24 August 2012

The clumsy path to human evolution

I wanted to write about this some time ago when it hit the newswire, but it slipped my mind until now. Recently, paleoanthropologists have unearthed a skull that reveals an unexpected find -- a third species of humans that co-existed with homo erectus and homo habilis that has been coined homo floresiensis. Now, researchers are trying to understand to what extent these species interacted and interbred. The discovery isn't without controversy; some scientists are still debating whether this is indeed a new species, though the consensus seems to be that it is. It's also possible that yet a fourth species was present at the time.

This is a important and fascinating discovery because it helps dispense with the popular myth that the evolutionary path to modern humans was a smooth, linear process as it is sometimes visualized in the famous "ape to man" pictures:



But this is not how it happened. Evolution was a messy mishmash of species that led to us in fits and starts. One of the most important ideas embedded in evolution is that it dispenses with teleology, the idea that we are the 'goal' or pinnacle of life on Earth. If we rewound the clock of evolution, there's no guarantee that we would exist at all -- and in fact we likely would not. Evolution is not a process working toward a higher goal, or toward more complexity; it's simply the action of nonrandom natural selection acting on randomly varying genes. Were that not the case, and if evolution was the product of some divine 'designer', we would have every reason to infer that the designer is inefficient, sloppy, callous, and petulant as humanity arose in the dust of its extinct ancestors.


Full stories:
Early human ancestors had lots of company, fossils reveal
New Fossils Put Face on Early Human Ancestor
Fossils complicated human ancestor search

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