Leading Article: Curiosity may have killed the cat but it did wonders for us

IT MAKES you think, doesn't it? Ever since early human beings gazed at the stars from the mouth of a cave and wondered, "Why are we here?", that curiosity about our place in space and time has driven science forward, even when it was called religion. Not that caves had much to do with it. One by one, all the popular assumptions about human origins have been exploded by the steady accumulation of evidence and the testing and remaking of hypotheses. Our ancestors did not live in caves, the Neanderthals turned out to be an evolutionary cul-de-sac, and the whole notion of steady progression, from left to right on the page, from knuckle-dragging savage to noble athlete, has been lost in a picture of ever-growing tangled complexity.

This week's report of the discovery of another "missing link", an ape- like animal that lived in Ethiopia 2.5 million years ago, adds to the realisation that human evolution was a remarkably fitful, accidental and above all, recent development. The more we know, the less simple it seems. Far from its being a single line of descent, with a few evolutionary dead- ends branching off it, it seems that for hundreds of thousands of years an astonishing number of different species and subspecies of ape-like and then human-like animals adapted, migrated and died out. Although it is clear that modern humans came out of Africa, this was not, it seems, a single process of migration, but an endless series of waves of related species overlapping and competing with each other. Supremacy was established all over the globe by the current model in a blink of Time's eye, the past 100,000 years.

And, far from a steady progression from eating berries in trees to building pyramids, it turns out that these species evolved in a series of relatively sudden steps. Walking on two legs was one, the tripling of brain size was another, the development of language a third. In many ways, the big increase in the size of hominid brains is the most puzzling of these changes. Recently, a number of theories based on new evidence have been put forward to try to explain it. The find in Ethiopia suggests that the use of tools to cut meat could have been the key breakthrough, allowing mostly vegetarian apes to enjoy a high-fat diet of meat and bone-marrow.

Earlier this month, however, a contradictory theory was floated, which is that it was the invention of cooking which boosted the calorie intake of human ancestors by allowing them to eat root vegetables. So there you have it. The success of the human species was made possible by a bunch of renegade vegetarian carnivores hell-bent on exploiting technology to kill and carve. Or by a domesticated tribe of Delia Smiths, keeping their drone-like menfolk in check by stuffing them full of carbohydrates in between their occasional, rather desultory, hunter-gathering missions. This has kept the readers of the less serious press entertained with pictures of the young Raquel Welch in a pelt and much speculation about the sexual attractiveness of Neanderthal women.

But an important point is that the theory of evolution is now entirely accepted. The relevance of new discoveries is not that they help to win an argument against the creationists - that was won long ago. Instead they contribute to a widening popular conversation about the origins of humanity, itself part of increasing the public understanding of science, which is one of the causes to which this newspaper has been committed since its advent.

The twin obsessions of popular science - the search for "the missing link" of human evolution and the hunt for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe - are essentially two aspects of the same phenomenon. The defining characteristic of the modern rational sensibility is the realisation of the insignificance of humanity in both space and time. In space, we may not be alone, but we might as well be, despite this month's report of another star with a "solar system" of planets like ours. And humans occupy an insignificant amount of time; recent advances in the understanding of human evolution emphasise just how short-lived and precarious the "success" of Homo sapiens sapiens has been.

Where does that get us? This kind of pure curiosity is never going to give us better non-stick frying-pans, the by-product of applied curiosity in the form of the Apollo space programme. But the more we understand how it was curiosity itself which selected humans for their unique ability to overrun the world, the better equipped we may be to deal with the unstable and dangerous consequences of our "success". The ease with which so many species died out underlines our fragile hold on the world. It is our capacity for thought, language, for making moral choices, for adapting to changing environments, that has made us what we are today. Finding out more about the missing links of evolution will not make people happier or richer, or bring about world peace. But it makes you think.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test