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A (Pictorial) Ascent of Man(kind)

This site is part picture gallery, part reflection upon those pictures and the ideas that surround them.

The image above, which I use at the head of my Evolutionary (Darwinian) Medicine subsite, and which I used on that subsite's predecessor since it was set up in 1997, has been employed in different forms numerous times to differing affect. It is a means of depicting human evolution. As one follows the figures from left to right, one in effect traces the sequence of human evolution via representatives of different stages in that process. However, this visual device usually implies a lot more than the mere fact that there has been physical change over historical time.

What is it that makes this image so evocative? Why has it been reproduced in different forms so often? (Indeed, why do I find it so compelling that I have started collecting versions of it?)

Interestingly, this image is found in scientific and popular culture.

It would be interesting to know when this image was first used scientifically and how and when it passed into popular culture. Presumably the image was not used before 1859. However, the idea of human progress has a long and complicated history.

If you know of any other images that adopt this progress metaphor, please let me know by email.

The above image extended.

The idea of progress involves the idea that there is improvement over historical time. In human terms this often refers to the improvement in the lot of humankind, even its perfectability.

The simplest forms of the idea of progress assume there to be an inevitable progression from primative to increasingly more advanced human societies. One must ask, if this inevitable why are there still peoples who would happily go on living lives that are technologically little more than stone age were it not for contact with advanced society? In the context of evolutionary medicine, one must also ask whether some of the progress really is improvement. One thinks of diet-related problems, low-exercise related problems, as well as pollution/global climate change (etc).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) argued during the Enlightenment that advances in the sciences and the arts had corrupted rather than improved humanity. Clearly a distinction should be made between scientific and techological progress (which take a more outward form) and moral and spiritual progress (which take an inward form). It is by no means clear that we are happier or behave more honourably than in the past (although one's assessment of this depends on the stratum of society with which one most closely identifies).

The idea of progress was particularly strong during the enlightenment and we are perhaps the heirs to that optimism. The French philosopher Condorcet (1743-1794) saw 'the human race, emancipated from its shackles, released from the empire of fate and from that of the enemies of its progress, advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue and happiness.'

Where the idea of progress originated is not entirely clear. Bury [1] thought it very modern. Nesbit, [2] saw it as a product of the medieval Christian notion of providence - if not earlier.

The modern/post-modern image of the future progress of humankind is not so optimistic. Consider films such as Mad Max, Blade Runner, Max Headroom, Alien, I Robot, even Planet of the Apes.

Are they a foil/contra to our hopes/real expectations?

The former poet laureate, John Masefield (1878-1967) saw progress as 'just one damn thing after another'.

Technological progress begs the question, what if things had been invented/discovered in a different order? The fruits of these inventions and discoveries would have accrued in a different order, but the worldviews that were brought about or influenced are not the products of simple accrual. They are much more complex and rely on more than what is known scientifically.


1 - Bury, J.B. (1920). The Idea of Progress. London. (Dover Publications Inc. 1988.)

2 - Nesbit, R. (1980). History of the Idea of progress. New York. (Transaction Publishers; 2nd Rev. Ed. 1994.)

Is this the original - or at least the inspiration - for the pages of images that follow?

From Punch magazine (Dec. 6th 1881).

The story of the modern 'Human Progress' image collected here,
can be found on Page Zero

My Pinterest board: Human Progress
(An extension of this site and repository for some images not found here.)

This has a point. Click for full size.

  • Now available as a Firefox persona.

From the Google Doodle (24th November 2015) celebrating the 41st Anniversary of the discover of the fossil hominid 'Lucy'. (If the doodle .gif above doesn't move, open it in a new tab to see the effect.)

The figure at the head of this page now graces the cover of 'Ancestral Roots: Modern Living and Human Evolution' by Timothy Clack:


Notice that the man on the right is now working hunched over a laptop (rather than a desktop PC), the penultimate man has what appears to be a power drill (rather than a road drill) and the pre-penultimate man carries a different kind of rake the opposite way up.

General Comments

The figures always travel left to right.

The figures are (almost) always male.

There is no indication of the time taken or whether how these stages are separated in time.

