The genius of our ancestors


I get this a lot:
“If people evolved from apes…. why are there still apes?”
– The obvious problem here is with the word “still”. It presumes a continuation of the same, unchanged genetic make-up, untouched by the requirement to adapt. This is wrong. The apes you see today, are not the same apes as those 1,000,000 years ago. Apes today are as evolved as we are. As are slugs, spiders, and cats. They all required different methods of survival based on different circumstances; climate, terrain, predators etc. Apes today are evolved as a different branch from a common ape-like ancestor, shared with humanity. We shot off over millions of years, in all different routes. The ape-like ancestors that broke from the forested areas of Africa, over the savannah became so far apart from the ape-like ancestors still within the forested areas (body structure became different – those who left the forests no longer needed upper body strength in the capacity that those still in the forests did…. and so that trait was no longer necessary for survival), that they became a different species altogether. They slowly, and for many reasons, diverted to all different lines that eventually became homosapien…. human.
And the history of humanity, has been fascinating.

The first thing to note is, there is no real difference between “micro” and “macro” evolution. Macro evolution is simply the accumulation of adaptations over a vast scope of time, that eventually produce different species from the ancestor. It is a term Creationists use for no real purpose. They appear to be under the rather odd impression, that we believe there is an instant in time, when a chimp throwing feces, becomes a man in a suit, looking up mortgage rates; this is their “macro evolution” claim. It doesn’t exist. Macro-evolution, is simply micro-evolution played out over hundreds of thousands of years. If you discuss this with Creationists, they move the goal posts. It’s a pointless discussion. ‘Creation Science’ is not valid, it isn’t respectable, and no credible biologist nor geologist takes it seriously.

Others ask “Where is your evidence?” Well, that’s a massive question, because we have such a plethora of different strands of evidence. For example, we know that if you were to lay The analogous chromosomes 2p and 2q taken from great apes end to end, they would create an identical structure, to the human chromosome 2, including the remains of the ends of the two chromosomes fusing in the middle, to show that somewhere along the line, the two chromosomes became one, and thus, became human. It is a perfect match. I cannot even begin to describe how unlikely this is, had it not been for evolution. I wont get into the evidence from the fossil record, needless to say, the painstaking work that went into progressing the fossil record, recording it, and proving as we’d expect to see through evolution… that the oldest layers of the Earth’s surface, contain early, less evolved species, whilst the top layers, predictably, contain more advanced species, is exactly as we’d expect to see. It is the reason you will not find a modern rabbit skeleton, in an older fossil layer. It is a perfect record, with no reason to doubt its validity. There is also a lot of evidence for speciation in the fossil record…. Creationists don’t accept this, for some odd reason (yet, they do unquestioningly accept the story of dust man, rib lady, and talking fire bush). We also know that modern biology, medicine, zoology, and a list of other subjects are predicated on evolution being true.

We also hear the oft-repeated “There are no transitional fossils!” line from Creationists. I don’t know where they get this idea. The fossil record is full of transitional fossils. For example, Tiktaalik roseae is a transitional form from Acanthostega gunnari to Eusthenopteron foordi. One of many, many examples of “missing links”.

And so, given that it is as close to fact as possible, I am often struck by the degrading rhetoric aimed at our ancestors, that those with faith feel the need to vocalise whenever the subject of evolution is brought up. It is of course a defence mechanism from those who are aware that their myths are based on weak conjecture and second hand nonsense, from period of human history in which we understood nothing.
Here is an example of that defence mechanism:


We owe our ancestors everything.

I am unable to understand how we could degrade their memory by evoking the idea they were simply dumb apes. I shall now take a look at what we have our Primate ancestry to thank for. Our actual story; of survival, of hardship, of innovation and inquiry and progression and evolution is far more spectacular than that offered by religion, which is nothing but the creation of slaves compelled to obey a dictator. Whilst aspects of religion have given us wonderful works of art and of poetry, and have built the most spectacular buildings, and inspired great philosophical inquiry, the most devious aspects have promoted tyranny and oppression of our natural state as rational and progressive beings.
We insult our ancestors, when we imagine them as slaves to a celestial dictator; depriving them of their hard earned place in the wonderful history of man.

