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The naked ape as an evolutionary model, 50 years later

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image of Animal Biology

Evolution acts through a combination of four different drivers: (1) mutation, (2) selection, (3) genetic drift, and (4) developmental constraints. There is a tendency among some biologists to frame evolution as the sole result of natural selection, and this tendency is reinforced by many popular texts. “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris, published 50 years ago, is no exception. In this paper I argue that evolutionary biology is much richer than natural selection alone. I illustrate this by reconstructing the evolutionary history of five different organs of the human body: foot, pelvis, scrotum, hand and brain. Factors like developmental tinkering, by-product evolution, exaptation and heterochrony are powerful forces for body-plan innovations and the appearance of such innovations in human ancestors does not always require an adaptive explanation. While Morris explained the lack of body hair in the human species by sexual selection, I argue that molecular tinkering of regulatory genes expressed in the brain, followed by positive selection for neotenic features, may have been the driving factor, with loss of body hair as a secondary consequence.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Ecological Science, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands


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