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Science Ink #10 - "Ascent of Man"

ByCarl ZimmerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

The latest science ink wraps around the torso of Chad Tatum, a software engineer at Georgia State University. It comes from the 1862 book “Man’s Place in Nature,” by the British biologist Thomas Huxley.

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The image may smack the modern tattoo-viewer as the clichéd march of progress, from lowly troglodyte to hunched caveman to modern human. But it actually meant something different in Huxley’s book. To understand why, one must turn back the clock suitably far. In 1862, Darwin’s theory of evolution was still a raw new idea, having been unveiled only three years earlier. Darwin himself was leery of delving into what his theory meant for humanity. It was left to others, such as Darwin’s great champion Huxley, to start considering humans as evolved.

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Huxley had no ancient fossils of intermediate forms to tie humans to other animals – those were decades away from discovery. But he did have the anatomy of other primates to consider. And he used the skeletons of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other “man-like apes,” as he called them, to drive home a shocking lesson. Humans may be different from other species, but our skeletons are not far outside the range of variation found in other primates. Tatum’s tattoo is not a march, but a reunion.

Check out more tattoos in “Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed” by Carl Zimmer.