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Probable cause: Ability to find water key to homo sapiens' survival, ecologist says

Ability to find water key to homo sapiens' survival, ecologist says

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Contemporaries in the scientific world call Clive Finlayson a Neanderthal buff, acknowledging the ecologist's commitment to understanding why modern man won the evolutionary race over relatives with larger brains and larger statures.

Finlayson resides in Gibraltar, home to world-renowned archeological sites holding evidence of Neanderthals who lived there as recently as 30,000 years ago.

He has written extensively about homo sapiens' survival during the long and likely torturous process implied in Darwin's revolutionary ideas about the natural selection of species.

Perplexing questions of where we came from and what triggered our ascendancy over our Neanderthal cousins prompted Finlayson's critically-acclaimed book, The Humans Who Went Extinct (2009).

His most recent offering is a provocatively simple insight into human evolution, suggesting its driving force was the ability -- or luck -- of some primates to locate water during the Earth's many ecological changes.

Typical of the ongoing science-versus-religion battle, Finlayson's writing and research provides a sharp contrast with the less-cerebral but much more comfortable faith-based notion of Adam and Eve being our seminal kin.

To understand how our species fit into nature's selection hinges on the correct categorization of humans, and in The Improbable Primate, Finlayson shows why previous categories were likely incorrect.

He leans heavily on the findings of Ernst Mayer, one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists, who in 1942 first defined biological species as "groups of organisms capable of freely interbreeding with each other," and suggested that "never more than one species of man existed on the earth at any one time".

Finlayson uses Mayer's assumptions to argue human development began with the emergence of an erect, two-legged primate, homo erectus, nearly two million years ago, and that other human-like primates such as Neanderthals represent different lineages of the one species.

He disagrees with scientists who grant special species status to differing skeletal remains of erect primates, and believes differences in physical structure point to natural selection caused by geographical environments, and not to evidence of a different species.

The arrival of this fully upright primate was a significant departure from some earlier but similar tree-traversing models and, as Finlayson states in the book's title, it was an improbable model, fashioned by natural-selection pressures but remarkably capable of evolving in response to climatic and environmental changes.

Finlayson posits that throughout homo sapiens' subsequent lengthy evolution, evidence from artifacts and skeletal fragments found in Africa and Eurasia prove our early ancestors were "geographically variable," but probably "capable of reproducing with each other."

He reminds readers DNA testing has proven that evidence of inter-breeding with Neanderthals "was retained in our genome," and that another ancient lineage, the Denisovans from southeast Asia, are also "shown to have exchanged genes with our own."

In the preface to The Improbable Primate, Finlayson asserts that "water was a key ingredient in our evolution," then defends this hypothesis throughout the book's 11 chapters, using his own research and field work along with a well-documented array of comparative analyses by other scientists.

The result is a scholarly, revelatory, and contemplative chronology of human development that inquisitive readers should find fascinating.

One chapter is devoted to the relatively recent migration of humans into Australia approximately 50,000 years ago, what Finlayson calls "a unique opportunity to observe how humans took on the challenge of living in an arid world."

The Australian story effectively reminds readers these early humans had "an almost 2 million year old heritage of adaptation... and were well-versed in the art of finding water."

Finlayson's chronology of our evolution into modern humans requires an accurate recalling of taxonomic names of various species and lineages that comprise the story of homo sapiens.

This can detract from the book's main idea, which first appears in its subtitle, but an emphasis upon water, the undisputed precursor to life as we know it, should nevertheless attract a variety of readers.

 

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher, and finds some humour in now being an education Neanderthal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 G8

History

Updated on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 7:23 AM CDT: Formatting.

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