Via Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frans-de-waal/was-ardi-perhaps-liberal_b_325201.html comes an article speculating whether Ardipithecus was a "liberal". The author, Frans de Waal, after going through the history of interpretations of human nature by analogy with various extant non-human primates, wonders:
"What if we descend not from a blustering chimp-like ancestor but from a gentle, empathic bonobo-like ape? Or what if we share characteristics with both of these close relatives instead of just the one favored by our personal political ideology? Ardi is telling us something, and there may be little agreement about what she is saying, but I hear a refreshing halt to the drums of war that have accompanied all previous theories."
The discovery of the postcranial remains of Ardipithecus has been one of the most exciting events in paleoanthropology in years. Ardi stood erect, and she had a prehensile great toe. She lived in the forest, not on the savannah. The implications of the discovery for human evolution have been described by Owen Lovejoy and others in a special issue of Science http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5949/74 (registration required).
What I find most interesting about the discovery are the plausible explanation for the development of bipedalism offered by the data and the long overdue recognition that extant great apes have been evolving all this time from our common ancestor as well. Our ancestor probably wasn't like any of the living species of hominoids. Several features of Ardipithecus are consistent with the notion that bipedalism developed as part of a strategy of male provisioning of mates and offspring which required carrying provisions over relatively long distances.
But as exciting as all this may be, I can't wrap my brain around the idea that the way that Ardi lived has much to do with how we should live now. Righties (other than Creationist religious righties, that is) sometimes point to evolutionary psychology (they prefer the term sociobiology for some reason) to support the status quo, and they tend in my experience to favor the "Killer Ape" model, so I reckon fossil evidence that counters such fatuous arguments with equally fatuous counterarguments are useful to a degree. I'd prefer, however, to attack the underlying premise that human evolution has left us with a set of "natural" tendencies that it would be wrong in many cases to resist and in all cases to problematize.
I am speculating here a bit, but I would bet that Ardi shit in the woods. Does that mean that we ought to shit in the woods, that it is foolish to develop plumbing and alternative shit disposal systems that run counter to our nature as sylvan defecators? Should I tolerate it if strangers come and shit in my woods?
Ardi ate all her food raw. Does that mean cooking is unnatural and wrong?
Ardi didn't wear any clothes. Clothing is unnatural and wrong?
What if Ardi were promiscuous? Would that mean that promiscuity should be the norm for us now?
Ardi lived by the chase and forage. Is it, therefore, wrong to farm or work at a trade?
Ardipithecine females may have stayed close to the nest with their young while males went off in search of provisions. Does that mean that it is wrong for our women to leave the house and work?
Ardi did what Ardi had to do to get by when and where she lived. Lucky for us, her descendants were flexible enough to adapt when times changed. We're still adapting. If we're not, we're doomed.