History of ideas (Human evolution )

The word homo, the name of the biological genus to which humans belong, is Latin for “human”. It was chosen originally by Carolus Linnaeus in his classification system.

Fossil Hominid Evolution Display at The Museum of Osteology, Oklahoma City, USA.

Carolus Linnaeus and other scientists of his time also considered the great apes to be the closest relatives of humans due to morphological and anatomical similarities. The possibility of linking humans with earlier apes by descent only became clear after 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This argued for the idea of the evolution of new species from earlier ones. Darwin’s book did not address the question of human evolution, saying only that “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

The first debates about the nature of human evolution arose between Thomas Huxley and Richard Owen. Huxley argued for human evolution from apes by illustrating many of the similarities and differences between humans and apes, and did so particularly in his 1863 book Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. However, many of Darwin’s early supporters (such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Lyell) did not agree that the origin of the mental capacities and the moral sensibilities of humans could be explained by natural selection. Darwin applied the theory of evolution and sexual selection to humans when he published The Descent of Man in 1871.

A major problem was the lack of fossil intermediaries. It was only in the 1920s that such fossils were discovered in Africa. In 1925, Raymond Dart described Australopithecus africanus. The type specimen was the Taung Child, an Australopithecine infant discovered in a cave. The child’s remains were a remarkably well-preserved tiny skull and an endocranial cast of the individual’s brain. Although the brain was small (410 cm³), its shape was rounded, unlike that of chimpanzees and gorillas, and more like a modern human brain. Also, the specimen showed short canine teeth, and the position of the foramen magnum was evidence of bipedal locomotion. All of these traits convinced Dart that the Taung baby was a bipedal human ancestor, a transitional form between apes and humans.

The classification of humans and their relatives has changed considerably over time. The gracile Australopithecines are now thought to be ancestors of the genus Homo, the group to which modern humans belong. Both Australopithecines and Homo sapiens are part of the tribe Hominini. Recent data suggests Australopithecines were a diverse group and that A. africanus may not be a direct ancestor of modern humans. Reclassification of Australopithecines that originally were split into either gracile or robust varieties has put the latter into a family of its own, Paranthropus. Taxonomists place humans, Australopithecines and related species in the same family as other great apes, in the Hominidae.


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