Patrick Skene-Catling

Homo Erect Us

Ever since enlivenment of the primordial blob, before thoughts were first verbalised, all nature has always been motivated by a dynamic ambition to improve, to grow stronger, more agile, inventive and fertile. The successful continuously grow more successful; the failures disappear. This selective, upward process has been defined as evolution.

Dr Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist, half Guyanese, a contributor to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas and a former editor of Nature, is well able to explicate scientific complexities, including the origin and development of man. He writes with intellectual authority and also, as a popular lecturer and broadcaster, expresses himself in a clear and persuasive manner with natural charm. The point of his new book, quite simply, is that ‘Humans are animals’. The genetic code of DNA is universal, he points out, shared with ‘bacteria and bonobos, orchids, oaks, bed bugs, barnacles, triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, eagles, egrets, yeast, slime moulds and ceps’. ‘All life on Earth is related by common ancestry, and that includes us.’

Man is closely related to the gorilla, chimpanzee and orang-utan, but is obviously more advanced than any of them. As Hamlet declared, we are ‘the paragon of animals!’ Darwin too praised man’s ‘god-like intellect’, while confirming the ‘indelible stamp of his lowly origin’. ‘If you tidied up a Homo sapiens woman or man from 20,000 years ago, gave them a haircut and dressed them in 21st-century clothes,’ Rutherford claims, ‘they would not look out of place in any city in the world today.’

He makes this more or less complimentary assessment though most Europeans carry a small but significant percentage of DNA that was acquired from Neanderthals, inherited when our species outlived them about 40,000 years ago. Their name is used now as a term of abuse, as if Neanderthals were the epitome of uncouthness — shambling morons whose knuckles scraped the ground.

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