and wisely. . . . [He] does not claim to have found the answer to human origins. The real message of the book is the rich contextual evidence it provides. Wise students of human evolutionary history would be well advised to think carefully about that message."Bernard Wood, Bioscience
"There are people who will authoritatively disagree . . . however, any subsequent account will have to parry Kingdon's version with equally explicit consideration of . . . equally vivid pictures of ways of life."Alison Jolly, London Review of Books
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Lowly OriginWhere, When, and Why Our Ancestors First Stood Up
By Jonathan Kingdon
PrincetonCopyright © 2003
All right reserved.
PREFACE TO A SELF-PORTRAIT FROM THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
Why Lowly Origin? Peculiarity of bipedalism and role of geography and ecology in explaining it. Evolution by increments. Hypotheses and definitions. The beginnings of bipedalism dated to about 6 million years ago (mya), originating in East African coastal forests. "Evolution by river basin." Separate fore-/hindlimb origins. Bipedalism as the criterion for all hominins. Bipedalism and brain develop separately.
Charles Darwin, in the final words of his "Descent of Man" (1871), put it this way: "[I]t seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities-with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system-with all these exalted powers-Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin" (1).
Darwin was referring to many more than one or two stages of human evolutionary history. In the preceding pages, he had invoked wormlike, fishlike, and reptilian ancestries, and it was as much to these as to four-footed primates that he contrasted a soaring intellect, exalted powers, and noble, upright qualities.
For that most eminent of Victorians-no less than for any member of another culture, past or present, historic or prehistoric-uprightness (or, more prosaically, bipedalism) was a primary and definitive difference between humans and other animals. How that stance evolved is still a great mystery, and although fragmentary fossils of very early bipeds are, at last, being uncovered, there are still many more questions than answers when it comes to giving life to these broken bones and teeth. Some new ideas about bipedalism, its precursor conditions, as well as some of its consequences are central themes in this book. Although there are many scientific papers and single chapters of books that discuss bipedalism, this is probably the first to be devoted to it as a single dominant theme-the central condition on which human evolution is predicated.
In borrowing Darwin's two concluding words as my title, I invite reflection on a moment or "stage" in human evolution that was both metaphorically and literally "lowly." I attempt to reconstruct, in the light of much new evidence and inference, the appearance, ecology, and geography of those ancestral apes that were not yet bipedal yet must already have been predominantly terrestrial. Ancestors whose nonerect gait put them on the other side of that great conceptual divide between the category "Apes" and what we call "Hominids." I also reflect, but in a much more summary fashion, on the very earliest and even more "lowly" attributes of primitive aquatic vertebrates, because I find some relevance there for hand-brain connections.
The many undeniably apelike features of human gross anatomy were sufficient for Darwin's argument, but modern genetics has greatly extended the depth and reach of his insights. From this very contemporary perspective, his words "still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp" reads like a prophecy. You and I now know that almost every step of our evolutionary history is written into every cell of our bodies. My genome includes sequences that date back more than 700 million years, when my ancestor consisted of no more than one cell. Locked into the genetic mosaic that adds up to a living being are huge numbers of indelible or "undeleted" genetic particles that demonstrate a patrimony that goes back not just to apes but to the start of life on Earth. In common with every other organism, each one of us is the sum of genetic additions and subtractions on an unbroken thread of life that ties us, step by step, back to that fecund moment of origin, the first and lowliest of all our "beginnings" (figure 1.1).
It can justly be argued that because evolution is the sum of so many tiny genetic increments, any focus on just one event has to be distorting and arbitrary, even for so apparently momentous an event as rising up on two legs. To offset such conceptual isolation and to put bipedalism in a broader perspective, I have devised more than one framework to present my ideas. Only multiple frameworks can hint at the scale and difficulty of the enterprise. Our gait may be as plainly factual as our unquestionable existence as primates, mammals, animals; yet the puzzle of why an ape should get up on two legs is inseparable from the larger mystery of our emergence from nature as a culture-bearing species. For all the new fossils, newly mapped genome, and new awareness of the biological roots of human health, reproduction, and material culture, it is our profound and continuing ignorance of nature itself that remains the primary obstacle to self-knowledge. It is not difficult to report new discoveries from the frontiers of science; but it is less easy, as a scientist, to acknowledge that lacking the intellectual tools necessary to understand nature, we lack the means to understand ourselves. In the meantime, my multistranded narrative may hint at some of the many dimensions of human evolution while also expressing a personal confidence that the gap between nature and culture will one day be bridged by one of our greatest cultural achievements: science.
