The image used for this execrable meme is a variation of the March of Progress image, which first appeared in the Time-Life Books’ series Life Nature Library in the 1965 volume Early Man. The image is meant to depict 25 million years of humanity’s evolutionary history, starting with ape-like ancestors and proceeding to more recognizably human forms.
Much criticism has been lobbed at the March of Progress image because it portrays human evolution as a linear chain of ancestors and descendants instead of as a “copiously branched bush”, to quote evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. To be fair, the authors understood that this straight-line progression was inaccurate – they noted as much in the details. Apparently the devil’s not into details, though; the descendants of the original image come disclaimer-free, which leads to the erroneous impression that this is truly what anthropologists think human evolution looked like. This misleading, over-simplified image is perfect fodder for Creationists who don’t wish to be bothered with all the subtle intricacies of evolution.
We’ll talk more about the discrepancies between the Creationist model of evolution and the scientific model of evolution in just a moment, but first I have a quibble about the author’s two uses of the word millions. In neither case is it appropriate.
I assume the author believes the first animal in this line-up is a modern chimpanzee. (It’s not.) The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada estimates that there are fewer than 150,000 chimpanzees left in the wild. There may be a few thousand living in zoos or in laboratories around the world, but there is absolutely no way to justify the claim that Earth still contains millions of chimpanzees.
Nor that it contains millions of humans. As of now, there are about 7.46 billion humans on Earth, according to the World Population Clock. Billion, not million. I suppose you could argue that a billion is bigger than a million, and that it is therefore permissible to describe the human population in terms of many millions. But I object to such careless usage, and particularly in this case, because it implies that the chimp population and the human population are within an order of magnitude of each other. They are not.
Of course, any discussion of chimpanzee population is rendered irrelevant by the fact that the animal on the left is not a freaking chimpanzee! This is a point that Creationists cannot ever seem to fathom: at no point in a reputable biology textbook does it say that humans evolved from chimpanzees. We would not expect to see any transitional species between humans and chimps, because chimps did not transition into humans, nor will they.
Let’s be clear: whatever creature the image on the left represents is dead, and has been for millions of years. It is not a modern chimpanzee. So where do modern chimps fit into our evolutionary lineage? They don’t. Modern chimps are nowhere in humanity’s evolutionary history, in the same way that your cousin is not part of your ancestry. There was a species millions of years ago that appears in the evolutionary history of both humans and chimps, but…and I really must emphasize this…that species is long gone. It was a branching point between two diverse future groups, but it no longer exists.
The “Between” species mentioned in this meme are not half-human, half-chimp abominations that ought to still be running around. They are…were…nodes in the evolutionary tree leading up to the tip of the branch that represents Homo sapiens. Each node may have given rise to myriad daughter species – unfortunately most of them met extinction, which is the eventual fate of every evolutionary lineage. Our sister and cousin species are no longer on this planet except in the form of fossils. If you wish to hold an extended family reunion, you must do so in a museum.
Evolution is true, a fact that is not in doubt to anybody who has invested the time to study it without a preconceived desire to see it dismantled. The Theory of Evolution is not scientists’ way of expressing doubts about the validity of biological evolution (just as the existence of a Theory of Gravity does not indicate that scientists are uncertain about whether gravity is real). It is a robust, well-supported model that attempts to explain how evolution occurs. The saddest part of all this is that the author of this meme probably thinks himself terribly clever, while his gross misunderstanding of evolution reveals that he is anything but.