Arguably the most unique ability of humans is the ability to communicate highly complex concepts, for which we need language. But language can mean many things, from sign language to writing, although the most efficient form of language we have is speech – a skill unique today to living modern humans. The apes have a remarkable capacity for language and communication: Kanzi the bonobo (fig. 1) has a working knowledge of perhaps thousands of words and Koko the gorilla understands and uses American Sign Language. But they are unable to speak. Why is this? What are differences between human and ape anatomy that allow us to produce these sounds, and what selection pressures may have driven the evolution of our highly specialised anatomy?
Quite a while ago, I wrote a monster double post on something called the Chimpanzee Referential Doctrine, over which a two-sided debate continues to rage. The old guard of palaeoanthropology firmly believe that we can tell a lot about our ancestors from observing the anatomy, environment and behaviour of modern chimpanzees, while more and more people are adopting the viewpoint that our earliest ancestors were distinctly un-chimp-like. There’s also a question which constantly does the rounds of people curious about evolution or those trying to push Creationism: “if we evolved from monkeys/chimps then why are there still monkeys/chimps?”
In the next few posts, I hope the answer will become clear: we evolved from something that was neither human-like nor chimp-like, but gave rise to both.
Exciting news: this week is my final week of term! This also means that all deadlines are go, so here’s a poster I’ve had to make about gibbons. It’s got cute pictures!
The ecology and evolution of monogamy in the white-handed gibbon. (Clickable link).
Although it doesn’t sound like it, poster-making is a standard and important academic skill – the idea is to get a lot of information across in a clear and concise manner, without the information being too complicated. Posters are also meant to grab the attention of people just browsing and make them want to ask questions so you can show off all your hard-earned knowledge.
I know that some of the terms I’ve used may be a bit technical for people not working in the field so here are a few definitions, in order the order they appear in the poster:
Mya: million years ago
Sympatric: Living in the same area as
Brachiation: Swinging through the trees using only your arms. Like this: Brachiating gibbon.
Ulnar styloid: the protruding bit of bone at the bottom the left long bone (the ulna) in the diagram.
Semilunar meniscus: A unique structure in the wrists of apes (including humans).
Pronosupination: Twisting your wrist between palm down and palm up.
That’s it for this week!
p.s. this is also a slightly more correct version in spelling and stuff than the one I submitted for real. Count yourselves lucky!
So for the first post of this blog, there unfortunately isn’t going to be much new material.
I talk on my homepage (if you haven’t already seen it) about interpreting the research that goes on behind the scenes at the Powell-Cotton Museum (PCM) in Birchington, Kent. It mainly involved whittling down PhD-level and post-Doctoral research carried out on themes ranging from gorilla ecology to the preservation of amphibian specimens currently owned by the museum.
Here, then, is a link to a double page spread that I put together during my time there, to give you an idea what the rest of this blog will sound like when you read it.
A blast from the past.
So go ahead, click on the link for your blast from the past, both mine and the more distant past of Major Percy Powell-Cotton. It also has relevance to the much more distant evolutionary past too, since gorillas count themselves among the organisms most closely related to us – the great apes.
The apes are a group made up of gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, and are distinguished from monkeys in that they don’t possess tails. The great apes are useful comparisons for us when we study fossils thought to belong to direct human ancestors, although it’s critical to remember that none of the other great apes alive today (extant) are actually our ancestors, and even though our closest extant relatives may be very important, the last common ancestor of purselves and chimps was probably not very similar to either [reference 1].
The modern great apes can also be used as a yardstick for comparing genetic differences between modern humans, when studying how, when and where modern humans arose and then dispersed across the globe.
But much more of that later – that’s what this blog is all about!
A glimpse of the future.
Also to be found in the link! All Jaimie’s hard work will contribute to understanding the ecology of gorillas and help towards targeting conservation efforts in years to come, as well as making the job of future researchers at the PCM far easier. It should also help her gain her PhD. Lucky girl.
p.s. I’d love some feedback on my writing style so please feel free to leave your (vaguely constructive) opinions in the comments section or on twitter (link is near the top of the page on the right, beneath the giant picture of my face).