Thursday, June 18, 2009

Humans More Closely Related to Orangutans?

New research, conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and the Buffalo Museum of Science, supports a theory that humans are more likely to share a common ancestor with orangutans. This is particularly controversial, as we share more genetic material with chimpanzees.

The researchers "reject as problematic" this widely perceived theory that DNA analysis make humans more closely related to chimpanzees (which they suggest is not supported by fossil evidence).

You can check out the details of the study in the Science Direct article, here.

There were two particular quotes that struck me. The first was from Paleoanthropologist Peter Andrews, who previously served as the head of Human Origins at the London Natural History Museum. He stated that this study includes strong evidence to support their theory:

"They have good morphological evidence in support of their interpretation, so that it must be taken seriously, and if it reopens the debate between molecular biologists and morphologists, so much the better," Andrews said. "They are going against accepted interpretations of human and ape relationships, and there's no doubt their conclusions will be challenged. But I hope it will be done in a constructive way, for science progresses by asking questions and testing results."

The second quote, which was particularly striking to me, comes from Malte Ebach, a researcher at Arizona State University in the INternational Institute for Species Exploration.

"Palaeoanthropology is based solely on morphology, and there is no scientific justification to favor DNA over morphological data. Yet the human-chimp relationship, generated by molecular data, has been accepted without any scrutiny. Grehan and Schwartz are not just suggesting an orangutan–human relationship—they're reaffirming an established scientific practice of questioning data."

I have generally accepted the "chips have similar DNA to humans and therefore are our closest ancestor," even though I don't actually know that much about it. I like the idea of questioning this belief and looking at another explanation, namely the morphological relationship between apes and humans. I don't know enough about either subject (DNA or morphology) to have a strong opinion about the research on human origins, but I think it's interesting to think about the limitations to widely accepted beliefs (chimps-->humans) and think about alternative explanations (orangutans-->humans).


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