Observed and expected variation in hominid evolution

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All of the major groups of fossil hominids (australopithecines, pithecanthropines, Neandertals, and early sapiens) were discovered by 1925, and therefore prior to the formulation of the synthetic theory of evolution that revolutionized the concept of the species in systematics. While these fossil finds were being made the framework for their interpretation included several assumptions: (1) that the number of living hominoid species was great, and that intraspecific variation was slight (authoritative sources recognized as many as 14 separate species of chimpanzees and 15 species of gorillas); (2) that the timescale of human evolution was brief (measured in tens or hundreds of thousands of years). As a result of these premises the consensus that hominid evolution was characterized by a large number of sympatric and synchronic species was virtually inevitable. In contrast, recent molecular studies demonstrate that genetic diversity among recent hominoids is so slight that even humans and chimpanzees differ at only about 1% of the loci that have been sampled so far; evidently, very small genetic differences can produce rather great contrasts in morphology. At the same time, geological break-throughs have increased the timescale for human evolution to several million years. It is concluded that morphological differences among fossil hominids, even if very appreciable and complex, do not necessarily reflect a great degree of either genetic or taxonomic diversity. Potential effects of evolutionary change through time should be incorporated into models of hominid evolution as a means of assessing the minimum number of lineages required to account for observed variations among hominid specimens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)467-475
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 1 1976

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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