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The Boston Globe

Ideas

What our most famous evolutionary cartoon gets wrong

It’s hardly accurate — so 150 years later, why does the ‘monkey to man’ illustration still hold us spellbound?

Last month, the Dr Pepper company posted an ad, “Evolution of Flavor,” on its Facebook page. That may be a new way to promote a beverage, but the ad harked back to a time-honored image: the “monkey-to-man” illustration that has become an iconic and instantly recognizable visual shorthand for evolution. In response, anti-evolutionists flooded the company’s website, protesting what they claimed was the soda company’s endorsement of Darwinism.

That a 150-year-old scientific illustration could trigger a political attack today speaks volumes about the contentious state of the American debate over evolution. But it also opens a window onto the extraordinary history of the image itself—one of the most intriguing, and most misleading, drawings in the modern history of science.

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