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Research highlight: Looking at what Darwin knew about primate relationships

I provide a context for Darwin's ideas about human and primate relationships and update Descent of Man with today's knowledge.

2 min read
Notebook page from Darwin showing his proposal of primate phylogeny
Darwin notebook page showing his proposal for primate phylogeny. 

Citation: Hawks, John. Ranking humanity among the primates: A reflection on Darwin’s Chapter 6. On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man. Pp. 160–182 in DeSilva, Jeremy M., ed., A Most Interesting Problem.
Human Evolution 150 Years After Darwin’s Descent of Man
. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Jerry DeSilva organized a book full of amazing scientists and writers to look at Darwin's Descent of Man on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Each chapter takes part of the original work and asks what we know today that Darwin did not know.

The result is a combination of today's best science and reflection on the shortcomings of nineteenth century biology.

In my case, I looked at the chapter in which Darwin presents his ideas about the relationships of primates and humans' place in nature. This chapter has what may be the most valuable prediction that Darwin made about human origins: That our lineage evolved in Africa. It also includes some of Darwin's most eloquent ideas about what the evolution of humans means for our understanding of ourselves.

I provide a current picture of primate relationships from comparison of genomes, as well as a synopsis of how biologists attained this understanding during the twentieth century. Part of my contribution examines the topic of classification, including Darwin's view that humans do not deserve a high-level taxonomic ranking. The dethroning of humanity from the higher rungs of classification continues today.

A Most Interesting Problem
Leading scholars take stock of Darwin’s ideas about human evolution in the light of modern science
Research by John HawksCharles Darwinhistory of biologyhistory of paleoanthropology
John Hawks

John Hawks Twitter

I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.


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