By Bernard Wood
When I was a lad the electronic media largely consisted of radio. My favorite shows (mostly listened to clandestinely on a ‘crystal set’) were comedy shows like ‘Take it from here’ and ‘Round the Horne’ and quizzes of one sort or another. I was a particular fan of ‘My Word’ and more recently ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’. If you really want to understand the quirkiness of the British sense of humor then listen to an episode of the latter, especially one that includes the game ‘Mornington Crescent’. One of the reasons I liked ‘My Word’ was that it included questions about the etymology of words. For example, just how did the meaning of the Middle English word ‘clout’ change from referring to a patch or a bandage, then to ‘a blow with the fist’ and on to its contemporary usage to refer to a person who has ‘power and influence’?
That brings me a little closer to the point of this essay. I somehow doubt that Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (he was not knighted until 1955) was a fan of the word clout (or of ‘fan’ for that matter) but he certainly had substantial power and influence within the worlds of primatology and palaeoanthropology. In 1934 he had been elected to the Dr. Lee’s Professorship of Anatomy at the University of Oxford and in the 1940s his was arguably the most influential opinion about the topic of human origins in the Anglophone world. He would certainly have been one of the people Raymond Dart and Robert Broom were trying to convince when they submitted their letters to Nature reporting fossils they claimed belonged to organisms that were ancestral to modern humans. Yet judging by a paper of Le Gros Clark’s published in 1940 they had made little impression on the Dr. Lee’s Professor for he wrote in that paper “there is no room for doubt that these fossil genera (Australopithecus, Plesianthropus and Paranthropus) are really apes and not primitive types of humanity.” (Le Gros Clark, 1940, p. 210) and “there can be no justification for supposing that the South African fossil apes bear a direct ancestral relationship to Homo” (ibid, p. 211).
Yet, within the space of a few years Le Gros Clark’s assessment had changed. In a long paper published in 1947 (it should be read and cited a lot more than it is) Le Gros Clark wrote that “their (i.e., Australopithecus, Plesianthropus and Paranthropus) zoological relationship to the Hominidae can hardly be doubted” (Le Gros Clark, 1947, p. 330), “there seems to be no serious objection to the conception of an ancestral relationship (to man)” (ibid, p. 330) and “the advanced characters which are already very evident in their skull dentition and limb bones indicate their position in the phylogenetic radiation of the Hominidae rather than the Pongidae.” (ibid, p. 332).
What brought about this radical and enduring change in Le Gros Clark’s assessment of this fossil evidence? First, he like many others had been frustrated by the paucity of information Dart and Broom had been able (or maybe wanted) to provide in their letters to Nature. The 1946 Broom and Schepers monograph had provided Le Gros Clark with data and a perspective that had been impossible to convey in a series of short communications. Second, the end of WWII meant that Le Gros Clark had been able to accept a long-standing invitation to travel to South Africa to see the material for himself. The title of his 1947 paper should be read literally; it really was in large part the results of Le Gros Clark’s own “observations on the anatomy” of the fossil evidence and the text makes it clear that they were detailed and prescient observations. Some of them could well be applied to contemporary debates about fossil evidence that groups of researchers are urging the community to accept as evidence of the earliest hominins. For example, Le Gros Clark suggested that, with respect to the fossils then assigned to Australopithecus, Plesianthropus and Paranthropus, there are “several possible interpretations. The Australopithecinae might be nothing more than extinct varieties of ape closely akin to the chimpanzee and gorilla, but with certain modification which in some minor respects show a spurious resemblance to the Hominidae. Secondly, they might have no special relationship to the gorilla and chimpanzee, but nevertheless, represent a collateral group of anthropoid apes showing certain human characters developed as the result of a parallel evolution but not necessarily indicative of any real affinity with the Hominidae. Lastly, the Australopithecinae could be regarded as ….. early representatives of the human branch of evolution.” (Le Gros Clark, 1947, p. 301-2). He did not refer to the “certain human characters” as homoplasies, but that is the clear implication.
Le Gros Clark carried a lot of professional clout and because of this his 1947 review was a major influence on other researchers and especially on how they viewed what we now call the australopiths. With one or two important and themselves interesting exceptions (e.g., Charles Oxnard) most researchers subscribed (and subscribe) to the hypothesis that the australopiths are more closely related to modern humans than to any other living ape. More than sixty years later we are still trying to work out which, if any, of the australopiths are ancestral to modern humans. The odds are that the taxa referred to in Le Gros Clark’s 1947 paper belong to an extinct clade (or clades) of which modern humans are not the crown group.
Le Gros Clark, W.E. (1940) ‘Palaeontological evidence bearing on human evolution’. Biological Reviews, 15: 202-230.
Le Gros Clark, W.E. (1947) ‘Observations on the anatomy of the Australopithecinae’. Journal of Anatomy, 81: 300-333.