The carriage of objects implies more than just a physical evolution but also a cultural improvement.

The general impression is one of human improvement, not just physical change – which is really all that evolution is.


To commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the Royal Mail has produced the following set of stamps and first day cover:


Somewhere else using this image as part of Darwin200 is Bolton Museum who sent around this flyer:

Evolution tee-shirts and other gifts

Such is the popularity of this design - which seems to be increasing over recent years - that a number of items bearing a version of the 'ascent of humankind' image can be obtained online. Try the following:

Amazon -  .com(1); .com(2); .co.uk(1); .co.uk(2).


Google Searches

Using the search phrases 'evolution t shirt' and 'evolution tee shirt' yields a wealth of images.

New Scientist magazine used the image above for an article entitled 'Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions'. Note that this image is one of the few in which a female figure is found in the lineage. Although men are, of course, necessary for reproductive purposes, the only certain continuous physical line linking present day humans and our most distant ancestors is that line which passes from mother to daughter. To be more accurate, the (Pictorial) Ascent of Man(kind) should really consist of a line of females.

Note also the intimation that an increase in size is not necessarily the same as or accompanied by evolutionary 'progress'.

Scientific Use

The version used on my Evolutionary (Darwinian) medicine subsite was clearly modified for the New York Academy of Sciences meeting 'Evolution, Health, and Disease  Darwinian Approaches to Medicine' 


Bryan Sykes' book Adam's Curse – A future without men uses the image to depict the evolution of Man into woman.

Mostly Male

This image draws to our attention the fact that other versions of this image seem always to depict males – with a strategically advanced right leg covering their genitals. It raises the question as to whether this image demonstrates an inherent male bias or orientation in the study of anthropology. (There is an old adage that anthropology is 'the study of Man, embracing woman', which, in itself, has certain male-leaning nuances.)

It is not men that evolve, nor is it women but Man. Thus, indirectly, this image raises the question of how to use the word 'Man'. For me, Man – with a capital 'M' – is an inclusive term. It refers to the whole of the human species. This includes men, women and children of all geographical origins. Sometimes, I substitute the term 'humankind' for Man (or Mankind).

Unwittingly, this image may seem to imply that progress from male to female has a negative connotation. Wherever this type of image is portrayed, the increase in height of the evolving figure implies an ascent for Man with a decrease in height, after a maximum has been reached, implying some form of descent. For example, see the figure at the head of this page and that immediately below used by The Ecomonist.

Keith Harrison's light but informative book Your Body - The Fish That Evolved (London: Metro 2007) uses on its cover this image:

Interestingly, to give a fuller picture of the whole of the evolution which led to us, Harrison's cover shows pre-ape like forms: a fish and a frog. Strictly speaking there are no frogs in our ancestry. However, the point is made that our ape-like ancestors had ancestors of their own - back to the time when they lived in the seas.


This image taken from the Neanderthal Museum website alludes to the idea of evolutionary progression. In this example Neanderthal Man - being the subject of the museum - is the end product. However, if one looks carefully, one can see that it is the same but smaller image that tails off to the left not any ancestral forms.


This is is taken from 'What Makes Us Human?' (ed. Charles Pasternak) [See]:


The following is taken from a small book published by Wooden Books - a publisher with an interesting, if eclectic, catalogue:


Here, the characters usually depicted in the march of human progress appear in the bottom corners of the front cover and we are left to piece the sequence together for ourselves. Inside, the following detail, taken from page 45, gives a rather fanciful view of the future:

However, is the suggestion about a possible evolutionary future for dolphins entirely inconceivable? They will never be able to break the laws of physics and begin to levitate but leaving the oceans to become intelligent, bipedal, land-dwelling beings breaks no 'law' of biology per se.

The following, from Tim Glynne-Jones' 'The Book of Words', is the first I have found to extend the idea of physical evolution to that of language. This it does by employing the simple device of using a couple of speech bubbles. The irony of the words in these bubbles is that 'ugh!' and 'whatever' do not suggest much of a difference and so nothing much by way of progress. 'Whatever' is a term that has come to be associated with disaffected and generally rather dim teenagers and is little more than an 'ugh!'.


