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The evolution cartoon

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This cartoon by John Stegmann portrays the evolution of a fish into a man-bicycle, and then into a man-fish-bicycle, and includes a (cave) woman. Surprisingly, Stegmann was unaware of the man/woman, fish/bicycle saying when he created the cartoon in 1981. At that time, he was editor of the newsletter of the Pedal Power Foundation of Southern Africa, Velocipede, in which the cartoon was first published. The cartoon was inspired by the work of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA).

The IHPVA was founded by innovators who were impatient with stagnation of bicycle design. This stagnation had resulted from the refusal of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international body governing bicycle racing, to sanction competition using any type of bicycle except the standard diamond-frame bicycle, whose configuration was established in the 1890s.

The IHPVA promotes the design, construction and testing of high-performance human-powered vehicles, for practical use as well as for all-out competition. The IHPVA's focus has expanded from land vehicles to include human-powered aircraft, boats and even submarines.

Stegmann's cartoon has been very popular with IHPVA members, and often imitated. You may view additional web pages which display:

  1. a larger scan of Stegmann's cartoon;

  2. the entire page of the newsletter Velocipede which included the cartoon. Stegmann's article on that page provides a brief synopsis of the evolution of bicycle design;

  3. Cartoons by Gary Varvel used by the IHPVA itself;

  4. A copy of a Varvel cartoon used as a trademark;

  5. another evolution cartoon with a more modern slant.

  6. And even a unicycle version!

Stegmann has offered the following fascinating comments on his cartoon:

It has happened before, often, that identical thoughts occur to people independently. This would come about because of logical thought given to a common problem - typically when a new topic is the rage of the age. There must be thousands of inventors who find their 'novel' idea already in the patent office.

I had been writing about the Vectors,[1] and collecting everything I could find on them, for months prior to making the sketch to go with my Editorial. There was a very small subscription base, but I used to dish out copies of Velocipede quite freely to friends and acquaintances. I accept that it may well be that others saw the likeness of the Vector to a fish and wondered about the lineage . . . but I still do not know of any prior publication of the cartoon. I would be flattered if John Allen were to use it and give me credit. . .

Incidentally, the dinosaur is, of course, supposed to be a stegosaurus, [2] and the caveman Mrs.Ples [3] (abbreviation of the Latin name). My paternal grandfather, Isaak Stegmann, owned the farms Kromdraai and Sterkfontein (Sharp bend - in the river- and Strong fountain) on which there were limestone caves. This is still a most picturesque area and, of course, now quite developed. In his day the limestone, including ancient fossils, was quarried and crushed for limewash paint and building cement. My dad and uncle told us stories of exploring the caves when they were young, but the tragedy of the limestone quarrying was only revealed after many years when Dr. Robert Broom recognised the fossil of an ancient human and postulated Africa as the cradle of Man. Recently an even more interesting fossil was discovered there.

The site is now well known as Sterkfontein Caves, but somewhere in the 1960's (?) my father George, his brother Edwin and sister René donated the farm to the Witwatesrand University - on the proviso that it be named the Isaak Stegmann Nature Reserve.[4]

A description of the Sterkfontein Caves is to be found on a South African site. The site includes an animated evolution drawing and more information about Mrs. Ples.

Stegmann appears to be too modest about the origin of the cartoon. The evolution gag may have been used before in cartoons on other subjects, but apparently not streamlined bicycles. Dr. David Gordon Wilson, a founder of the IHPVA, who was in a good position to know, has stated that "I believe that John Stegmann is the honored (or not honored enough) originator of that cartoon, much copied everywhere."[5]

Stegmann's unusually close encounter with evidence of human evolution evidently played into his inspiration for the cartoon, as did his passion for bicycles and bicycling.

The conventional view of evolution proceeds from the horizontal fish to the upright man, but Stegmann carries it further, to an even more upright man on a high-wheeler bicycle. Then the evolutionary path reverses itself -- first to a bicyclist in a racing crouch nearly identical to the caveman's slouch, then to a cyclist on a recumbent, whose posture mirrors that of the dinosaur, and finally back to a man-become fish inside the Vector recumbent tricycle's aerodynamic shell.

The cartoon is reminiscent of Oriental philosophies in which change is seen as  a cycle which returns to its origin, and also reminiscent of the zoetrope, a precursor of the motion picture in which drawings in a strip lining a spinning, open-topped drum are viewed in quick succession through slits in the wall of the drum. Each drawing represents a different stage of motion, but the motion always has to return to the starting point, so that it remains smooth all around the circle. The zoetrope is good at portraying cyclic motions such as those of people and animals walking.

However, in Stegmann's cartoon, the man-become-fish represents a synthesis of an evolving life form with a more rapidly evolving technology -- a helical rather than circular progression.

[1] Vector: a make of faired, recumbent tricycle (like the one depicted at the right in the cartoon), ridden to set speed records around 1980.

[2] Stegosaurus: get it?

[3] "Mrs. Ples" is short for "Mrs. Plesianthropus." John Stegmann offers the following comments, from an e-mail message dated November 28, 2001:

Mrs. Ples: Maybe I need to do some more research. One book on my shelves confirms my understanding that the 'jocular' name given to the skull fossil is Mrs. Ples, but does not give any further information. Another book says that Dr. Robert Broom discovered the skull at Sterkfontein Caves in 1936, and goes on, "This, and later finds over a long period, proved that Australopithecus was indeed an intermediate stage between ape and man". We erred by referring to a caveman - I think that there was some evidence that the skull was that of a fallen woman - who did not survive after dropping into the cave through the roof and was immortalised in limestone. I will scratch around elsewhere because there must surely be another word - the missing link between these two references?

Bingo! How pleasant! May I suggest that at this juncture you spend a few moments raising your eyebrows and trying to appear more intelligent?

I have found another reference book which illustrates plaster casts of fossil skulls and states: ' ... the skull of Australopithecus transvalensis ... showing the fairly smooth contour of the forehead, although in more highly developed forms, called Plesianthropus, the brow ridges might reach large size.'

[4] From an e-mail message dated 16 November 2001

[5] From an e-mail message dated 15 November 2001

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Contents © 2000, 2001, John S. Allen
except cartoon and narrative © 1981, John Stegmann.