Thursday, February 14, 2008

Common Ancestors

At least once a day, I receive in my email one of those endlessly forwarded editions of one witticisms. They seem make their way from inbox to inbox like the common cold goes through an elementary school. I rarely take the time to read them anymore, and as a rule, I forward them only very selectively, when I have something to say about them. And though in some ways it will seem like a tired subject, I received one yesterday that I’m compelled to respond to, if only because it’s an idea I hear a little too often. What I read, partway through an otherwise innocuous list of queries about life, was this:

> If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

I can answer this one!

Because we didn't evolve from apes. We evolved from a common ancestor with apes, and subsequently filled differing, though overlapping ecological niches, both through a process of geographical isolation, and a process called punctuated evolution. Since humans have only been around for a few million years, it can hardly be said that that apes will survive our taking over of those ecological niches. We're competing directly with them for habitat, to say nothing of hunting them for meat or amusement, and we're winning on both counts. Neanderthals also evolved from those same common ancestors, and lived in competition with Homo Erectus (our ancestors), and Homo Sapiens (us). Neanderthals could probably offer you some insight into living in competition with Home Sapiens, but of course, they're extinct. In fact, at one time there may have been as many as five closely-related species of human in direct competition with each other. We are all that remain.

The process of evolution is neither as simple, nor as linear as the popular conception depicts. But if you take the time to study and understand it more fully, it's complexity is matched only by it's beauty.