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A March of Progress?

A deceptively persuasive visual meme

As part of popular visual culture, the evolution of man has been visualized many times, and mostly so as a line of progression from primate to present human and beyond. Many of these images are recycled and reinterpreted based on predecessors from early scientific drawings, mainly Zallinger’s 1965 March of Progress (above).The image ascertains the idea of evolution to be inherently progressionistic, which means that the development of humanity escalates toward ever-improved forms and abilities.

It is by concord of several visual abstractions that the Zallinger image suggests the idea of linear progression towards a perpetually improving humanity. First, the image illustrates linear progression by sheer arrangement of the humanoid figures, walking on eye level and in reading direction across the view frame of the spectator.

As a visual convention in left-to-right reading cultures, directionality towards right implies forward movement while left directionality would suggest regression. Next, the image enforces the meme of progression by depicting its subjects in march, the action of decisive forward movement motion.

Further, progression is suggested by a gradual increase in body height and erect posture in the figures. Effectively, increasing tallness and straightness create a rising silhouette line that visually suggests advancement. Uprightness of stature thus becomes a symbol of evolutionary progress. The biologist Jerry Bergman comments on this as an artistic falsification: “The figures… become taller as we move toward modern man, not because fossil or other empirical data demand it, but rather as a result of artistic license that allows the artist to distort the picture to conform to evolutionary theory.

If viewed more closely, human prototypes have undergone repeated variations in body height and erectness that are thought to relate to environmental pressures rather than evolutionary “choice“. Scientific data suggests that body size is much more likely to be a result of adaptation to existing environmental conditions and not, as advocated by the progressionist meme, a consequence of purposeful human advancement towards increasingly higher forms.

Lastly, the ascending curve line of body height and posture effectively arises from a temporal distortion of human development. Spatially, the figures in the image are uniformly spread out along the march of progress, which suggests an even – and thus continuous – progression towards a superior human purpose.

Despite a quite clear scientific argument for a much more complex evolutionary pattern of human development, the visual snapshot of linear sequence became the canonical icon of humanity’s advancement from ape to man. The biologist and critic of progressionist evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, referred to The Road to Homo Sapiens as “the one picture immediately grasped and viscerally understood by all” (1989).

It is through reduction in differentiating information and by visual abstraction from a complex to a simplified pattern that the progressionist meme could win its visual persuasiveness.

Gudrun Frommherz (2012)

Interesting Quote by Charles Darwin (1809-1882):

I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. 1860

Other Quotes by Stephen Jay Gould (1940-2002):

Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact… 1982

Details are all that matters: God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don’t struggle to get them right. 1993

Darwinian natural selection only yields adaptation to changing local environments, and better function in an immediate habitat might just as well be achieved by greater simplicity in form and behavior as by ever-increasing complexity. 1998

A Challenging View of Darwinism by Malcolm Hedding (1952- ):

Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle in 1831 to the Galapagos Islands was a dark day for the human race because he consequently made assertions that effectively deny the existence of God as Creator and that have paved the way for Fascists to justify their programs of extermination on a scale never seen before. The world he wrote of in his books, “The Origin of the Species” and “The Descent of Man” is that of brutality and disregard for human life. Darwin was indeed a radical racist and described black people, Indians, South American people, Aborigines, Eskimos and Maoris as inferior to white Europeans and in fact as savages. He did this routinely and indeed he had to because his misguided theory of evolution demanded that “the best of us” emerge from the vast pool of evolving human beings.


Light guides order