It’s no secret that I am fascinated by the fossils of human ancestors. I’ve written about fossils’ beauty, their strange stories, and the ways they make us question our ideas about who we are and where we came from. Despite my arguments, people often ask: do the discoveries of these bits of bone actually make any difference? Why is paleoanthropology important; why do we need to research human evolution?
I admit that I sometimes struggle to answer this question. The science of human origins has always been the most interesting topic in the world to me. This innate fascination puts me at a disadvantage–the answer seems obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I struggle to put it in words.
Thomas Huxley once said that the question of how humans evolved was the “question of questions for [hu]mankind–the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other.” While I agree, this still doesn’t tell us why it is so deeply interesting–why our origins are the “question of questions” for some of us.
I recently stumbled upon a quote that sheds some light on the issue, so I thought I’d share it. The passage comes from the British paper The Observer and it was published on February 8, 1925. The author here refers to the then-recently discovered fossil known as the Taung Child, a purported “missing link” from in South Africa. He writes:
There must be some who will say that the discovery of a damaged skull in sub-tropical Africa makes no difference. Admittedly it does not affect us materially like the discovery of wireless or electric light. The difference is in outlook.
The stimulus to all progress is man’s innate belief that he can grasp the scheme of things or his place therein. But this stimulus compels him to track his career backward to its first beginnings as well as to carry it forward to its ultimate end. The more clearly he sees whence he has come the more clearly will he discern whither he is bound.
Though our Observer friend wrote these words in 1925, they still ring true today (it seems to me). While new discoveries may not initially appear to help us in material ways (they don’t lead directly to improved iPhones), they teach us more about who we are and how we came to be here.
This outlook, this perspective, is essential–and its implications are multifaceted. Fossils help us learn about our place in nature–our place within this wonderful, complex evolutionary web of life that has been unfolding on this unique, beautiful planet over billions of years. Hominin fossils also illuminate our shared history as humans, while highlighting our humble past and our unlikely evolutionary story. Without understanding these important pieces of our identity–how we came to be here and how our past has shaped the space we currently occupy–how can we possibly know where we’re headed?