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A simplified, silhouette version of Rudolph Zallinger's March of Progress
The original March of Progress illustration from Early Man (1965) with spread extended (top) and folded (bottom)

The March of Progress, properly called The Road to Homo Sapiens, is a scientific illustration that presents 25 million years of human evolution. It depicts 15 human evolutionary forebears, lined up as if they were marching in a parade from left to right, and unintentionally implying that evolution is progressive (orthogenesis).[1] The image has frequently been copied, modified, and parodied. It has been the subject of controversy.

The illustration was commissioned by Time-Life Books for the Early Man volume (1965) of the popular Life Nature Library.[2] This book, authored by anthropologist F. Clark Howell (1925–2007) and the Time-Life editors, included a foldout section of text and images (pp. 41–45), entitled "The Road to Homo Sapiens." It prominently features the sequence of figures, drawn by natural history painter and muralist Rudolph Zallinger (1919–1995).

The first two sentences of the caption to the illustration read (emphasis added), "What were the stages of man's long march from apelike ancestors to sapiens? Beginning at right and progressing across four more pages are milestones of primate and human evolution as scientists know them today, pieced together from the fragmentary fossil evidence."

The context indicates that it was not the intention of the authors or the illustrator to imply a linear ancestor-descendant parade. However, as the image became popular and became a cultural icon, the name "March of Progress" became attached to it.

Paleoanthropologists have noted that early human evolution did not progress in any linear, sequential fashion and did not move along a "road" toward any predetermined "ideal form" and so have faulted the image as being misleading.

With regard to the picture's notoriety, Howell remarked: "The artist didn't intend to reduce the evolution of man to a linear sequence, but it was read that way by viewers.... The graphic overwhelmed the text. It was so powerful and emotional."[3]



Contrary to appearances and some complaints, the original 1965 text of "The Road to Homo Sapiens" reveals an understanding of the fact that a linear presentation of a sequence of primate species, all in the direct line of human ancestors, would not be a correct interpretation. For example, the fourth of Zallinger's figures (Oreopithecus) is said to be "a likely side branch on man's family tree." Only the next figure (Ramapithecus) is described as "now thought by some experts to be the oldest of man's ancestors in a direct line" (something no longer considered likely). That implies that the first four primates are not to be considered actual human ancestors. Likewise, the seventh figure (Paranthropus) is said to be "an evolutionary dead end."

In addition, the colored stripes, across the top of the figure, which indicate the age and duration of the various lineages clearly imply that there is no evidence of direct continuity between extinct and extant lineages and also, multiple lineages of the figured hominids occurred contemporaneously at several points in the history of the group.

Original sequence of speciesEdit

The 15 primate figures in Zallinger's image are, from left to right, as follows (the datings follow the original graphic and may no longer reflect current scientific opinion):

  • Pliopithecus, 22–12 million year old "ancestor of the gibbon line"
  • Proconsul, 21–9 million year old primate which may or may not have qualified as an ape
  • Dryopithecus, 15–8 million year old fossil ape, the first such found (1856) and probable ancestor of modern apes
  • Oreopithecus, 15–8 million years old
  • Ramapithecus, 13–8 million year old ape and possible ancestor of modern orangutans (now considered a female Sivapithecus)
  • Australopithecus, 2–3 million years old; then considered the earliest “certain hominid”
  • Paranthropus, 1.8–0.8 million years old
  • Advanced Australopithecus, 1.8–0.7 million year old
  • Homo erectus, 700,000–400,000 years old, then the earliest known member of the Homo genus
  • Early Homo sapiens, 300,000–200,000 years old; from Swanscombe, Steinheim and Montmaurin, then considered probably the earliest H. sapiens
  • Solo Man, 100,000–50,000 years old; described as an extinct Asian "race" of H. sapiens (now considered a sub-species of H. erectus)
  • Rhodesian Man, 50,000–30,000 years old; described as an extinct African "race" of H. sapiens (now considered either H. rhodesiensis or H. heidelbergensis and dated much earlier)
  • Neanderthal Man, 100,000–40,000 years old
  • Cro-Magnon Man, 40,000–5,000 years old
  • Modern Man, 40,000 years to present


The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) condemned the iconology of the image in several pages of his 1989 book, Wonderful Life. In a chapter, "The Iconography of an Expectation," he asserted that

The march of progress is the canonical representation of evolution – the one picture immediately grasped and viscerally understood by all.... The straitjacket of linear advance goes beyond iconography to the definition of evolution: the word itself becomes a synonym for progress.... [But] life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress.[4]

Gould reproduces several advertisements and political cartoons incorporating the March of Progress to convey one message or another. He even presents a "personally embarrassing" example: one of the four foreign editions of his books (over the design of which he had no control) which used the "march of human progress" as a jacket illustration. Gould never actually mentions Zallinger or the Time-Life Early Man volume in his critique, giving only vague clues as to the origin of the concept.

The intelligent design advocate Jonathan Wells wrote in Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? (2002), "Although it is widely used to show that we are just animals, and that our very existence is a mere accident, the ultimate icon goes far beyond the evidence."[5] The book likens a selection of evolution theory textbook topics to the cover illustration thus qualified.

Parodies and adaptationsEdit

  • A 1966 advertisement for Greg Noll Surfboards' "Da Cat" model (based on the popularity of Malibu surfer Miki Dora) appropriated the Zallinger image to parody the evolution of surfing personas.
  • The logo for the Leakey Foundation features a small silhouette of the March of Progress image.[6]
  • The National Museums of Kenya, in Nairobi, has long used a logo based on the Zallinger image.
  • The cover of the 1972 Doors album Full Circle references the March of Progress.
  • The cover of the 1985 Supertramp album Brother Where You Bound resembles the March of Progress.
  • On the cover of the soundtrack CD for the 1992 movie Encino Man, an ape evolves into a skateboarder.[7]
  • The 3 March 1994 issue of Time magazine includes a graphic, "Humanity's Long March," referencing Zallinger's image with a more complicated graphic underneath.
  • A 1998 issue of Rolling Stone features an image of actor Ben Stiller evolving from a hairy ape into a naked actor.
  • A graphic in the December 2005 issue of The Economist depicts hominids progressing up a flight of stairs to transform into a woman in a black dress holding a glass of champagne.


The frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley's 1863 Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature was intended to compare the skeletons of apes and humans, but unintentionally created a durable meme of supposed "monkey-to-man" progress.[1]

Thomas Henry Huxley's frontispiece to his 1863 book Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature was intended simply to compare the skeletons of apes and humans, but its unintentional left-to-right progressionist sequence has according to the historian Jennifer Tucker "become an iconic and instantly recognizable visual shorthand for evolution."[1]

An illustration, with the caption "Evolution," showing two sequences of four images, each illustrating a gradual transformation of an animal into a human, appeared in the 1889 edition[8] of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Tucker, Jennifer (28 October 2012). "What our most famous evolutionary cartoon gets wrong". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 29 December 2017. 
  2. ^ Howell, F. Clark and the Editors of TIME-LIFE Books (1965), Early Man, New York: TIME-LIFE Books, pp. 41–45.
  3. ^ Barringer, David (2006) "Raining on Evolution’s Parade"; I.D. Magazine, March/April 2006.
  4. ^ Gould, Stephen Jay (1989), Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, pp 30-36.
  5. ^ Wells, Jonathan (2000). Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc. p. 211. 
  6. ^ Barringer (2006), Op. cit.
  7. ^ Barringer (2006), Op. cit.
  8. ^ Project Gutenberg text, search for second appearance of the word "crusher." Title page image shows "New York: Charles L. Webster & Company. 1889.