Overview of Human Origins
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Our species has been so successful in spreading over the world and changing it, sometimes more to our liking, that it is difficult to see ourselves in relation to other forms of life, to see ourselves "in nature." We have made ourselves different and set ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world. Perhaps for that reason alone, among many others, it is useful and instructive to try to understand our origins and to reconstruct our relationship to other life on the planet.

Since the great task of classifying the world's life forms according to their anatomical similarities got well under way during the late 18th century, the affinities between humans and the great apes have been recognized and pondered. In the mid nineteenth century, Charles Darwin postulated that apes and humans had a common ancestor. Until recently, however, we classified the apes as very distant cousins of human beings. The living great ape species include (from left to right) the gibbon; the orangutan; the gorrilla; the chimpanzee; the pigmy chimp or bonobo.


Gibbon
Orangutan
Gorilla
Chimpanzee
Pigmy Chimp

The pigmy chimp was only identified as a separate species in the 1930's.

More recently, genetic evidence from comparing our DNA with that of apes has led to new views of our degrees of relatedness. Asian apes--gibbons and orangutans--are, according to this line of evidence, not closely related to us or to the African apes. But human DNA is surprisingly similar to, and almost identical with, the DNA of chimps and gorillas; both ape species have 48 chromosomes, we have 46. Chimpanzees even share the same ABO blood types with humans, and thus appear to be very close kin to us.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, new discoveries continually force us to re-examine our origins, and to search for clues about our own nature, and what we share with other forms of life that exist on the Earth with us.


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