How We Became So Beautiful and Bright: Deep History and Evolutionary Anthropology

By Fromm, Harold | The Hudson Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

How We Became So Beautiful and Bright: Deep History and Evolutionary Anthropology


Fromm, Harold, The Hudson Review


If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.

- Svante Päbo to Elizabeth Kolbert1

In the spring of 2011, I had occasion to interrogate a visiting houseguest, an evolutionary anthropologist who was preparing (at her laptop computer) several PowerPoint presentations dealing with the art and artifacts of early hominins.2 1 was doing my own work across the room, now and then stepping over to inspect one or more of the images she was planning to use in her talks, among them familiar stylized drawings of brute-like bentover australopithecine types, our precursors of three, four, maybe five million years ago. From my own readings over the past few years I was intrigued and puzzled by our long-term transformation from those craggy, hairy, apelike apes into us, the refined and beautiful Homo sapiens apes of today. She happened to have on hand one of Robert G. Bednarik's thousand or so scholarly articles related to paleoanthropology, some of which discussed the physicality of robustness vs. gracility, terms I was only dimly aware of. My interest was piqued. When she reported that Bednarik's magnum opus, The Human Condition, was on the verge of publication, I got a copy as soon as it appeared. To complicate matters - but ultimately to enrich them - the announcement of Daniel E. Lieberman's book on the human head could not have been more well-timed, given all he has to say about robusts and graciles. And with yet another timely and relevant book, this one on "deep history" just off the presses, the next half-year of my life was bespoke.

But there's trouble here, starting with my tide about beauty. And as for die epigraph, one could well ask who are "we," evolutionarily speaking? "Beautiful" according to whom or what? Do dogs find us beautiful? Or is it just odier dogs with whom they are willy-nilly drawn to mate by a genomic pull unbeknownst to them (or, in our case, to us)? Is what we call beauty a transcendent fact, like the sun? Or is it in reality what Darwin and his expounders call an instrument of "sexual selection," the je ne sais quoi that draws us to mate with certain people rather than others in the interest of "selfish" genes? And after we've done our reproductive bit, we start to lose our beauty because of our devalued sexual currency, even though we may still look not so bad according to other criteria afforded by culture and medical technology. When we see artists' renderings of what our earliest hominin precursors are presumed to have looked like, are we turned on by the australopithecine face, head, and body of several million years ago? Or do we recoil from their putative crudeness? During the course of millions of years of evolution, as hominin bodies and brains changed from Australopithecus to Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and "finally" to Homo sapiens so beautiful and bright, our precursors managed, of course, to find each other beautiful enough to mate with while they were "ugly" according to our own wired program and before God was reported to have said "Be fruitful and multiply." Today a noseless australopithecine lookalike with a flattened snout and a heavy brow thrust forward wouldn't be so likely to be sexually selected by anybody of our species. Our shapely-nosed round-headedness was not part of a program of sacred works embedded in the Big Bang to transform us from australopithecine to sapient. Our own present beauty is in truth only a statistical fact, a transient "normality," merely a stage on some route from the primal mud that we hardly understand, given that natural selection has no plans, no ideas, no intelligence, no blueprint in mind. If our distant descendants turn out to have six digits per hand and foot and three eyes (one behind their heads) , won't we be looked back upon merely as unevolved freaks en route to them, who will find each other irresistible? …

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