My first, largely symbolic presentation derives from an attempt, in the late 1980s to put together what I envisaged as a "Family Album," a sort of pasted-up scrapbook of my far-flung family, the diaspora of modern humans (2). After publishing it under the title "Self-made Man," I was challenged by a friend, who knew that I was also a painter, to attempt a "self-portrait" painted in both words and images. Not an autoimage of the artist as a young man compared with his middle-aged and elderly self, but rather a self-portrait informed by modern genetics and ecology as well as some less modern palaeontology. A portrait in which the younger self is the minimal vertebrate, an appetite-driven, wriggling backbone attracted hither, repelled thither; the youth an alert mammal-like reptile; the person in his prime a vivacious ape; and the elderly, worldly-wise wizard a contemporary, wholly modern human.
To try and retrace any part of that ancestry can be portrayed as a very personal quest, and there can be few that would deny the self-centeredness of our interest. It is in that spirit that I have adopted the metaphor of self-portrait as a medium to tell the story. But it is a self-portrait that reveals itself by increments. Each is drawn at a different stage of life, and each is set within a different landscape. Lifted out of this succession for special attention is the pivotal event on which human evolution hangs. This is not the arrival of consciousness, the ability to talk, or the evolution of a big brain. (All of these properties seem to have had very protracted histories.) Rather, it is the much more sudden event of walking on two legs, not four. What follows is not only new as an explanation, using new data, but also invokes new ways of approaching the problem of bipedal origins.
By including rudimentary vertebrates, reptiles, and monkeys in my autoportrait, I am expressing my self-awareness of belonging to nature, not being inexplicably different. In acknowledging the many qualities that seem more or less unique to me and my kind, I do not forget to remind myself that they must, in every case, be derived from earlier conditions that are typical for primates or other animals. Most of the characteristics that we envisage as uniquely human are actually species-specific amalgams, truly unique recombinations or composites of much more modest, preexistent increments. Some of the many unknowns in our evolutionary history will eventually become more understandable through some such incremental approach.
In such a fragmented biography, the acquisition of bipedal stance can so easily be presented as some sort of portentous coming of age: the moment in which all that followed would change irrevocably. The term hominin (or hominid) that we use to separate all bipeds from their ape cousins certainly reinforces that expectation. Yet, as many newly discovered fossils demonstrate, our monopoly of bipedalism must be seen in the context of numerous extinct bipeds. Since I first began to assemble the material for "Self-made Man," the number of new fossil hominin species has doubled, and what was envisaged as a pagoda tree of human evolution has become a bush that looks more and more like a thicket with numerous pruned branches and a succession of dead ends. While the biogeographic model presented in the following pages contributes new ideas to explain such bewildering diversity, only more fossils from more localities can tell us the true story.
The supposed bell of destiny must be muted by the awareness that not all the apes that became bipedal found themselves on a human trajectory. Getting up on two legs may have rung in a human future for our direct ancestors, but at least some bipeds, including some of the ones best known as fossils, remained "cranial apes." That much is borne out by the fossil record. So, assuming that the distinction is a real one, what was it about our specific lineage that emancipated the earliest members of our branch from being just one more type of bipedal ape?
For clues to that puzzle, I turn to my second, less symbolic framework of ideas, locating my players in a succession of geographic and ecological contexts (without doing violence to fossil facts or the logic of known paleoecology and paleogeography). I seek answers in known anatomical changes that anticipate typically human attributes by diminishing the differences between juveniles and adults, males and females. I suggest corresponding changes in behavior that might have enhanced versatile all-group responses to various unpredictable challenges. Such social and mental versatility would have undermined the more genetically fixed responses of a species in possession of an ecological niche that existed within relatively predictable limits. Step by step, the predetermined behavior of a species with a single niche must have given way to the new competences of a species that could acquire multiple niches through an ever-expanding armory of technology, techniques, and eventually systems of communication to back them up.
