Clever Apes #13: Origin stories

May 25, 2011

Download Story

The only known specimen of rungwecebus kipunji is locked away at the Field Museu

Say the original Declaration of Independence burned up. No problem, you might think – we have pictures of it. But then say someone discovered that a word had been scratched out and replaced. Without the original document to examine, we might never know what that discarded word was … or how close we came to being a nation founded on the right to pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of waffles.”

There’s power in the original – whether it’s a document, the mold of a famous sculpture, or the standard of a common measurement, like the kilogram.

Scientists who name a new species keep an artifact of its origin. It’s called the holotype – the standard by which a new species (or genus or subspecies) is designated. It turns out there are a whole bunch of these locked away in secure cases in Chicago – more than 500 just for mammals. It’s like a tiny National Archives of biology.

On this round of Clever Apes, we consider origins, from the concrete example of a monkey holotype, to the murk of the beginnings of consciousness. On that point, we check in with Malcolm MacIver of Northwestern, whom we visited last year to hear a choir of singing fish he helped create. Those fish inspired his theory on the origins of consciousness, which he first laid out in several blog posts. He dates it back to our emergence from the primordial oceans, when all of a sudden we could begin to see much farther. That meant more time to plan, to consider possible futures. And that, by at least one formulation, is the essence of consciousness.

As always, subscribe to the Clever Apes podcast, follow us on Twitter, find us on Facebook.

Alas, poor Kipunj: Bill Stanley and the skull of a new genus he helped identify.