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Human Evolution

By Karen Barss

The story of human evolution began in Africa about six million years ago and it describes the very long process that our ancestors went through to ultimately become modern humans. This process has been uncovered by studying fossils and understanding the underlying theory of evolution, and while new fossils are uncovered every decade revealing new chapters, scientists agree about the basic story.

What Is Evolution?
Evolution means the changes that occur in a population over time. In this definition, a population means a group of the samespecies that share a specific location and habitat. Evolutionary changes always occur on the genetic level. In other words, evolution is a process that results in changes that are passed on or inherited from generation to generation. It does not, for example, describe how people can change their muscle mass by lifting weights. When successful, these genetic changes or adaptations, which happen when genes mutate and/or combine in different ways during reproduction, help organisms survive, reproduce, and raise offspring. Some individuals inherit characteristics that make them more successful at surviving and having babies. These advantageous characteristics tend to appear more frequently in the population (because those individuals with less advantageous characteristics are more likely to die without reproducing), and over time these changes become common throughout that population, ultimately leading to new species.

The Tree of Life


Biological evolution explains the way all living things evolved over billions of years from a single common ancestor. This concept is often illustrated by the so-called tree of life. Every branch on the tree represents a species. The fork separating one species from another represents the common ancestor that each pair of species shared. So ultimately, all life is interconnected, but any two species may be separated by millions or even billions of years of evolution.

Only a Theory?
Some people dismiss evolution as just a theory. Evolution is in fact a theory, a scientific theory. In everyday use, the word theory often means a guess or a rough idea: My theory is I have a theory about that. But among scientists, the word has an entirely different meaning. In science, a theory is an overarching explanation used to describe some aspect of the natural world that is supported by overwhelming evidence. Other scientific theories include cell theory, which says that all living things are made up of cells, and heliocentric theory, which says the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around.

The Relationship between Apes and Humans


Since scientists developed the ability to decode the genome and compare the genetic makeup of species, some people have been stunned to learn that about 98.5% of the genes in people and chimpanzees are identical. This finding means chimps are the closest living biological relatives to humans, but it does not mean that humans evolved from chimps. What it does indicate is that humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes (i.e., gorillas and chimpanzees), making us very, very distant cousins. We are therefore related to these other living primates, but we did not descend from them. Modern humans differ from apes in many significant ways. Human brains are larger and more complex; people have elaborate forms of communication and culture; and people habitually walk upright, can manipulate very small objects, and can speak.

Our Common Ancestor

Most scientists believe our common ancestor existed 5 to 8 million years ago. Then two species broke off into separate lineages, one ultimately evolving into gorillas and chimps, the other evolving into early humans called hominids. In the millions of years that followed, at least a dozen different species of humanlike creatures have existed, reflected in the fossil discoveries ofpaleoanthropologists, although many of these species are close relatives but not actual ancestors of modern humans. In fact, the fossil record does not represent a straight line of ancestry at all; many of these early hominids left no descendents and simply died out. Still others are most likely direct ancestors of modern humans or Homo sapiens. While scientists still do not know the total number of hominid species that existed, because new fossils are discovered every decade, the story of human evolution becomes clearer all the time.

What about the Missing Link?


The idea of a missing link has persisted, but it is not actually a scientific term. In the popular imagination, this missing link would be the fossil of our common ancestor. While scientists agree on the concept of a common ancestor, deciding which fossil represents that actual species is challenging if not impossible, given that the fossil record will never be 100% complete. Also, the word implies that evolution is a straight chain of events, when in fact the sequence of evolution is much more complicated.

The Fossil Record


Fossils are the remains or impressions of living things hardened in rock. All living organisms have not been preserved in the fossil record; in fact, most have not because very specific conditions must exist in order to create fossils. Even so, the fossil record provides a fairly good outline of human evolutionary history. The earliest humans were found in Africa, which is where much of human evolution occurred. The fossils of these early hominids, which lived 2 to 6 million years ago, all come from that continent. Most scientists believe early humans migrated out of Africa into Asia between 2 million and 1.7 million years ago, entering Europe some time within the past 1 million years. What follows are some highlights of the early human species that have been identified by scientists to date.

