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
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on