Human Antiquity, By Feder And Park

1560 words - 6 pages

"Human Antiquity" by Feder and Park presents an overview of the fossil evidence of our evolutionary history, the current theories of species assignment, and the current theories of the driving forces behind the speciation of our family tree, for the most part. They do not go into great detail about the rationale behind the separation of all these fossils into separate species, other than to say that they are different or “different enough”. This makes it difficult for me to assess for myself exactly what it is that separates Homo rudolfensis from Homo habilis, for example. They do say that the majority of these categories are based on skeletal morphology, usually from specific traits seen in skulls. Which, as we have learned from Prost’s study in skeletal growth and development in his book "Who were the Neanderthals?", does not necessarily reflect genetic heritage and may just be examples of variation within a range of normal. This indicates, to me at least, that the task at hand is to determine exactly which traits are the synapomorphies we can use to distinguish separation. We must be sure that the synapomorphies we observe really are synapomorphies, the result of traits passed down genetically from a common ancestor. If the appearance of an adult skull is an indirect result of brain growth, then we must reassess the way we evaluate morphology in fossils. This is not as easy a task as looking at an object and seeing how it is different, but this should not come as a big surprise as the more we look at nature the more we find it is rarely “easy” to look at.
Feder and Park present a list of traits that are used by paleoanthropologists to distinguish the appearance of skeletal features and characterize these changes over time. These features are described as “degree of prognathism”, “protrudence of brow ridges”, “and degree of postorbital constriction”, and many others. These traits show clear changes over time in the fossil evidence. But what do they really mean and how were they driven by the forces of evolution? It would seem absurd to suggest that the size of brow ridges is subject to natural selection, unless possibly as some bizarre form of sexual selection. Saying that the large size of brow ridges in ancestral hominids is due to their benefit of shading the eyes from the sun, as Feder and Park say some suggest of Neanderthal brow ridges, is like grasping at straws in my opinion. If shade from the sun was truly advantageous and had a direct impact on fitness and was therefore acted upon by natural selection, it would follow that brow ridges would be of a much greater proportion to the point of appearing ridiculous to our eyes. If there is a benefit it is indirect. My point is all these changes in the morphology of the skull can be explained by changes in growth processes of organs that add a very real fitness advantage to the organism, exactly as Prost outlines. These specific organs, the brain most especially, are all in accordance with...

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