This, which takes the progress idea and applies it to growing up, is taken from 'Teenagers: A Natural History' by David Bainbridge:


The following was captured from an animated opening sequence of a BBC production about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis:


One use of this image that is clearly meant to convey a message was found on the front of the December 13th-19th 2003 edition of The Economist:


The message is that people (at least, in the West) are becoming morbidly obese as a result of their consumption of junk food – as typified by the super-sized cartoon which, no doubt, contained a carbonated sugary drink.

Why the obese man on the right is drawn wearing briefs is a puzzle. In very obese people of both sexes, the abdomen droops down over the pubic area covering the genitals. So 'full frontal nude' views of such individuals do not expose the sexual anatomy. Furthermore, in very obese males, the fat of the lower abdomen immediately in front of the pubis, tends to engulf the penis making it appear almost invisible.

Popular Culture

In popular culture, the Bronze Records, uses a version of the image on its label:

This is a cleverly named record label. It was started by Gerry Bron in 1971. So it was literally, Bron's records! The reference seems to be to the Bronze Age which is a relatively recent period in the development of human civilization. Divided into three periods (Early, Middle and Late) the Bronze Age lasted from c3500-c1200 BC. Little physical evolution of note occurred during or since that period.

Although arranged in a circle the figures advance from left to right.

The comedian Jimmy Carr (writing with Lucy Greeves) has used a version of the image on the front of his book, the Naked Jape. This is a clear reference to Desmond Morris's book the Naked Ape.


This is a scan of a postcard entitled 'Evolving?' I know nothing more of it provenance. What is particularly interesting is the comment of the seemingly most advanced figure on the right: 'Are we there yet?' Although our conception of progress seems to imply some sort of aim or goal, human physical evolution has no set aim or goal; our species is not deliberately changing so as to reach some ultimate state of perfectibility.
The figures appear to be the origins from which the cover of The Economist was drawn.

This is a photograph of a poster from Guinness's 'Genius Campaign' of 1985. The poster is entitled 'Darwin'. The illustration was by N. Broomfiled and advertising company behind the campaign was Oglivy and Mather.

(The image above parallels another poster from the same campaign. In that poster a series of pint glasses are shown. From left to right, the glasses get filled as the Guinness is poured, then progressively emptied as the Guinness is drunk.)

Wad and Peeps by Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson & Geoffrey Perkins (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1988) uses the following:

(Enough said)

As seen at the cinema:

Another kind of 'dumb', as seen on the covers of Wendy Northcutt's Darwin Awards books:


So far, I have only come across one example of the progress image used in reverse. The following is taken from the devolution website:

devolution is a software toolkit, written by Richard Gaskin, for developers of the Revolution software. The figures are apparently the same as those used in the 'Are we there yet?' postcard and The Economist from cover.

The Idea of Progress

The figures depicted are always naked. The carriage of objects reflects a quality of mind.

From Wikipedia entry: Accelerating change


 If they are to carry objects (a reference to the idea that tool-making seems to be an important evolutionary step – which involves a change in the brain or mind) why not depict the wearing of clothes? Not all humans habitually wear clothes but the human species is typified by body adornment of some sort or another.

Not everybody accepts the idea of evolution in general or human evolution in particular. Those who hold to 'fundamentalist' religious beliefs tend to reject evolution in favour of some form of divine creation. (See: A Question for Creationists.) The following illustrations (left) are taken from a Christian tract produced by Chick publications with a response on the right from facts4u:


The illustrations on the left were taken from the tract entitled Big Daddy? (For a YouTube (spoof) rendition click here.)

The illustrations on the right are taken from a satire upon the Big Daddy? tract, entitled 'Who's Your Daddy?'

Other uses, by Chick, of the ascent idea are:

(From: Apes, Lies and Ms. Henn. The little girl is Li'l Susy. For a YouTube (spoof) rendition click here.)


(From: Moving On Up! For a YouTube (spoof) rendition click here.)

Read about Chick Publications at Wikipedia.

It should be pointed out that many non-fundamentalist members of the worlds main religions are able to square scientific discovery with their religious views and so do accept the theory of evolution. Consider the following:

Amusingly, the figure second from the left faces the wrong(?) way.

