Shipman is Wrong
The author has some problems with Shipman’s analysis. Certainly, she is right in the fact that humans are very narcissistic and want to know where they come from. It lets us know what makes us tick and helps us psychologically to sort out who we are.
She is certainly right when she says that the more primitive sciences such as paleontology that more dependent upon the unaided human eye and human brain say more about this than more high tech approaches, although tech is sometime helpful and necessary, especially with regard to dating remains and to reading the chemical evidence of “molecular clocks.” Also, with certainty this “missing link” of an ancestor is certainly from Africa because our closest living relatives (chimpanzees and gorillas) and therefore all early hominids will also be African. Also, the consensus (upon which this author agrees) is that the first hominid was not a human and did not possess all of the characteristics that we consider human.
So what would the first hominid look like? This is of course where the consensus breaks down completely. Much of this analysis is really the anthropological equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking after the Sunday Super Bowl game. As Shipman notes, the first species in any new lineage is usually readily apparent only ex post facto.
Some of the differences between apes and humans however are non-issues. Many of the scholars agrees on a number of issues. Research is not clear when the line became bipedal. Certainly, the first in the line was an ape, but not one of the living great apes such as the gorilla or the chimpanzee due to the 5 million years needed to evolve in isolation before arriving at their modern forms. In addition, once the line became bipedal, they became hominids with small brains and body size akin to that of ape. Also, Shipman contends that sexual dimorphism started to be exhibited in ways not related to reproduction. Enamel thickness in teeth is also an issue. Apes have thin enamel in the chimp and gorilla lineages (not the orangutan, but they are Asian) Hominids have thick enamel.
What this author disagrees with Shipman upon is the issue of hominids being exclusively hand-graspers while apes are necessarily foot graspers. A couple of common observations would indicate that this is based upon circular reasoning. We say apes must be foot graspers, therefore this is holy writ. The issue that this author raises is proven by anyone that has seen apes throw feces or garbage at the zoo bar cages or seen humans without hands trained to manipulate their feet in hand-like ways. Certainly, the issues of bipedalism and hand and foot grasping and manipulation are more complicated and were probably due to environmental issues. Until we know who the ancestor was and where they were from in Africa will we be absolutely certain if the transition to a savannah type of existence to a forest type of existence is absolutely correct. For this reason, examples that she gives such as Ardipithecus and Orrorin are interesting speculations just as Australopithecus was before as to who was the first hominid (Shipman 25-27).
In the beginning of the article, Shipman concedes that the measurement of what an ape is and what a hominid is relative and based upon a cultural need humans have. Unfortunately, she can not think outside of this cultural box. Considering that humans and apes such as chimpanzees have been proven to be very close to us, this author maintains that we have to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of the “missing link,” that is a species (or the same species in transition) that shows both attributes. Given the sparseness of the fossil records, we have to be patient in the quest to find this Lucy. Our cultural needs must not make us impatient. If we do that, the results of our research will be useless and circular and will be no better than the Creationists who rely on the same type of analysis. The scientific method does not operate this way and has no patience for the “holy writ” of the golden apples dropped from the professor’s lectern.
Shipman, Pat. “Hunting the First Hominid.” American Scientist. 1 (2002): 25-27.
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