Frans de Waal in The New York Times:
ATLANTA — WHEN I learned last week about the discovery of an early human relative deep in a cave in South Africa, I had many questions. Obviously, they had dug up a fellow primate, but of what kind? The fabulous find, named Homo naledi, has rightly been celebrated for both the number of fossils and their completeness. It has australopithecine-like hips and an ape-size brain, yet its feet and teeth are typical of the genus Homo.
The mixed features of these prehistoric remains upset the received human origin story, according to which bipedalism ushered in technology, dietary change and high intelligence. Part of the new species’ physique lags behind this scenario, while another part is ahead. It is aptly called a mosaic species. We like the new better than the old, though, and treat every fossil as if it must fit somewhere on a timeline leading to the crown of creation. Chris Stringer, a prominent British paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa.” This represents a shockingly teleological view, as if natural selection is seeking certain outcomes, which it is not. It doesn’t do so any more than a river seeks to reach the ocean. News reports spoke of a “new ancestor,” even a “new human species,” assuming a ladder heading our way, whereas what we are actually facing when we investigate our ancestry is a tangle of branches. There is no good reason to put Homo naledi on the branch that produced us. Nor does this make the discovery any less interesting.