How Evolution Gave Us The Human Edge

Discover what's made us the most versatile and powerful species on Earth.

 

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Photo slideshow: pre-human species

Un-Natural Selection: Human Evolution's Next Steps()  

Sickle-cell and normal red blood cells

September 6, 2010 Millions of years ago, the natural environment was shaping us into the species we are now and humans evolved by natural selection.  But as humans continue to evolve, we've turned the notion of natural selection on its head. Nature isn't the only force that picks the genes. Humans are doing it too.

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Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?()  

A male musk ox stands in a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, Alaska.

September 6, 2010 Humans are still evolving, but cultural evolution is far outpacing genetic evolution. Our environment and technology are changing so rapidly that genetic adaptations can't keep up. So we're adapting by learning new things and passing that knowledge onto the next generation.

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Our Storied Lives: Narrating, Navigating Adversity()  

Shaun Parker in the Hollywood Hills near Los Angeles.

August 31, 2010 Shaun Parker moved from Menasha, Wis., to Los Angeles to pursue his dream to work in film. After nearly two decades of setbacks and stalling, Parker began crafting a new life story — one that got a kick-start with an appearance at the storytelling series Mortified.

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Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?()  

Sun rays from behind clouds.

August 30, 2010 In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And believing in God may have been evolutionarily advantageous to humans as it provided a framework for promoting social good.

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Our Storied Lives: The Quest For 'Something More'()  

Shaun Parker in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles

August 30, 2010 Humans have been telling stories ever since we began talking. This ability to craft narratives helps us shape our lives and our interactions with others and, says one neurologist, pushes us to excel and give life meaning.

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Autism Gives Woman An 'Alien View' Of Social Brains()  

Lisa Daxer walks across the Wright State University campus.

August 23, 2010 Autism has made biomedical engineering student Lisa Daxer feel like an outsider. "I have a weird brain," she says. But it has also helped her become something of an expert on the social behavior of people without autism.

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Teary-Eyed Evolution: Crying Serves A Purpose()  

A Spanish soccer supporter cries during a world cup game

August 23, 2010 We need tears to keep our eyes lubricated, but why should streams of salty drops spew forth from our eyes, blurring our vision and making our eyes puffy when we get emotional? Throughout evolution, tears may have added a new dimension to human communication.

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Monkey Business: Fairness Isn't Just A Human Trait()  

Liam, a capuchin monkey

August 16, 2010 Humans and monkeys share more than physical evolutionary heritage — they share many behavioral traits, too, like the concepts of fairness and curiosity. Monkeys, like humans, are able to recognize when they receive less than someone else.

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Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved()  

Alex the Parrot

August 16, 2010 Humans evolved a brain with an extraordinary knack for language, but just how and when we began using language is still largely a mystery. Early human communication may have been in sign language or song, and scientists are studying other animals to learn how human language evolved.

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From Grunting To Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk()  

A 1930 anatomical diagram shows a vertical cross-section of the human head.

August 11, 2010 Chimps and humans both have lungs, throats, voice boxes, tongues and lips. But unlike chimps, humans have a vocal tract that allows us to do everything from talk on the phone to sing opera.

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When Did We Become Mentally Modern?()  

Ascent of Man Illustration

August 9, 2010 Our ability to think in symbols — the notion that objects can represent ideas — is one of the key traits that make us human. We weren't always symbolic thinkers, and scientists are trying to figure out when our minds evolved this ability.

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From Primitive Parts, A Highly Evolved Human Brain()  

Brain MRI

August 9, 2010 Our remarkable brain has evolved from very primitive parts. From one perspective, it's a masterpiece. From another, it's just 3 pounds of inefficient jelly. But out of all that jelly, human traits emerge, including observational learning and high-level cognition.

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Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter()  

Comparison of chimpanzee, A. afarensis and human denition.

August 2, 2010 Our earliest ancestors ate a diet of raw food that required immense energy to digest. But once we started eating nutrient-rich meat, our energy-hungry brains began growing and our guts began to shrink. Cooking that food not only made it safer, but also easier to digest.

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Armed And Deadly: Shoulder, Weapons Key To Hunt()  

Human shoulder

August 2, 2010 The shoulder altered the course of human evolution by giving us survival skills we never could have imagined without it. The shape of the joint allowed us to develop tools and weapons we could throw, like rocks and spears. And advanced weaponry meant better meals.

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A Handy Bunch: Tools, Thumbs Helped Us Thrive()  

Hands striking rocks to make stone tools.

July 26, 2010 The evolving anatomy of the human hand gave humans great dexterity and fine motor skills. With these advances came the ability to make stone tools and primitive knives. Anthropologists are now studying how our ancestors learned to make tools, and how these tools shaped our bodies.

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For Humans, Slow And Steady Running Won The Race()  

Rick Roeber runs barefoot

July 19, 2010 As humans made the evolutionary trek from the trees to the ground, we evolved to be distance runners, trading speed for endurance. And according to one biologist, this stamina allowed early humans to tire out their prey.

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Fast Feet: A Springy Step Helps Humans Walk()  

Brian Richmond at GWU

July 19, 2010 The human foot has changed shape in the past few million years, springing an arch that enabled us to run and walk more proficiently than our ape-like ancestors who grasped branches and swung from the trees. Now, researchers are trying to determine when that change took place.

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Baby Steps: Learning To Walk, The Hominid Way()  

Human foot bones

July 12, 2010 Bipedalism — the ability to walk on two legs — was a boon to early human evolution. But the shift from swinging tree-dwellers to two-footed walkers happened over the course of millions of years.

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A Fishy Take On Human Skin Tones()  

A male stickleback in full mating color.

July 5, 2010 Humans are descended from ancient fish, and we've kept many of our fishy genes. So when scientists try to figure out how human evolution works, they often study fish instead. A tiny fish called a stickleback evolved a variety of new colors at the end of the last Ice Age, and studying them is helping scientists understand the way human skin color evolves.

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The Human Edge: Finding Our Inner Fish()  

An illustration of what the sea creature Tiktaalik may have looked like.

July 5, 2010 One very important human ancestor was an ancient fish. Though it lived 375 million years ago, this fish called Tiktaalik had shoulders, elbows, legs, wrists, a neck and many other basic parts that eventually became part of us. This is the first story in our summer series The Human Edge, in which we examine how evolution created the most versatile creature on the planet.

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Smithsonian Human Origins Initiative

Smithsonian Human Origins Initiative

Check out the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Initiative to learn more about how we evolved, and what it means to be human.

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Series Editor:

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