It all started when ...

July 15, 2002

WHO'S OUR daddy?

Is it Australopithecus, the chimp-faced knuckle-dragger who's on display in most natural history museum exhibits?

Or is it a much older primate, one revealed by the scientific world just last week, whose features were much more human (prominent brow, flatter nose) and whose existence is forcing a major rethinking of mankind's origins?

Scientists will have to choose, because it's just not possible for both to sit at the foot of our evolutionary path. In fact, the two of them can't be anywhere along the same trail.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Toumai), the older fossil and newer discovery, is more like us than Australopithecus. Evolution would have had to perform a loop-the-loop (first toward man, back to chimp, then toward man again) for both to be ancestors. It just doesn't work that way.

One of these characters is a progenitor. The other's just a poseur.

Scientists right now are betting on Toumai as the forebear of Homo sapiens; they say it's too close a mirror of current human existence to ignore.

But if science ditches Australopithecus for Toumai, what does that mean for popular notions of evolution? Well, for one, the famous fossil "Lucy" will have to come down a few notches from her position as queen of man's ape-like ancestors. She's an Australopithecus, so she'll have to be replaced by an equally appealing Toumai. The Smithsonian might also have some displays that are now ripe for the scrapheap.

The new discovery also humbles us, given the near space-age scientific breakthroughs that are announced almost weekly. Scientists may be able to split the atom, use stem cells to cure disease and clone sheep.

But when it comes to figuring out where human beings came from, they're still noodling.

Then there's NASA, whose noodling on the origins of life are more, ahem, universal. Increasingly, its telescopes are trained on areas of the sky that reveal glimpses back into the primordial goop that presumably spawned all creation.

Of course, if those scientists find what they're looking for, they might answer not only where life began -- but why.

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