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The Evolution of the Evolution Cartoon On:2007-02-08 06:42:33

Of late I have noticed that there seems to be an increasing level of debate about evolution, and... and an increasing level of polarisation associated with that debate and an increasing level of acrimony associated with that polarisation. Far be it from me to get involved in such controversy, especially in such a public venue as this, but I feel I must address the central, the most vital, and indeed the most alarming aspect of all this turmoil---I of course mean the evolution of the Evolutionary Sequence Cartoon!

You must know what I mean: the cartoon species that typically starts on the left-hand side with a little fish (or in some versions something small, hunched and pithecine rather than merely piscene) and then progresses, echoing the performance chart of some terribly successful company zigging ever upwards in progress and to the right through time, up and across to (usually) large, upright modern man, and then often un-evolving and shrinking again.



As I just hinted there are two main categories1 of the Evolutionary Sequence Cartoon the pithecinegenal and the piscenegenal---those starting from something monkey- or ape-like; and those starting from something fish-like (or even pre-fish-like)

Well of late there have been absolute loads of examples of all two of this cartoon, some as you would expect making an evolutionary statement (almost always on the ‘for it’ side) like the typical one by Matson for the St Louis Post-Dispatch showing a line of ten identical hunched apes which only start to evolve into upright modern Man after passing a sign that reads “You are now leaving Kansas”,


but surprisingly many of them have messages that have little or nothing to do with evolution (or its absence) but instead target obesity


or the politics of the left


or even merely slovenly coffee drinking.


The Evolutionary Sequence Cartoon has obviously become a meme and now has a life and an evolution all its own.

But how did it come about? And what on earth is the origin of the species?

Well in spite of a lot of time researching and Googling and having amassed a quite respectable personal collection of over 40 examples I haven’t got anything definitive, however I do have a couple of hints.
In the New Yorker for June 6, 1925 (note the strange co-incidence that this was in the run-up to the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial) there is a cartoon by Rea Irvin which shows a sequence of four small panels each having just the head of: a Primate, a Neanderthal, Socrates and W.J.Bryan (and note the equally strange co-incidence that Mr Bryan was a member of the prosecution team in that trial). There is no progression in size, but there is obvious evolution from the primate up to Socrates and thence perhaps to the even greater heights of W.J.Bryan, though the cartoon’s title ‘the Rise and Fall of Man’ tends to suggest that this was not in the mind of the artist.


Then on the 18th July of that year, while the trial was actually running, there appeared in the Judge magazine something very close to the Sequence (though yet missing the majestic sweep of growth and improved posture of its locus classicus) showing a gibbon, orang-outang[sic], chimpanzee, gorilla and a cake-eater (the OED says a “cake-eater [is] U.S. slang, a self-indulgent or effeminate man; a playboy”2 and the cartoon’s gorilla replies “We ain’t even holding our own”


So there appears to be a case for associating our modern Evolutionary Sequence Cartoon with the earlier controversy surrounding the Scopes trial3.

Can we delve deeper into the mists of time, into the Devonian, Silurian or even Precambrian depths to find strange fossilized monstrous antecedents?

Well I wouldn’t have brought it up if I couldn’t now would I! Hah!

In the great British magazine Punch’s Almanack for 1882 (dated December 6, 1881) is a cartoon dinosaur entitled ‘Man is but a Worm’ that, apart from the fact that it takes a rather more round about way than the modern cartoons' bee line to get there, has it all. Starting at the bottom left with chaos (the actual word ‘CHAOS’ that is) and an earthworm; it has a sequence that spirals through rather strangely spermatozoid creatures, to apes, and to sprightly cavemen, to modern (Victorian) Man in top hat and finally to great Darwin himself, like Irvin’s Socrates, in classical dress.


Now there’s evolution for you!

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


For your delectation here is a whole page of cartoons that never made it into the essay.

And---Wow! Here comes fame! Can fortune be far behind?*

1 And, as I didn’t just hint, there is a third category (or perhaps it’s separate species, or maybe just a detail of the Sequence), ‘The Emergence Frame’: almost always just two fish one of whom is getting leggy and taking to the land; the other not, either by inclination or merely by representing an earlier temporal state.


2 with a quotation from the “1922 Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.) 6 Jan. 10/4---He calls us ‘lounge lizards, tea drinkers, *cake eaters and all that’.”

3 Here is an interesting article on the Scopes trial where I found some of my cartoons.



*  Of course it can! Hmpf!!

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