AIScienceVisual Art

AI: Have we Made Progress?

There is an image that is so pervasive that it has been a meme for over 40 years. It has been the default icon to represent evolution since it first appeared. It has been caricatured, satired, stolen, parodied, plagiarized, and printed on t-shirts the world over. Despite its inaccuracies and frequent mis-attribution to Charles Darwin, this work has been inextricably tied to the evolution debate.

I speak of The March of Progress by Rudolph Zallinger and it is the subject of this week’s skeptical art critique.

March of Progress - by Rudolph Zallinger, 1965. From Time-Life Books "Early Man"

My question for you is:

What impact has this image had on the discussion of evolution?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

A Little More Information:

This image appeared as a fold-out section in Time-Life’s 1965 book Early Man. It represents what was thought at the time to be the progression of human evolution, even including some side branches if you read the notes.

If anyone does not immediately recognize the image, perhaps the folded-in version will spark something.

The March of Progress - Rudolph Zallinger, 1965. From Time-Life Books' "Early Man"

Still not doing it for you?

What if we select the hominids more carefully and ditch all those troublesome words?

March of Progress Edit
A selection of characters from The March of Progress


And then let’s put it on a T-Shirt with a trite message:

Familiar now? It’s everywhere. It’s the default sequence and layout for any discussion of evolution. Here are some more examples to help the discussion along:

And let’s not forget to offend some people with editorial cartoons:


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Haha, trying to figure out, sans context, if that last one is some kind of commentary or just the artist being a prick. 😉

    I’ve never seen the full image before — cool!

    It’s obvious why the image has become so pervasive within the evolution debate. It is an apt illustration of just what it is that disturbs so many people about evolution.

    But while it does a good job of illustrating descent with modification, it does a bad one of illustrating the mechanisms of evolution. There’s still a pervasive pop culture misunderstanding of evolution that paints it as goal-directed. ‘Progress’, as the title says. The selective pressue that turns an ape-like ancestor into a man isn’t as obvious to the viewer as would be implied by, say, the terrestial ancestor of a whale becoming slowly more aquatic over time.

    There are a lot of people out there who accept evolution as fact, but still think of human-like intelligence as an inevitability on any planet where life evolves.

  2. I’m going to cop out on this particular image in order to discuss my one and only foray into science-art appreciation. At the Field Museum in Chicago, there are an amazing number of murals by Charles Knight. It used the images appropriate to the current thinking, but how much might those images have influenced the studies by paleontologists of the day? I’m not knowledgeable enough to know, but your current topic reminded me of this idea. Anyway…feel free to ignore this off-topic post, but this might be something interesting to approach in the future.

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