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Genes and Brains Tell the Tale of Human Evolution Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Posted by Henry in Africa, anthropology, Australopithecus, evolution, genetics, homo erectus, homo sapien, human evolution, science, world.

This wonderful article titled “Beyond Stones & Bones” provides a great summary of recent discoveries to human evolution, in particular in the area of genetics and brain science.

The great tale of human evolution is just so fascinating. A vital part of it is the use of genetics to tell the story. A delightful example provided in this article is that of using body lice to infer when human lost their body hair for good. It goes like this: body lice live in cloths, so by the time they appeared, human would have started to cover themselves with some sort of clothing, which implies loss of body hair. Now body lice is evolved from head lice (which lives in our hair), so by comparing their DNA changes, which happens at regular rate, we could calculate when human started to lose body hair for good. Using this clever technique, scientists concluded that this happened about 114,000 years ago.

Human Evolution

Using DNA scientists have worked out that humans and chimps evolved apart around 5 to 6 millions years ago, supported by the fact that the climate became dramatically colder around that time. The recent discoveries of the HAR1 and PDYN genes shred some light on how the brain plays its part in the evolution. The HAR1 gene may “… likely helped the cortexes of our ancestors develop the elaborate folds characteristic of a complex brain”, and that the PDYN gene may have advanced brain chemistry.

The brain also provides interesting detective work into human evolution. Apart from the size of brains of various earlier species, the shape and structure also tell quite a bit. For example, Australopithecus africanus and paranthropus existed 2.5 millions years ago. The brain shape of africanus seems to support a more advanced development of an area of the brain called area 10, which plays a key-role in advance planning, decision making an taking initiatives – and this might explain why africanus evolved while paranthropus did not.

Another fascinating side of the article tells how the study of DNA seems to suggest that the “out of Africa” exodus is more complicated then previously thought. It seems like around 66,000 years ago, a very small group of modern Homo sapiens moved out Africa to other parts of the world, replacing other homo species that were already there (such as Neanderthals – these species were migrated out from Africa starting some 2 millions ago and evolved locally) – and this small group is our ancestor.

The article concludes with the mentioning of three more important genes: FOXP2 which plays a role in language and speech, appeared about 200,000 years ago when anatomically homo species evolved; ASPM which contributes to brain size appeared around 5,800 years ago when we started to build cities; and microcephalin which also affects brain size appeared 37,000 years ago when “symbolic thinking” was a major advanced in our ancestors.

This article is worth your time reading as it provides an interesting summary of recent advances in evolution coming from genetics and brain science. The great tale of human evolution continues…


1. "Out of Africa" Theory of Human Evolution Gets Further Confirmation! « On Evolution - Saturday, May 12, 2007

[…] in combination with an earlier report, further confirms that the Out of Africa hypothesis is becoming the firm theory of how humans have […]

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3. Universo Entrópico: “La Cuestión Evolutiva”.- « La Audacia de Aquiles - Sunday, February 15, 2009
4. Rock Tops Granite - Tuesday, December 29, 2009
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