The following is an excerpt from Richard Leaky’s book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, chapter six, “Homo sapiens, the Pinnacle of Evolution?”
“The answer to the above question appears self-evident. Yes of course we are. In the penultimate chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, ‘As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’ Homo sapiens, since its origin some 150,000 years ago, has come to occupy every continent, with the exception of the hostile wastes of Antarctica, and even there we have a toehold. This surely attests to our corporeal endowment, as we have adapted to these many environments. And there is no question about our mental endowment, which is unmatched in all of nature. We are intellectually analytical, we are artistically creative, and we have invented ethical rules by which society operates. No one can doubt that our species has advanced toward, if not perfection, than a high point–the highest point–among the diversity of life on Earth. We are the pinnacle of evolution. Or are we?
“Anthropologists and biologists have struggled with this issue for a very long time, and the resolution has never been simple. We feel ourselves unique in the world of nature, and of course we are: each species is unique, by definition, so that doesn’t help much. We are but one species among many millions in today’s world. However, we feel ourselves special, among this exuberant diversity of life, because we have an unmatched capacity for spoken language and introspective consciousness, and we can shape our world as no other species can. We judge this to place us on the top of the heap. Before the fact of evolution was demonstrated, beginning with Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century, we considered Homo sapiens to have been placed on the top by Divine Creation. In the Darwinian world, our species was said to have achieved its ascendancy through the natural selection of our special qualities. The intellectual context changed, but the outcome was the same. We judged ourselves to be the pinnacle of the world of nature.
“This assessment brings two assumptions with it–one implicit, the other explicit. The implicit assumption is that the evolution of Homo sapiens was an inevitable outcome of the flow of life, in the unfolding of evolution. The explicit assumption is that the qualities we value in ourselves as a species are indeed superior in some way to the rest of the world of nature. Through evolutionary time, life became ever more complex, producing an arrow of progress. As Darwin stated in the above passage, by means of natural selection life ‘will tend to progress towards perfection.’ We are the tip of the arrow of progress, the expression of perfection. …
“Man’s view of Man in the world of nature has changed over the centuries, reflecting the scholarly context. Only in the relatively recent past have anthropologists begun to discuss human origins as they would the origin of oysters, cats and apes. …”