Saturday, October 17, 2009

A grandeur in this view of life


"Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud," said House Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay some years ago, by way of explaining the Columbine school massacre. I was thinking of that remark the other day as I watched Mr. DeLay making a monkey of himself on Dancing With The Stars.

His point, of course, was that only a biblical version of human origins provides an adequate moral compass for human behavior.

I'm sure we can usefully learn something about right (and wrong) by reading the Bible. And I'll grant DeLay this: It's hard to top the Sermon on the Mount. But the human family is bigger than DeLay's co-religionists, and the central lesson of the Sermon on the Mount -- the Golden Rule -- is pretty much universal. Clearly, that lesson didn't originate with Jesus. Or the authors of Genesis. It would be interesting to know its provenance.

Which is why the search for human origins is so interesting, and why curious minds pursue it. Which brings us to Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), the stunning 4.4 million-year-old fossil hominid who made her public debut in the 2 October issue of Science.

It is quite an issue, showing the full power of scientific inquiry brought to bear on a remarkably complete skeleton excavated from the Afar Triangle in Africa. Eleven papers, 47 authors, examining every aspect of the find -- the paleobiological context, the geological context, the anatomical implications, and refinements to the human family tree. This is not armchair speculation; this is nitty-gritty work in the hot and dusty field and painstaking analysis in the lab.

You will have read plenty about Ardi in the popular press. A glance at the eleven papers in Science will give an impressive insight into what scientific research is all about. What I found particularly intriguing is the two-page introductory spread with photographs of the 47 contributing authors, something I don't recall the journal doing before.

Men and women. Of many races. From the U.S.A., France, Japan, Ethiopia, Spain, Germany, Chad, Canada, and Turkey. Undoubtedly comprising a variety of religious and political persuasions (such things are irrelevant in scientific communication). A representative assembly of the human family, if I've ever seen one. I would trust my wallet or my life to anyone in the group.

Ardi and her kind are ancestral to us all. Woods-dwelling, tree-climbing, sometime upright-walking, omnivorous Ardi, with her prehensile toes, long fingers and chimp-sized brain. Welcome to Dancing With The Stars, Ardi, you are a star in my book.