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Human evolution
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Human evolution

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a remarkable convergence of views about human evolution amongst paleoanthropologists, geneticists, and molecular biologists. This convergence is the subject of books such as Steve Olson's Mapping Human History (2002). This modern synthesis is also remarkable for its specificity. For example, there is strong scientific evidence supporting these conclusions:

The role of language in the story of human evolution remains largely a matter of speculation, but recent discoveries about the FOXP2 gene, "the first gene known to be involved in the development of speech and language"¹, suggest new lines of inquiry and raise hopes about progress in understanding the origins of speech and language.

Table of contents
1 The Homo genus
2 Important fossils
3 Taxonomy
4 Additional notes
5 See also
6 External links
7 References

The Homo genus

Although other species have been proposed and written about, anthropologists generally recognize three species of Homo:

All human beings today belong to the same subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.

Neanderthal Man

There is ongoing debate over whether "Neanderthal Man" was a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis, or a subspecies of H. sapiens. While the debate remains unsettled, the preponderance of evidence, collected by examining mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomal DNA, currently indicates that there was no gene flow between H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens, and therefore the two were separate species.

In 1997 Dr. Mark Stoneking, then an associate professor of anthropology at Penn State University, stated: "These results [based on mitochondrial DNA extracted from Neanderthal bone] indicate that Neanderthals did not contribute mitochondrial DNA to modern humans… Neanderthals are not our ancestors."² Subsequent investigation of a second source of Neanderthal DNA confirmed these findings.³

H. habilis

H. habilis, the first species of the genus Homo, evolved in South and East Africa in the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, 2.5 – 2 million years ago, when it diverged from the Australopithecines. Australopithecines and Hominenes are collectively referred to as Hominids. Both genera were bipedal. H. habilis had smaller molars and larger brains than the Australopithecines, and made tools from stone and perhaps animal bones.

H. erectus

In the Early Pleistocene, 1.5 – 1 million years ago, hominines in Africa, Asia, and Europe, evolved larger brains and made more elaborate stone tools; these differences and others are sufficient for anthropologists to classify them as a new species, Homo erectus.

H. sapiens

Between 400,000 years ago and the second interglacial period in the Middle Pleistocene, around 250,000 years ago, the trend in cranial expansion and the elaboration of stone tool technologies developed, providing evidence for a transition from H. erectus to H. sapiens. The direct evidence suggests that there was a migration of H. erectus out of Africa, then a further speciation of H. sapiens from H. erectus in Africa and a subsequent migration from Africa which replaced the dispersed H. erectus. There is little evidence that this speciation occurred elsewhere, even though some fossil evidence for H. erectus has been found in China. However, the current evidence doesn't preclude multiregional speciation, either. This is a hotly debated area in paleoanthropology.

The conventional view of human evolution states that humans evolved in inland savanna environments. Stephan Cunnane of the University of Toronto has proposed the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, that humans developed in shore regions. But evidence supporting this is sparse and it is not widely accepted.

Human babies have far more fat reserves than other primates. It has been hypothesized that this is necessary to ensure brain development during times of food shortages (the brain consumes 60% of a baby's energy intake).

Important fossils

Taxonomy

Additional notes

The origins of humanity is a subject of great political and religious controversy in the United States and certain other countries. See: creationism.

Older classifications had the superfamily Hominoidea which included three families: Hominidae (humans), Pongidae (the great apes), and Hylobatidae (gibbons or lesser apes). Modern taxonomists put Pongidae and Hominidae together as one family, with the Orangutan in the subfamily Ponginae and the rest of the great apes, including humans, in Homininae. The Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and Bonobo (Pan paniscus) are sometimes grouped in the genus homo by biologists. It is an interesting fact that Linnaeus, who first grouped the chimpanzee (only one species was known at the time) in a different genus than Humans, later regretted this (in his view) artificial division.

Speculation about the future evolution of humans is often explored in science fiction. Sometimes evolution to a being of pure spirit is imagined, sometimes continued speciation as humans fill various ecological niches; see adaptive radiation.

Human evolution has possibly reached a peculiar point of development. Their rational understanding of the physical enviroment and their application of scientific knowledge has given them an unprecedented ability to adapt habitats to their wants and needs (i.e. agricultural developement). Many believe this capacity reduces or prevents many theoretical mechanisms believed to be causing evolution. This is an oversimplified view however. It is true surviving well past maturation in industrialized nations is sociologically and technologically protected, thus reducing many of the selective pressures that existed in their former enviroments, but survival is not the only selective criterion for evolution and factors like reproductive success (i.e. sexual evolution) still vary for a myriad of potential reasons.

Other circumstances, like the scope and connectivity of the human population, will also tend to prevent mechanisms like cladogenesis, thus reducing biodiversity, but other mechanisms like genetic drift and the reduction in selective pressures could possibly cause anagenesis. Most of the natural changes will likely have the character of a negative adaptation (e.g. myopia becomes more and more common due to a lack of selective pressure for superior vision) however, but this is a human characterization of change that is dependent upon human goals and value systems.

As science and technology advances it is possible they will be able to not only consciously adapt their enviroment to their needs, but adapt their genetic information as well. This new form of evolution by design could more than compensate for the elimination of the natural mechanisms driving evolution. Beyond that it is possible they will completely abandon their biological machinery in favor of completely artificial systems.

See also

External links

References

  1. Wolfgang Enard et al. "Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language." Nature, Vol 418 (22 August 2002) p. 870.
  2. DNA Shows Neandertals Were Not Our Ancestors
  3. Ovchinnikov, et al. "Molecular analysis of Neanderthal DNA from the Northern Caucasus." Nature 404, 490 (2000).