If we take our ancestry as humans back around 2 million years ago, we see our earliest known ancestor from the Homo genus; Homo Habilis. In the wonderful book ‘Adam’s Tongue; How Humans made Language, How Language made Humans’, Derek Bickerton suggests that Habilis developed a sort of proto-language, between great ape sounds and modern human communication, to aid them in their scavenging techniques.
Habilis, it is suggested, was far more advanced that Chimpanzee at the time. There is evidence to show that Habilis mastered the use of Oldowan stone tools. Excavations from the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia suggest that the tools were used to cut through bone and plants. What a wonderful innovation, a testament to the power of the evolving mind, and the nature of our ancestors to not just survive, but improve their standard of living. Niche-construction working hand in hand with natural selection.
Here is Homo Habilis:


We owe developments in language, and tools to Homo Habilis. Most of all, we owe our survival as a species. At the same time that Habilis existed, similar Homo-like creatures fought for the same ground, and food alongside them. Australopithecus boisei is a member of the extinct Paranthropus genus. Because of Habilis use of tools among other superior elements, Australopithecus boisei eventually died out, whilst Habilis went on to continue the line of human evolution. Without Habilis, it is unlikely that we would exist today.

Homo Ergaster (about a million years after Habilis) seems to be the direct ancestor of modern Homo Sapiens (us) that was first to use symbolic communication (a sort of precursor to art), similar but obviously less complex, than we today. Paleanthropologists Richard Leakey, Kamoya Kimeu and Tim White named Ergaster, after the Greek word for “Work man”. This naming reflects the advanced tools found with the bones of members of the Egaster family. The Saharan Acheulean handaxe is a spectacular hand axe type tool made and perfected by Ergaster. The handaxe seems to have been used to kill their captured animal, and skinning it for food; it is an important technological development, when we consider that it is also true that Ergaster had began to harness the use of fire. Egaster is also said to have had powerful legs, making them extremely fast runners.
We have Ergaster to thank for sophisticated tools, and use of fire, and for their speed, for survival.
Here is Homo Ergaster:

Homo Heidelbergensis may possibly be the direct descendent of Homo Ergaster (for those who consider Ergaster to be different from Erectus….this is contentious). Somewhere along the line, Homo Heidelbergensis became Homo Sapien, others became Neanderthal. Studies show that Homo Sapien, and Homo neanderthalensis shared a common ancestor around 400,000 years ago. This puts that common ancestor in the range of Heidelgensis, and their African branch becoming modern Human.
Here is an easy way to describe the digression:
– It is safe to conclude that the transition from Homo Heidelbergensis to modern human, began between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. So, we should probably look at the developments that we inherited from Heidelbergensis.
It is thought that Heidelbergensis was the first of our ancestors to bury their dead. It is also the case that Heidelbergensis developed a form of language more advanced that Ergaster, which helped it develop a more ‘human’ like social situation and more sophisticated culture, through language. Between the divergence of Homo Heidelbergensis to Neanderthal, and the divergence to Homo Sapiens, that period may have been key to the victory of Homo Sapiens over Neanderthal some 30,000 years ago.
We have Heidelbergensis to thank for developing more sophisticated language, and sense of social structure.
Here is Homo Heidelbergensis:

Around 71,000 years ago, just after Homo Sapiens left Africa, it has been suggested that due to the eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra, modern human races might have diverged as a result of being cut off from populations of other modern humans. It is estimated that the eruption, leading to famine and other survival problems may have caused our numbers to drop to less than 15,000. The size of a small town. And yet, here we are. Diverse races, and the dominant species.

It is around this time that we start to develop more impressive tools. Tools that Neanderthal hadn’t developed. Our tools were constructed out of more than one material. We manufactured different categories of tools, which of course requires a stronger form of communication, to teach.

As Homo Sapiens left Asia for Europe, some 45,000 years ago, and about 20 – 60,000 years after leaving Africa, they soon discovered that Neanderthal – with their bigger brain, more powerful figure, and more adapt understanding of the landscape of Europe – had beat them to it by about 100,000 years. It is pretty evident from studies over the years that Neanderthal and Homo Sapien co-existed for thousands of years. This baffles and amazes me. A different species of human, living side by side with us for thousands of years. Amazing.
There are many theories as to why Homo Sapiens out lasted Neanderthal. The suggestion that Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, is too contentious to discuss at length. The argument goes back and fourth every couple of years. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory issued a statement after their study in 2006, to say that there was no interbreeding. Yet, work by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute concluded:

“The proportion of Neanderthal-inherited genetic material is about 1 to 4 percent. It is a small but very real proportion of ancestry in non-Africans today”.

– It is possible that interbreeding occurred just as Homo Sapiens left Africa. But other explanations exist as to why we share about 1 to 4% of our DNA with Neanderthal. However, there is too great a dissimilarity between Neanderthal and Homo Sapien mitochondrial DNA to suggest that Neanderthal were simply absorbed into the modern human.
One of the ways Homo Sapiens differed to Neanderthal, was in how we dealt with extreme climate change. Around 50,000 years ago, right up until the suggested date for extinction of Neanderthal – 30,000 years ago, it is suggested that the Earth experienced hectic climate change that Neanderthal were not able to cope with. They were built for woodlands, and colder temperatures. The fluctuations would have caused changes to the landscape and to animal life, that did not work with traditional Neanderthal ways of hunting and gathering. Neanderthal continue to move north, as the woodland recedes north. They simply couldn’t adapt with the change. Homo Sapiens were less carnivorous than Neanderthal, and could easily adapt our eating habits to suit the climate changes.

