Why Evolution Matters in Anthropology?

What is Evolution?

Hominid evolution image, Pinterest

The concept of evolution is central to biology and anthropology. And it is mandatory for biological anthropology. Humans evolved from the same ancestor as apes and are still evolving, no?

To understand human origins and human biology, we need to understand how evolution affects us.

What we understand as evolution (that always controversial subject) is the change of characteristics of species over several generations. It relies (mostly) on the mechanism of natural selection. When we talk about evolution we are talking about living organisms developing from simpler forms.

In short, evolution is a process. Evolution is about change.

Conversely, there is the controversial theory of species devolution (also called backward evolution) in which species revert to a more primitive form. This theory is rejected by most biologists and anthropologists.

There are four principles of evolution: variation, inheritance, selection, and time.

Australopithecus, image: Concepto

Likewise, there are three types of evolution:

  • Divergent Evolution – accumulation of differences within a species. This happens when there is a geographical barrier and species differ. For example, African elephants are larger, with bigger ears compared to Asian elephants. And the females have tusks, unlike the Asian ones.
  • Convergent Evolution – independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or epochs in time. For example, dolphins and sharks.
  • Parallel Evolution – the similar development of a trait in distant species that are not closely related. For example, the extinct Tasmanian wolf looks like the European wolf but is not related since they evolved in different continents and periods.

The concept of evolution is not as complicated as it seems. Over time, given pressures from the environment, species adapt and develop new traits which they pass to the next generations until the offspring diverges from the original species.

Neither should evolution be controversial given the immense fossil and genetic evidence supporting it. Right?

Although given the reluctance of certain sectors to teach evolution, it saddens me to think the only way kids get exposed to evolution is through the pokémon games which are not scientifically accurate.

Evolution and Anthropology

we are the only survivors of the Homo genus. Image: XL Semanal

We previously mention briefly how evolution was one of the central concepts of anthropology, the study of humans (the other central concept is cultural relativism). Indeed, to understand human biology, what makes us humans, we need to understand our origins. We did not come fully formed.

Humans appear on Earth around six million years ago. We evolved from Homo erectus. And contrary to popular misconception, we did not evolve from monkeys or apes. We do share a common ancestor but that was several millions of years ago.

Moreover, although we are the only species left in the hominid family (all our other ancestors became extinct), anthropologists also study them. This subfield is called paleoanthropology.

Neanderthals and Denisovans (two species we share DNA), Ardipithecus, Homo habilis, Australopithecines, Rudolfensis, Ergaster, etc., they are all subject of study. From them, we learn what worked and did not in human evolution.

Anthropologists also study our closest evolutionary relatives still alive, primates. Primatology is a subfield of biological anthropology. From primates, we learn and seek clues about how our ancestors organized and socialized.

photo credit: University of Oxford

Furthermore, there is a subfield of biological anthropology called evolutionary anthropology. This is the interdisciplinary study of the evolution of human physiology and behavior and the relation between hominids and non-hominid primates.

The concept of evolution is essential to anthropology as a discipline. To understand humans, to truly comprehend them, we need to know how and why we became humans. Furthermore, we need to learn how to avoid extinction.

Consider this, all our closest relatives, even Neanderthals who were arguably stronger and smarter than us, became extinct. In fact, about a quarter of a million species ever on earth are extinct. Unlike plants and animals, we can take steps to avoid such fate.

Again, an anthropological study can help. Here is how.

Why Evolution Matters in Anthropology?

image: Flickr, National Library of Edinburgh

Evolution is the reason behind the diversity of life on our planet.

From getting to know better our ancestors to understand how the ecology, culture, technology, and environment shape us, anthropology has much to say. If we have not evolved we would probably become extinct too.

Besides, it is hard to argue with the fossil evidence. That we evolved is undeniable. And to those evolution deniers, I have some news: we are still evolving.

What would future humans look like? No one knows. Still, I predict climate change, nanotechnology, and robotics will influence what we will become.

Stanford anthropology professor Richard Klein, photo: Stanford Review

Our bodies will adapt to new environments created by the harsher climate. Similarly, we are getting too comfortable wearing technology. How soon before we become cyborgs? Or something else? A new species?

Evolution matters because humans are not static. We keep changing our environment (we are living in the Anthropocene age) and we keep transforming our culture. Technology evolves, society evolves, so does our bodies.

Adapting and surviving different environments is what we do best. We left the African savannah and spread to Southwest Asia first, then Europe, until we reached the Americas from Alaska to Patagonia. We even reached Australia and the Pacific islands with rudimentary ships.

From the artics to the desserts, from the tundra to the jungles, from the highest mountains to the tropics, humans have adapted to all of them. We are a resourceful species.

We are still evolving! What would future humans look like?    image: Concepto

Hence why evolution is central to an anthropological perspective. If we remain unchangeable there is no point in studying us. And yet, we refuse to stand still.

Evolution matters because it keeps us alive.

To those people who do not believe in evolution I have one thing to say–be glad we evolved and are still evolving. It is the only reason we are not extinct today. Our Neanderthal, Florensiensis, and Denisovan cousins wished they would have evolved and adapted to their environment as we did.

Reader, how do you think humans will evolve in the future?


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March 2023