Developmental biology and human evolution

C. Owen Lovejoy, Melanie A. McCollum, Philip L. Reno, Burt A. Rosenman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


Our understanding of developmental biology burgeoned during the last decade. This review summarizes recent advances, provides definitions and explanations of some basic principles, and does so in a way that will aid anthropologists in understanding their profound implications. Crucial concepts, such as developmental fields, selector and realizator genes, cell signaling mechanisms, and gene regulatory elements are briefly described and then integrated with the emergence of skeletal morphology. For the posteranium, a summary of events from limb bud formation, the appearance of anlagen, the expression of Hox genes, and the fundamentals of growth plate dynamics are briefly summarized. Of particular importance are revelations that bony morphology is largely determined by pattern formation, that growth foci such as physes and synovial joints appear to be regulated principally by positional information, and that variation in these fields is most likely determined by cis-regulatory elements acting on restricted numbers of anabolic genes downstream of selectors (such as Hox). The implications of these discoveries for the interpretation of both contemporary and ancient human skeletal morphology are profound. One of the most salient is that strain transduction now appears to play a much reduced role in shaping the human skeleton. Indeed, the entirety of "Wolff's Law" must now be reassessed in light of new knowledge about pattern formation. The review concludes with a brief discussion of some implications of these findings, including their impact on cladistics and homology, as well as on biomechanical and morphometric analyses of both ancient and modern human skeletal material.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-109
Number of pages25
JournalAnnual Review of Anthropology
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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