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Myth: Human beings have reached the top of the evolutionary ladder

Myth: Human beings have reached the top of the evolutionary ladder

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

It was one of the few pictures in Darwin’s first version of Origin of Species: a branched-out evolutionary tree. Darwin’s contemporaries happily adopted this metaphor and what did some put right at the top: man. Not a new idea, Aristotle had already classified life on earth from low to high. “But evolution is not linear,” says Roy Erkens, assistant professor of Evolutionary Biology and Botany at the Maastricht Science Programme. “Life branches out, but we are not the main stem. You could regard it as a bush, with various branches that are all growing. Man is just one of those branches. There is no ranking of organisms, higher or lower, they have all adapted to the conditions in their own way. If a bat looks at us, he could think: such a dim-witted species, they don’t even have echolocation.”

So, one of the many branches, and that while humans like to think they are special. Erkens laughs: “Created in God’s image, if you believe what the Bible says, with a conscience and morality. Of course we have unique characteristics, but that goes for every species. And we share many of our characteristics with other animals. Lions, for example, also plan their gathering of food, many species adapt their surroundings to suit their needs, different types of apes have the rudimentary ability of speech and our brain contains parts that originate from our reptilian ancestors.”

Are we at least the best version of man? The approximately 25 human species that came before Homo sapiens – modern man – are extinct.  “That need not necessarily be because of evolution, there are many reasons why a species becomes extinct, and we don’t know what happened to these other human species.” Furthermore, Erkens feels: “If we were the end product, then that’s almost sad. We keep saying how brilliantly the human body has been put together, but there are areas for improvement. Take our eyes: the blood vessels are in front of the receptors that catch the light. It’s like putting solar panels on your roof and then putting the roof tiles on top of them.”

Man is definitely a successful and dominant type, says Erkens. “Some characteristics, such as planning and adapting ourselves to our surroundings, are very refined. For example, humans live to be relatively old; they no longer have any natural enemies and have spread out across the world. With our buildings, we also have a great impact on what that world looks like. Even if it is relative. Earth is 4.5 billion years old, modern man has existed for 200 thousand years and in the last fifty thousand years we are beginning to see our impact. Who knows what will be left of it in a million years’ time. After all, 99 per cent of life disappears again after a while.”

This is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths

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