Competitive Exams: The Evolution of Man

We have reserved for a closer inquiry that order of the placental mammals to which we ourselves belong, and on which zoologists have bestowed the very proper and distinguishing name of the Primates. Since the days of Darwin there has been some tendency to resent the term “lower animals,” which man applies to his poorer relations. But, though there is no such thing as an absolute standard by which we may judge the “higher” or “lower” status of animals or plants, the extraordinary power which man has by his brain development attained over both animate and inanimate nature fully justifies the phrase. The Primate order is, therefore, of supreme interest as the family that gave birth to man, and it is important to discover the agencies which impelled some primitive member of it to enter upon the path which led to this summit of organic nature.

The order includes the femurs, a large and primitive family with ape-like features--the Germans call them “half-apes” --the monkeys, the man-like apes, and man. This classification according to structure corresponds with the successive appearance of the various families in the geological record. The femurs appear in the Eocene; the monkeys, and afterwards the apes, in the Miocene, the first semi-human forms in the Pleistocene, though they must have been developed before this. It is hardly necessary to say that science does not regard man as a descendant of the known anthropoid apes, or these as descended from the monkeys. They are successive types or phases of development, diverging early from each other. Just as the succeeding horse-types of the record are not necessarily related to each other in a direct line, yet illustrate the evolution of a type which culminates in the horse, so the spreading and branching members of the Primate group illustrate the evolution of a type of organism which culminates in man. The particular relationship of the various families, living and dead, will need careful study.

That there is a general blood-relationship, and that man is much more closely related to the anthropoid apes than to any of the lower Primates, is no longer a matter of controversy. In Rudolph Virchow there died, a few years ago, the last authoritative man of science to express any doubt about it. There are, however, non-scientific writers who, by repeating the ambiguous phrase that it is “only a theory,” convey the impression to inexpert readers that it is still more or less an open question. We will therefore indicate a few of the lines of evidence which have overcome the last hesitations of scientific men, and closed the discussion as to the fact.

The very close analogy of structure between man and the ape at once suggests that they had a common ancestor. There are cases in which two widely removed animals may develop a similar organ independently, but there is assuredly no possibility of their being alike in all organs, unless by common inheritance. Yet the essential identity of structure in man and the ape is only confirmed by every advance of science, and would of itself prove the common parentage. Such minor differences as there are between man and the higher ape--in the development of the cerebrum, the number of the teeth or ribs, the distribution of the hair, and so on--are quite explicable when we reflect that the two groups must have diverged from each other more than a million years ago

Structure of Man

Examining the structure of man more closely, we find this strong suggestion of relationship greatly confirmed. It is now well known that the human body contains a number of vestigial “organs” --organs of no actual use, and only intelligible as vestiges of organs that were once useful. Whatever view we take of the origin of man, each organ in his frame must have a meaning; and, as these organs are vestigial and useless even in the lowest tribes of men, who represent primitive man, they must be vestiges of organs that were of use in a remote pre-human ancestor. The one fact that the ape has the same vestigial organs as man would, on a scientific standard of evidence, prove the common descent of the two. But these interesting organs themselves point back far earlier than a mixed ape-human ancestor in many cases.

The shell of cartilage which covers the entrance to the ear--the gristly appendage which is popularly called the ear--is one of the clearest and most easily recognised of these organs. The “ear” of a horse or a cat is an upright mobile shell for catching the waves of sound. The human ear has the appearance of being the shrunken relic of such an organ, and, when we remove the skin, and find seven generally useless muscles attached to it, obviously intended to pull the shell in all directions (as in the horse), there can be no doubt that the external ear is a discarded organ, a useless legacy from an earlier ancestor. In cases where it has been cut off it was found that the sense of hearing was scarcely, if at all, affected. Now we know that it is similarly useless in all tribes of men, and must therefore come from a pre-human ancestor. It is also vestigial in the higher apes, and it is only when we descend to the lower monkeys and femurs that we see it approaching its primitive useful form. One may almost say that it is a reminiscence of the far-off period when, probably in the early Tertiary, the ancestors of the Primates took to the trees. The animals living on the plain needed acute senses to detect the approach of their prey or their enemies; the tree-dweller found less demand on his sense of hearing, the “speaking-trumpet” was discarded, and the development of the internal ear proceeded on the higher line of the perception of musical sounds.

We might take a very large number of parts of the actual human body, and discover that they are similar historical or archaeological monuments surviving in a modern system, but we have space only for a few of the more conspicuous.

The hair on the body is a vestigial organ, of actual use to no race of men, an evident relic of the thick warm coat of an earlier ancestor. It in turn recalls the dwellers in the primeval forest. In most cases--not all, because the wearing of clothes for ages has modified this feature--it will be found that the hairs on the arm tend upward from the wrist to the elbow, and downward from the shoulder to the elbow. This very peculiar feature becomes intelligible when we find that some of the apes also have it, and that it has a certain use in their case. They put their hands over their heads as they sit in the trees during ram, and in that position the sloping hair acts somewhat like the thatched roof of a cottage.

Natural Position of Standing

Again, it will be found that in the natural position of standing we are not perfectly flat-footed, but tend to press much more on the outer than on the inner edge of the foot. This tendency, surviving after ages of living on the level ground, is a lingering effect of the far-off arboreal days.

A more curious reminiscence is seen in the fact that the very young infant, flabby and powerless as it is in most of its muscles, is so strong in the muscles of the hand and arm that it can hang on to a stick by its hands, and sustain the whole weight of its body, for several minutes. Finally, our vestigial tail--for we have a tail comparable to that of the higher apes--must be mentioned. In embryonic development the tail is much longer than the legs, and some children are born with a real tail, which they move as the puppy does, according to their emotional condition. Other features of the body point back to an even earlier stage. The vermiform appendage--in which some recent medical writers have vainly endeavoured to find a utility--is the shrunken remainder of a large and normal intestine of a remote ancestor. This interpretation of it would stand even if it were found to have a certain use in the human body. Vestigial organs are sometimes pressed into a secondary use when their original function has been lost. The danger of this appendage in the human body to-day is due to the fact that it is a blind alley leading off the alimentary canal, and has a very narrow opening. In the ape the opening is larger, and, significantly enough, it is still larger in the human foetus. When we examine some of the lower mammals we discover the meaning of it. It is in them an additional storage chamber in the alimentary system. It is believed that a change to a more digestible diet has made this additional chamber superfluous in the Primates, and the system is slowly suppressing it.

Other reminiscences of this earlier phase are found in the many vestigial muscles which are found in the body to-day. The head of the quadruped hangs forward, and is held by powerful muscles and ligaments in the neck. We still have the shrunken remainder of this arrangement. Other vestigial muscles are found in the forehead, the scalp, the nose--many people can twitch the nostrils and the scalp--and under the skin in many parts of the body. These are enfeebled remnants of the muscular coat by which the quadruped twitches its skin, and drives insects away. A less obvious feature is found by the anatomist in certain blood-vessels of the trunk. As the blood flows vertically in a biped and horizontally in a quadruped, the arrangement of the valves in the blood-vessels should be different in the two cases; but it is the same in us as in the quadruped. Another trace of the quadruped ancestor is found in the baby. It walks “on all fours” so long, not merely from weakness of the limbs, but because it has the spine of a quadruped.