Two legs better than four

By Peter Dearden 13/05/2014

Peter K. Dearden

Perspective is an important thing in understanding science. I, like everyone else on earth should, have an interest in the evolution of our species. I am struck by the conundrum that we seem very different from our nearest relatives, yet genetically we are very similar. I bet a lot of that is about perspective. It is easy to see difference when we are close to the problem, more difficult to see it when we are further away. Spotting the differences between us and chimpanzees (5-7 million years diverged) is pretty easy for us. Spotting the difference between hoverflies and bees (350 million years diverged), is much harder, judging from the number of beekeeping sites with lovely pictures of hoverflies.

Bipedalism has been cited many times as a key aspect of human evolution. The idea being that walking on two legs allowed us to use our hands to make tools. I have never really been impressed with that theory because you could make the tools when you are sitting down; and our nearest ape neighbours do. Surely, I thought, you can make all the tools you need while relaxing happily. Visions of humanoid apes, still not standing upright, clustering around busily manufacturing remarkable tools dispelled for me the importance of bipedalism.

Then I ripped a calf muscle (standing on a scooter at my son’s birthday party) and got put on crutches. Suddenly bipedalism seemed like a vital thing. While I could sit on the sofa and make tools (or at least help make lego things), I couldn’t carry anything. Using both my arms to relieve the pressure on the leg means I have no ability to carry anything. Now my happy tool-making sitting humanoids have a problem. How do they carry their fantastically useful devices? Bipedalism doesn’t seem to me to be about tool making, it is about carrying stuff. Until the invention of the shoulder bag, hands were the only carrying devices, and you need to stand upright to use them.

While this is a trivial example, the point is that different perspectives are required to understand, and move forward, science. I think that Darwin and Wallace’s journeys to different ecosystems and environments gave them the perspective that enabled them to propose natural selection. Without those experiences, I think they would not have been able to formulate these ideas.

Science needs diversity of perspective, and thus it needs diversity of people. We need diversity in the people who do science, and a real willingness to listen to that diversity. Perhaps then we can invent a decent shoulder bag.

0 Responses to “Two legs better than four”

  • Sorry to hear about the calf muscle – sounds like a painful experience.

    There’s reasonably good evidence that bipedalism predates the ape-human split. Ardepithecus ramidus, which is fairly close in time to the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) is bipedal; and while chimps & gorillas are both knuckle-walkers, they have distinctly different adaptations for this mode of locomotion.