Let us also not forget that to survive, a Neanderthal would have required double the amount of calories per day, than Homo Sapiens, due to their huge stature.

We also know that the Neanderthals, whilst having larger cranial capacity, were not too great with language. Whilst they developed language, it was short and slow. It was far less advanced than Homo Sapiens. One reason for this is that Neanderthal had a tongue that was positioned too high in the mouth to produce many different sounds. Their language, would have been a relatively small variety of sounds, and so given that technological advancement requires language to progress, Neanderthal were at a massive disadvantage in comparison to Homo Sapiens.

Researchers Jill A. Rhodes and Steven Churchill, evolutionary anthropologists, writing their findings of a long study, in the Journal of Human Evolution argue that Neanderthal could not throw particularly well and so relied on up close forms of hunting. Suddenly, Modern man bursts onto the scene, fighting for the same food supply, and with a developed bow and arrow, and long range spears to throw, along with a more adapted form of communication. Neanderthal were at a disadvantage. They were better suited to ambush conditions of woodland, given there reliance on meat. The dramatic climate change would have slowly taken its toll, which explains why we don’t see a sudden extinction. It happens slowly, over a long period of time.

Homo Sapiens were simply far greater at adapting to climate change, than Neanderthal.

We have a lot to thank our “Ape” ancestors for. They set the first bricks of human ingenuity, and they built upon it every step of the way. The fought through the most atrocious and frightening conditions. They rationalised, and they innovated. They domesticated nature. They utilised fire, and tools. They came to the brink of extinction, and survived. They communicated between one another. They created, and they educated. Their struggle simply to survive is the backbone that allows for the deluded religious luxury of remarking on Twitter about how embarrassing and dreadful their legacy is.

10 Responses to The genius of our ancestors

  1. Great post! I’ve always felt a bit odd trying to absorb the concept that we come from apes, but I don’t discount it. As a child, I’d ask teachers (because there was no way I could ask my JW mother), “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still so many apes on the planet? And if they’re our ancestors, then why do we keep them in cages?”

  2. The fallacy there is presuming apes today, are the same as apes 1,000,000 years ago. They are just as evolved as we are today. We have a common ancestor. It isn’t the same thing.

  3. You have to love Sharifa, the typical DNA challenged human.

  4. Wild Juggler says:

    I have no problem calling myself an ape – chimps are closer to us than they are to gorillas. I think my juggling ability owes a lot to my ape-like ancestors. They must have been master fruit-pickers and expert tree-climbers.

    I get tired of having to explain to evolution-deniers that we are not descended from any modern apes but some now long extinct ape-like ancestors.

  5. Matt Thomas says:

    ….Or you could just believe in Adam and Eve and that, paraphrasing Bill Hicks, a sneaky God has been creeping around at night burying fosils to ‘test people’s faith’.

    It is crazy that there are still people out there that deny evolution altogether, let alone our progression through the ages.

    Another quality blog, the increased regularity with continued good standard of content is impressive.

  6. good stuff! indeed the constant “why are there still……?” argument really shows an ignorance of even basic scientific inquiry…..that said…. there ARE species around today that are pretty much identical to their distant ancestors of millions of years ago and the reason is simple….their environments have not particularly changed and thus there has been no pressure on them to adapt to new conditions…. On the demise of neanderthals, there is another interesting thing, they would seem to have been much more adapted to colder climates than homo sapiens and they retreated along with the ice shelfs that were their hunting grounds

  7. neanderthaldan says:

    Thanks for this, it is annoying that the same questions are being asked over and over. I know it’s hard to simplify this subject into a small piece that less scientifically literate people can understand without sounding condescending. I just hope the people who ask the question really want an answer and read through the whole essay.

  8. Reblogged this on Jerry Welch and commented:
    We do owe our ancestors everything– One of the biggest driving forces in writing my latest book “A Day of LIfe: Moments in Time” is the fact that it is worth examining our past to make sense of the present!

  9. Vic Marquis says:

    This says it all. If you can’t understand after this….hmmm.…/richard_dawkins_explains_why_there_w...
    by Dan Colman – in 1,145 Google+ circles
    Jun 19, 2012 – Richard Dawkins Explains Why There Was Never a First Human Being … The answer to your question is biological evolution working through …

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