Evolutionary Notes: We are apes, whether we like it or not

CHARLES DARWIN shocked Victorian society by, as they thought, suggesting that "man is descended from the apes". What he really suggested, of course, is that humans and the hairy apes (the chimpanzee and gorilla) share a common ancestor, a creature more "ape-like" than "man-like". But now the argument has been turned on its head.

Both fossil evidence and studies of the molecules of heredity themselves - DNA - suggest not only that the common ancestor walked the Earth far more recently than Darwin could have imagined, but that it was more like a human being than like a chimp or gorilla. To use the same sloppy, but emotive, language used by those Victorians, the best evidence now is that "apes are descended from man".

The key word in that description of the common ancestor is "walked". Upright walking - proper upright walking - is a uniquely human characteristic. We know from the fossil evidence that our ancestors (including the famous Lucy) were walking upright by about five million years ago. Traditionally, this was regarded as long after the "man-ape split", which was set (on the basis of extremely limited fossil evidence, and a lot of wishful thinking) as about 15 million years ago. By the time Lucy walked the Earth, the story ran, humans had been evolving separately from other species for at least 10 million years.

But the molecular studies show that this is not the case. DNA analysis (just like the genetic fingerprinting that can be used to identify individual people) is now so accurate that it can tell us that we share 98.6 per cent of our genetic material with the hairy apes. This makes us extremely close relations - more closely related, for example, than the horse and the donkey, or sheep and goats. And because molecular biologists know how long it takes for changes to accumulate in the DNA, this also tells us that the man-ape split actually happened a bit less than five million years ago - crucially, after our ancestors on the human line had learned to walk upright.

Just after that time, the fossil evidence shows that the line that leads to us (Homo sapiens) shared the plains of Africa with two close relations, the Australo- pithecines, very similar species but with one larger than the other. On the traditional picture, they both vanished from the scene a couple of million years ago, leaving no descendants today. On the other hand, nobody has identified fossils ancestral to the modern chimpanzee and the gorilla - but they must have had ancestors! And they are very similar species, one larger than the other.

It scarcely takes a Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of what happened to the Australopithecines, once the evidence is presented like that. The new dating of the man-ape split matches up these fossils without descendants with the descendants without fossils. The Australopithecines, it seems, did not die out, but gave up the ability to walk upright and re-adapted to a life in the trees, becoming the chimpanzee and the gorilla. There were three closely related species around three to four million years ago, and there are three closely related species around today.

The techniques on which these conclusions are based are all well established, and entirely non-controversial. At least, they are not controversial as long as you don't apply them to human beings. But even today, more than a hundred years after Darwin, there are many people who still want to think that we are special, and somehow not subject to the same evolutionary rules as other animals. But they are wrong. Human beings are just one twig on the bush of evolution, growing right alongside the chimpanzee twig and the gorilla twig. It isn't that we are descended from the apes, or the apes from us. We are apes,whether we like it or not.

John Gribbin presents the Radio 4 series `Evolution After Darwin' at 9 pm on Wednesdays, starting 14 October

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn