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How generally applicable are the principles uncovered through the study of the evolution of hominids to the evolution of life in general?


The great triumph of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is its complete applicability to all life that has ever lived, and ever will live. This used to be a highly disputed point, and in fact lead to a profound professional separation between Darwin and the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace (Darwin, 1958). Wallace agreed with Darwin on the power and far-reaching consequences of their theory, except for humans. Wallace believed in the immutability of humans, because as far as he, and much of the society at the time believed, humans were special and had been made in God's image in their current form (Jones, 2000). Therefore, Wallace would have concluded that one could not apply the principles of human evolution to all other life, because humans did not evolve, and hominids are therefore also not related. Darwin was never comfortable with this interpretation since he insisted that the true power of their theory was in it's all encompassing nature and applicability to all life (Darwin, 1958, Darwin, 1901).

The principles uncovered in the above example of the disadvantages of too much adaptive specialisation is an applicable principle to life in general, since the archaeological recorded is littered with examples of species such a A. boisei, who have become so well adapted to a particular environment and resulted in that species becoming evolutionarily stale, and therefore become extinct (Dawkins, 2004).

Adaptive radiation is a further example of how applicable the study of hominid evolution is to the evolution of life in general. The way hominids have radiated and diversified has not been different to the evolutionary radiation of other species. Some of the specifics are a little more unique, such as the effects that bipedalism has had on the whole Hominidae family. There are however, other aspects of adaptive radiation which are not so specific to hominids, such as the increased encephalisation. Work done by Robin Dunbar and colleagues for example, has shown that the increase in brain size that hominids have undergone is similar to that of all ape and monkey species, whereby brain size is a function of group size (Dunbar, 2004, Dunbar, 1996). This is one of many examples where due to the understandable interest and intensive study of our own family tree, other areas of evolutionary exploration will stand to gain from what is learned of the principles of hominid evolution.

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