For the most part, I have used the often random and accidental provenances of fossils as mere guides to the larger ecological and geographic contexts for human evolution, seeking clues in those details of African biogeography and ecology that we can still retrieve and reconstruct today. I have also sought to put the likely anatomical and behavioral responses of early hominins to a succession of environmental challenges into a sequential and spatial order that is consistent with the fossil record. A full time chart and checklist of fossil hominins has been kept for the last chapter, together with a summary of my conclusions, leaving the rest of the chapters to stress my biogeographic perspectives. Thus the first tie-up between time, place, ecology, and behavior is located on the east African coast, the second and third involve movement into the interior (each involving subtly different but highly significant divergences). The hominin trail leads on into Highvelt and other interior uplands and thence, very much later, to the Atlas Mountains (or Arabia). Each such translocation involved further refinements of bipedalism, from merely functional standing and walking to much later skills in fast running and jumping (3). In addition, there must have been a succession of mental and behavioral adjustments as the habitats and climates of particular populations changed over time. These are some of the disparate strands of analysis within which I have presented my ideas.
Finally, as a specialist in the evolution of mammals, the perspective that I have sustained longest (and reinforced most decisively in this book) is that of the emergence of humans as the evolution of yet another mammal-a very peculiar and special one, true, but in essence just one more African mammal. I have, as long as I can remember, always seen myself in that light and seek here to share that self-image. If the reflection you see is distorted by the mirror I have constructed or by my own deficiencies of vision and knowledge, that is my responsibility. But I take heart from the certainty that I share, with you and with others before us, the impulse to try and make sense of the deeply puzzling animal that stares back at us from the mirror.
I like to think that Charles Darwin, who must have been amused by contemporary cartoons of himself as an ape or the final morph of an egg-larva-pupa transformation (figure 1.2), would have enjoyed the conceit of a hagfish (a primitive, eel-like fish) rendered as a self-portrait. After all, he concluded that the "early ancestors of man, thus seen in the dim recesses of time, must have been as simply, or even still more simply organised than the lancelet or the amphioxus." As if in anticipation of the Human Genome Project, he also invited the idea of reconstructing the past from the realities of the present: "look to man as he exists; and we shall, I think, be able partially to restore the structure of our early progenitors, during successive periods" (1).
Self-portraits require mirrors, but reflections can stare back at surprising moments and from unexpected experiences. For example, among the diversions of my backwoods childhood in Africa were hypnotic audiences over the cadavers of various wild animals while they were being butchered or skinned. Commonest were antelopes, ostriches, or wild pigs being prepared for the pot. Then there was a leopard being carefully skinned for its coat; and a zebra. Least commonplace were species such as an aardvark, a striped hyena, or a monkey, victims of some accident and dismembered or dissected out of pure curiosity.
I especially remember the brutal rending away of a baboon's pungent pelt and the revelation of its stretched-out, pink, pathetic nakedness-like a jarring rip in the invisible curtain that had kept me separate from all other animals. Through the torn skin, its flesh was difficult to dissociate from my own. As a very small child I had once spent some months playing with an equally juvenile baboon, but for all its noisy, toothy determination to subordinate me to its ferocious, infantile will, I had somehow kept vestiges of my species-specific distance. Yet here was the racked body of a dead adult that mirrored me. As my own warm, living hands sampled the springy resilience of cool gray fingers I imagined myself suffering the helpless indignities of being played with because I, too, for an instant, was dead. This must remain one of my earliest experiences of seeing my self-portrait in another animal. Years later, the element of self-portraiture must have remained when I made anatomical studies and drawings, not only of a baboon but also of humans.
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What People are saying about this
Richard Dawkins, University of Oxford, Fellow of the Royal Society
Philip Pullman, author of "The Amber Spyglass"
Robert A. Foley, University of Cambridge
Colin P. Groves, Australian National University
Meet the Author
Jonathan Kingdon is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Biological Anthropology and Department of Zoology of Oxford University. He is the author of and artist for numerous books, including "Self-Made Man" and "Island Africa" (Princeton). The Millennium issue of "American Scientist" named Kingdon's "Atlas of Evolution in Africa" one of the "100 books that shaped a century of science."
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