Australopithecines
An African apelike species evolved probably around 6 million years ago with two skeletal characteristics that set it apart from apes: small canine teeth (the teeth on either side of the four front teeth) compared to the long canines found in almost all other primates, and, most importantly, bipedalism or walking on two legs as the primary mode of locomotion. The name australopithecine means southern ape, in reference to South Africa where the first known fossils were found. Many more australopith fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa, in countries including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Chad. The very early years of the transition from ape to human, from 6 million to 4 million years ago, is poorly documented in the fossil record, but those fossils that have been discovered document the most primitive combinations of ape and human features. Fossils from different early australopith species that lived between 4 million and 2 million years ago show a variety of adaptations that mark this transition much more clearly. Among the genera that are included in early australopith species areSahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Aripithecus; a species of the genus Kenyanthropus; and four species of the genusAustralopithecus. Probably the best-known australopith specimen is Lucy, the partial skeleton of a female discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia. Lucy belongs to a species, Australopithicus afarensis, which thrived in eastern Africa between 3.9 million and 3 million years ago. Scientists have found several hundred A. afarensis fossils in Hadar. Lucy lived 3.2 million years ago. Another very exciting A. afarensis site was discovered in northern Tanzania at Laetoli. In addition to fossilized bones of A. afarensis, researchers in 1978 discovered trails of bipedal human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash over 3 million years ago. The footprints provided irrefutable evidence that australopiths regularly walked upright. By about 2.7 million years ago, so-called robust australopiths (in contrast to the earlier, gracile forms) had evolved, with wide molars and premolars and a facial structure that indicate that these robust australopiths chewed their food, primarily tough, fibrous plants, powerfully and for long periods. Several robust

species have been identified, and the last robust australopiths died out about 1.4 million years ago.

The Genus Homo


The genus Homo first evolved at least 2.3 million to 2.5 million years ago. The most significant difference between members of this genus and australopiths, with which they overlapped, was their significantly larger brains (about 30 percent larger, though still small compared to modern humans). Scientists divide the evolution of the modern human genus into three rough periods: early, middle, and late. Species of earlyHomo, among them Homo habilis, resembled australopiths in many distinct ways, but they had smaller teeth and jaws, more modern-looking feet, and hands capable of making tools. They probably lived from between 2.5 or 2.3 million and 1.6 million years ago. The middle Homo species, including Homo erectus, evolved anatomically to be more similar to modern humans but their brains were relatively small (though bigger than australopiths). They probably overlapped with earlier Homo species, as they developed perhaps between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. Homo erectus was a very successful species of the middle period; fossils have been found throughout Africa, Europe, and much of Asia, and the species may have survived for more than 1.5 million years. The final transition, from the middle to late periods, happened about 200,000 years ago. Late Homo species, includingNeanderthals and Homo sapiens, evolved large and complex brains, leading eventually to language, and developed culture as an increasingly important aspect of human life.

Homo sapiens
Scientists have dated the oldest known fossils with skeletal features typical of modern humans from 195,000 years ago. Early anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils have come from sites in Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Israel. Many scientists have therefore concluded that modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and began spreading to other parts of the world 90,000 years ago or a little earlier, although whether, how, why, and when this happened is still in dispute. And it was not until about 40,000 years ago that

anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, emerged. Since that time, human evolution has been primarily cultural as opposed to biological.

Putting Human Evolution in Perspective


Humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of Earths history. Scientists believe Earth itself is approximately 4.55 billion years old. The oldest known fossils are about 3.5 billion years old, although some scientists have discovered evidence that life may have begun nearly 4 billion years ago. Dinosaurs walked Earth between 230 and 65 million years ago. The oldest known humanlike fossil has been dated at 4.4 million years old, although another species, not yet confirmed as a hominid, has been dated at about 6 million years old. As mentioned earlier, scientists estimate that the earliest hominid species diverged from the ape lineage between 5 and 8 million years ago. And yet, the species to which we belong, Homo sapiens sapiens, is only about 40,000 years old.
Darwin's Theory of Evolution - The Premise Darwin's Theory of Evolution is the widely held notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor: the birds and the bananas, the fishes and the flowers -- all related. Darwin's general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) "descent with modification". That is, complex creatures evolve from more simplistic ancestors naturally over time. In a nutshell, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival -- a process known as "natural selection." These beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation. Over time, beneficial mutations accumulate and the result is an entirely different organism (not just a variation of the original, but an entirely different creature). Darwin's Theory of Evolution - Natural Selection While Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a relatively young archetype, the evolutionary worldview itself is as old as antiquity. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander postulated the development of life from non-life and the evolutionary descent of man from animal. Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy -- a plausible mechanism called "natural selection." Natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (it grew wings and learned to fly). Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually die out, leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species. Natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. Natural selection is the naturalistic equivalent to domestic breeding. Over the centuries, human breeders have produced dramatic changes in domestic animal populations by selecting individuals to breed. Breeders eliminate undesirable traits gradually over time. Similarly, natural selection eliminates inferior species gradually over time. Darwin's Theory of Evolution - Slowly But Surely... Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a slow gradual process. Darwin wrote, "Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps." [1] Thus, Darwin conceded that, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." [2] Such a complex organ

would be known as an "irreducibly complex system". An irreducibly complex system is one composed of multiple parts, all of which are necessary for the system to function. If even one part is missing, the entire system will fail to function. Every individual part is integral. [3] Thus, such a system could not have evolved slowly, piece by piece. The common mousetrap is an everyday non-biological example of irreducible complexity. It is composed of five basic parts: a catch (to hold the bait), a powerful spring, a thin rod called "the hammer," a holding bar to secure the hammer in place, and a platform to mount the trap. If any one of these parts is missing, the mechanism will not work. Each individual part is integral. The mousetrap is irreducibly complex. [4] Darwin's Theory of Evolution - A Theory In Crisis Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis in light of the tremendous advances we've made in molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics over the past fifty years. We now know that there are in fact tens of thousands of irreducibly complex systems on the cellular level. Specified complexity pervades the microscopic biological world. Molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote, "Although the tiniest bacterial -12 cells are incredibly small, weighing less than 10 grams, each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machinery built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world." [5] And we don't need a microscope to observe irreducible complexity. The eye, the ear and the heart are all examples of irreducible complexity, though they were not recognized as such in Darwin's day. Nevertheless, Darwin confessed, "To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." [6]

