Quote: Loren Eiseley on the march of progress

3 minute read

In 1948, Scientific American published an article by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, titled, “Antiquity of modern man”. In it, Eiseley conveyed some details of a skull discovery from Fontèchevade, France, which had been made the previous year by the French archaeologist Germaine Henri-Martin.

The story of the Fontèchevade cranial remains is a long and complicated one, with a simple ending. What seemed in 1948 like evidence for an ancient population of modern people living during the last interglacial turned out to be only around 35,000 years old. The two Fontèchevade individuals look modern but they weren’t older than Neanderthals at all.

Still, at the time they were discovered, the Fontèchevade remains helped keep alive the idea of a parallel population of modern ancestors in Europe even after the Piltdown hoax was exposed. They were perceived as the most well-documented evidence of a “presapiens” population, which helped sideline Neandertals as possible human ancestors. For that reason they are very important to the historical development of paleoanthropology.

Eiseley leapt right onto the Fontèchevade story as proof of a deep history of modern humans—hence, the article’s title, “Antiquity of modern man.”

I sort of love Eiseley’s take on the usual, “You wouldn’t notice him on the subway” line:

It is a small skull within the size range of living females. There is nothing Neanderthaloid about it. This woman could have sat across from you on the subway yesterday and you would not have screamed. You might even have smiled.

But the reason I wanted to share this article is for Eiseley’s meditation on the on the idea of the “March of Progress”. This passage follows as he tells the history of early discoveries of fossil humans in England, beginning with Kent’s Cavern. Eiseley notes that the discovery came at a time when the great age of the Earth was unknown, and thus had to be fit within a short timescale.

In Eiseley’s telling, the huge change in scientific view that followed was not enough to shift ideas to the radical idea that our own evolution had formed a tree.

It took the rest of the century and the long thought of a biological genius, Charles Darwin, before the idea of eons of time became acceptable. and the bodies of men and animals were seen to melt and flow and change from age to age like the hills they moved upon.
Even then, perhaps, the vision was still beyond us. The human mind always tends to erect new dogma to shelter itself in hastily erected systems against what is not known or what proves at last to be unknowable. The forms of paleoanthropic, big-browed fossil men began to be discovered. Though their numbers were few, scientists fitted them into a system--a single line of ascent leading to modern man. A form like Pithecanthropus, for example, led on in the following age to Neanderthal man. and the latter was regarded as our own direct ancestor. At the other end of the succession. the beginning, was an ape generally conceived of as differing little from a modern chimpanzee.
The sequence was thought of as short and very direct. The time scale was still being underestimated, and western Europe, actually marginal to the Asiatic land mass, was unconsciously overemphasized as an evolutionary center for mankind. In addition, certain preconceptions were making it difficult to survey the problem of the origin of modern man in an unprejudiced light.
The most obvious of these preconceptions was, of course, the idea that since the remains of Neanderthal man had been found in European deposits immediately underlying our own species, we must be a later breed. Thus there could be no valid remains of Homo sapiens that were as old as Neanderthal man in Europe.

I appreciate that line, “new dogma to shelter itself in hastily erected systems”.