One theoretical possibility is that evolution is progressive, and that some populations are more advanced than others. ___J.P. Rushton, 1989
My grade nine science teacher was an unpleasant woman, but she understood something that even leading biologists don’t have a clue about, and that’s the fact that evolution is progressive. At the age of 14, I asked if life forms that branch off the evolutionary tree early are more primitive than life forms that branch off the tree more recently. Her reply was characteristically condescending, but brilliant: “If you’re the first branch, and you don’t do any more branching, then you’re less evolved than higher branches. Got it?”
I got it, but quickly learned that many people do not. And ironically, people who have studied evolution have the most trouble grasping this simple, elegant concept. For example, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould didn’t get it, writing “evolution forms a conspicuously branching bush, not a unilinear progressive sequence” and writes that “earth worms and crabs are not our ancestors; they are not even ‘lower’ or less complicated than humans in any meaningful sense.”
This web page also doesn’t get it, even displaying a helpful diagram of an evolutionary tree to debunk the idea:
As Rushton has documented, there were a few great minds who got it, beginning with Aristotle. Biologist E.O. Wilson got it, and brilliantly divided evolutionary history into four major stages:
(1) the emergence of life itself in the form of primitive prokaryotes with no nucleus
(2) the emergence of eukaryotes with nucleus and mitochondria
(3) the evolution of large multicellular organisms that have complex organs like eyes and brains
(4) the emergence of the human mind
Princeton biology professor John Bonner also got it, noting that there’s been an evolution from primitive bacteria billions of years ago to complex life forms today, and the newer animals have bigger brains than older animals and that it’s perfectly natural to say that older life forms are lower than newer life forms, because their fossils are literally found in lower strata. Even plants can be ranked; angiosperm > slime molds.
One guy who not only got it, but got creative with it, was paleontologist Dale Russel, who brilliantly speculated that had dinosaurs not gone extinct 65 million years ago, they would have eventually evolved into big-brained bipeds.
Humans probably really are at the pinnacle of evolution. We are the newest species of a new genus (homo) of a new order (primate) of a new class (mammals) that split off from the primitive reptiles so very long ago. Even though all humans are super evolved, we too have our own evolutionary tree, though genetic differences are tiny, since all humans are Africans under the skin. But I can’t help but notice that the most intelligent populations seem to be descendanded from more splits and forks in the evolutionary tree. There are lots of exceptions, but there does seem to be a pattern overall.