Introduction to Human Evolution

Human evolution
Human evolution is the lengthy process of change by which people originated from apelike ancestors. Scientific evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all people originated from apelike ancestors and evolved over a period of approximately six million years.

One of the earliest defining human traits, bipedalism -- the ability to walk on two legs -evolved over 4 million years ago. Other important human characteristics -- such as a large and complex brain, the ability to make and use tools, and the capacity for language -developed more recently. Many advanced traits -- including complex symbolic expression, art, and elaborate cultural diversity -- emerged mainly during the past 100,000 years.

Humans are primates. Physical and genetic similarities show that the modern human species,Homo sapiens, has a very close relationship to another group of primate species, the apes. Humans and the great apes (large apes) of Africa -- chimpanzees (including bonobos, or so-called pygmy chimpanzees) and gorillas -- share a common ancestor that lived between 8 and 6 million years ago. Humans first evolved in Africa, and much of human evolution occurred on that continent. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa.

Most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans. Scientists do not all agree, however, about how these species are related or which ones simply died out. Many early human species -- certainly the majority of them left no living descendants. Scientists also debate over how to identify and classify particular species of early humans, and about what factors influenced the evolution and extinction of each species.

Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, between 1.5 million and 1 million years. Species of modern humans populated many parts of the world much later. For instance, people first came to Australia probably within the past 60,000 years and to the Americas within the past 30,000 years or so. The beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12,000 years.

Paleoanthropology
Paleoanthropology is the scientific study of human evolution. Paleoanthropology is a subfield of anthropology, the study of human culture, society, and biology. The field involves an understanding of the similarities and differences between humans and other species in their genes, body form, physiology, and behavior. Paleoanthropologists search for the roots of human physical traits and behavior. They seek to discover how evolution has shaped the potentials, tendencies, and limitations of all people. For many people,

paleoanthropology is an exciting scientific field because it investigates the origin, over millions of years, of the universal and defining traits of our species. However, some people find the concept of human evolution troubling because it can seem not to fit with religious and other traditional beliefs about how people, other living things, and the world came to be. Nevertheless, many people have come to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence.

Early human fossils and archeological remains offer the most important clues about this ancient past. These remains include bones, tools and any other evidence (such as footprints, evidence of hearths, or butchery marks on animal bones) left by earlier people. Usually, the remains were buried and preserved naturally. They are then found either on the surface (exposed by rain, rivers, and wind erosion) or by digging in the ground. By studying fossilized bones, scientists learn about the physical appearance of earlier humans and how it changed. Bone size, shape, and markings left by muscles tell us how those predecessors moved around, held tools, and how the size of their brains changed over a long time. Archeological evidence refers to the things earlier people made and the places where scientists find them. By studying this type of evidence, archeologists can understand how early humans made and used tools and lived in their environments.

The process of evolution


The process of evolution involves a series of natural changes that cause species (populations of different organisms) to arise, adapt to the environment, and become extinct. All species or organisms have originated through the process of biological evolution. In animals that reproduce sexually, including humans, the term species refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed, resulting in fertile offspring -- that is, offspring themselves capable of reproducing. Scientists classify each species with a unique, two-part scientific name. In this system, modern humans are classified as Homo sapiens.

Evolution occurs when there is change in the genetic material -- the chemical molecule, DNA -- which is inherited from the parents, and especially in the proportions of different genes in a population. Genes represent the segments of DNA that provide the chemical code for producing proteins. Information contained in the DNA can change by a process known asmutation. The way particular genes are expressed that is, how they influence the body or behavior of an organism -- can also change. Genes affect how the body and behavior of an organism develop during its life, and this is why genetically inherited characteristics can influence the likelihood of an organisms survival and reproduction.

Evolution does not change any single individual. Instead, it changes the inherited means of growth and development that typify a population (a group of individuals of the same species living in a particular habitat). Parents pass adaptive genetic changes to their offspring, and ultimately these changes become common throughout a population. As a result, the offspring inherit those genetic characteristics that enhance their chances of survival and ability to give birth, which may work well until the environment changes. Over time, genetic change can alter a species' overall way of life, such as what it eats, how it grows, and where it can live. Human evolution took place as new genetic variations in early ancestor populations favored new abilities to adapt to environmental change and so altered the human way of life