Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2206:
EVOLUTION IN 1944

by John H. Lienhard

Today, an old progress report on evolution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just been reading William Howells book, Mankind So Far. If you're familiar with William Dean Howells' poetry, William was William Dean's grandson. Mankind So Far was written in 1944, 85 years after Darwin's Origin of Species. It's a kind of interim report on evolution and human origins -- midway from then to now. In it, the younger Howells, a noted anthropologist, writes,

... "theory of evolution" is an overworked term, in its popular usage, and unfortunate besides, because it implies that, after all, there may be something dubious about it. Evolution is a fact, like digestion. I have never seen my own digestive processes, but would not be so fatuous as to cast doubt on their existence by talking about the "theory of digestion."

Howells lived 61 more years, to age 97. He must've shuddered at how far we regressed two generations after he wrote that. For there are many today who still think this entire body of solidly anchored science is "only a theory." A theory it is, of course, but in the true scientific sense. It is no mere supposition.

What's fascinating in Howells' book is how squarely he looks at holes in the prevailing account of our evolution. Most of his questions have since been resolved. The hallmark of any science is that it's driven, not by what we presume to be true, but by pin-pointing what we don't yet know. And Howells' largest question is, "Where did humankind originate?"

He's perfectly clear on one point, namely that all human races are of the same species. Yet the races appear to've arisen in different parts of Earth. We've since discovered vast intermediate remains and filled in so much detail. We've found skeletal links that take us back millions of years to the evolution of the first hominids in Western Central Africa.

We've traced the parallel evolution of tools. We've learned a great deal about how modern humans found their way across Southern Asia all the way to China and Australia -- then back through Turkey into Europe. We know far more now, and we've opened up new and better refined questions.

Howells still looks to the Middle East for human origins, but he really does present that as a hypothesis. It's a hypothesis we've now let go of. The measure of his scientific legitimacy is how meticulously he keeps fact and speculation separate.

Take, for example, his chapter on Piltdown Man. Those famous fake human remains, planted in Piltdown, England, were still accepted by the scientific world. Howells meticulously dissects the contradictions they pose. He stops short of crying fake; but he makes it very clear that he's not being suckered in by it.

He does finish with a purely speculative chapter; yet there's nothing uncertain about its point: He wonders what we'll evolve into in a million years. While we cannot know, there's no shred of doubt that we're far from finished -- that the creation continues. And there lies the great beauty behind the hard fact of evolution.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


W. Howells, Mankind So Far. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. 1944)

For more on the misuse of the word "theory," see Episode 1531.

William's father, William Dean Howells, (1837-1920) took a more dour view of the future than his son did. This is his poem, Tomorrow, published in Harper's Magazine, March 1893.

OLD fraud, I know you in that gay disguise,
That air of hope, that promise of surprise:
Beneath your bravery, as you come this way,
I see the sordid presence of Today;
And I shall see there, before you are gone,
All the dull Yesterdays that I have known.
Images below: the evolution of The Creation -- two takes on the same "event". Top, An image by Matthaus Merian Iconum Biblicarum, (Frankfurt: 1627). Bottom, from the wall of the London Natural History Museum:

The Creation of Adam

Another take on the same event

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.