Without question, human ancestry has been and will remain the focus of public attention paid to evolutionary biology. And for at least the last 100 years, one of the popular concerns has been finding “the missing link”, that fossil or set of fossils that connect modern humans with more apelike ancestors. One such case, that of Piltdown Man, was shown to be a fraud nearly sixty years ago, however new possibilities continue to arise .
One of the most recent was “Ida” (Darwinius masillae), a 47 million year old fossil found in Germany, preserved in a private collection for many years, and then carefully analyzed and proposed as possibly one of the earliest known ancestors of modern man by Jorn Hurum and his colleagues in the Public Library of Science (PLOS).
Normally, the publication of a peer-reviewed publication does not generate a lot of publicity, however in this case, all bets were off. The journal that published the paper, PLOS One, went to some effort to stage manage the release, as they described in a cover piece included with the electronic edition containing the paper.
As the editors anticipated (and the authors seem to have planned – see the conflict of interest disclosure that was added subsequent to publication), the paper garnered considerable attention, with news stories in outlets ranging from The Guardian to The New York Daily News. It became the subject of a commercial documentary, a portion of which can be seen below. In all cases, the initial reaction seemed to be that indeed “The Missing Link” had been found.
This is one of several panel discussions on evolutionary topics that have been held at Cornell University as part of recent Darwin Days. Two of my good friends and colleagues, Warren Allmon and Will Provine, have prominent roles. As you watch this, pay particular attention to their points of view, in particular with respect to the status of eugenics thinking in today’s world. Is eugenics an historical relic, to be studied as such (Allmon), or is it in fact alive and well in the world of medical genetics (Provine)?
Professor Stearns takes an interesting approach to the subject, in that he discusses random changes in allele frequencies not in the context of their effects within populations (what he calls microevolutionary change), but rather how these processes relate to macroevolutionary processes, ones that we can use to make inferences about phylogeny. Pay particular attention to how he portrays the role played by random factors in populations and evolution, as well as the relationship between population size and the probability of fixation of new neutral mutations.
From the Stanford series Darwin’s Legacy, historian Janet Browne focuses on the reactions to Darwin that immediately followed the publication of The Origin of Species. How do they compare with current controversies regarding evolution, religion and society?
This site contains supplementary material for students in my section of Zoology 206 at Miami University. It is designed to allow them to explore some of the most recent developments in evolutionary biology and to easily access material that may provide further insight into the topics covered in class. Comments are welcome throughout.
Note that this is not the official site for the course. Announcements, assignments, etc. will be posted on the course site in Niikha.