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We Came From an Ape

October 1, 2017

At lunch recently, a woman asked: do you believe we came from apes?  Of course, this is a well-known phrase, designed to provoke outrage.  Two of us responded.  We both said almost the same thing, that the answer was yes, but that it happened millions of years ago.

When I thought about this question later, I realized that it was not literally true.  In fact, the question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution.

There are many misunderstandings about evolution.  Present-day gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are not our ancestors.  They evolved just like we did.  More that five million years ago, apes and humans had a common ancestor.  At that time, the line of descent split into two lines.  Both apes and humans  evolved since that time, in different directions.  Our common ancestor was part way between an ancient ape and an ancient human.  It wasn’t an ape as we know them today.

There’s also no chain.  The great chain of being has been cited many times.  This is another misunderstanding of evolution.  Branches in a bush is a better metaphor than a chain or a ladder.  At times, many similar species lived side-by-side.  Some species became extinct.  Some species lived.  Some lines of descent split into two lines, just like branches in a bush.

There’s also no direction to evolution.  This is another misunderstanding.  Evolution follows the law of chance.  Creatures with large brains, like us, are not the pinacle of evolution.  Survival is all that’s required.  There are many strategies for survival.  Large brains is only one strategy.  Every living creature that we see today has found a strategy for survival.  Some, like us, have been successful.  Others have failed, sometimes a result of our success and our proliferation.  That’s life.


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