(From it's website one can clearly see that St Bride's is a church with an open mind and an inclusive attitude.)

 This is perhaps one of the most bazaar renditions of the progress idea. Stepping out of the lab. one afternoon, I happened upon my colleague Ian Hurley wearing the following image on a tee-shirt. He kindly washed (but did not iron) it before allowing me to take this photograph.

The Big Bang Theory (TV Show)
From the title sequence - easily missed if you blink!

As seen on one of Sheldon Cooper's tee-shirts (Season 2 Episode 8 (The Lizard-Spock Expansion)):
(NB Also seen: Season 1, Episode 13 (The Bat Jar Conjecture); Season 2, Episode 23 (The Monopolar Expedition); Season 3, Episode 6 (The Cornhusker Vortex); Season 4, Episode 3 (The Zazzy Substitution); Season 4, Episode 10 (The Alien Parasite Hypothesis); Season 4, Episode 19 (The Zarnecki Incursion).)

Screen capture from the E4 television programme 'The Big Bang Theory: Access All Areas' aired on Thursday April 5th 2012, featuring Rick Edwards talking to The Big Bang Theory's costume designer and co-producer Mary T. Quigley. She described this tee-shirt as a favourite and as showing something typical of the character Sheldon Cooper.

During 'The Terminator Decoupling' (Season 2 Episode 17), the tee-shirt can be seen folded on top of a pile of clothes
on Sheldon's bed as he proceeds to attach RFID tags to them and log them on his laptop.

 This tee-shirt is available online in different colours from Zazzle.
Also available as a mouse mat:
Another tee-shirt seen in a Brussels souvenir shop (and photographed surreptitiously):

This appeared on campus recently (March 2008) during the Students' Union elections. A young woman called Eve was standing for re-election to the post she had held for nine months so as to continue the work she had started - a process she called 'EVE-olution'.

This image of progress (see 'Detail' below) is rare in as much as it begins with a monkey showing a tail. None of the progress images above show tails. Our ancestors did have tails which have subsequently receded. Very occasionally, however, children are still born with small tails which are surgically removed.


As seen in various other places in Brussels (2008):
At L'Homo Erectus Bar:
A rare example of the image running right-to-left -- when printed on glass and seen from outside of course!
See their online shop for the standard left-to-right:

This bar and/or the image in its window has found its way onto many Flickr pages. For a search of Flickr using the terms 'Homo Erectus Brussels click here.

A variation on the theme, as seen in a financial services shop window:

Another variation is this image showing how wheelchair users may ultimately be enabled to walk using strap-on devices.

This was seen in a shop at Gare du Midi when leaving Brussels - a rare example using females instead of males:
(eos Magazine)

Computer Games

Spore comes closest to the use of the image collected here but ...
Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life uses a clever image unlike those collected here but worth including, I think:

(Note the different footprints.)

Above is an advertisement spread over two half pages which appear to have been torn from the BBC Goodfood magazine (March 2007). (I found it while going through a pile of recipe cuttings from the kitchen.) It is entitled 'The Evolution of Beefy' and was part of a campaign promoting British beef. Beefy is, of course, Ian Botham and the head to the top right is that of Alan Lamb.

On a similar theme, the cover of 'Evolutionary Writings' - a collection of Charles Darwin's own writing on the subject edited by James A. Secord shows the skeletons of a chimpanzee and a human:


A skeletal, rather than a 'fleshed', version of the progress picture - and using humans and human ancestors rather than our great apes relatives - would be informative is a quite different way. The 'fleshed' images are open to much more interpretation; skeletons (where we have enough of them) show how our lineage has actually changed internally. The only problem here comes when the bones are articulated to represent some form of gait.

Flickr (See also Other Collections)

Such is the fascination with this image that at Flickr there is also a group entitled 'March from Monkey to Man' devoted to collecting different versions of it. It's well worth a visit.

At Flickr, see also ascentofman.

However, the following, which do not belong to either of these groups, were also found on Flickr:

31/365: monkey to man

Islamic Creationism poster, Leamington

evolution of the moviegoer

My Pinterest board: Human Progress
(An extension of this site and repository for some images not found here.)