Darwin’s Descent of Man Foreshadowed Modern Scientific Theories

Darwin Evolution Concept

When Charles Darwin published Descent of Man 150 years ago, he launched scientific investigations on human origins and evolution. Last week, three leading scientists in different, but related disciplines published “Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s Descent of Man,” in Science, in which they identify three insights from Darwin’s opus on human evolution that modern science has reinforced.

“Working together was a challenge because of disciplinary boundaries and different perspectives, but we succeeded,” said Sergey Gavrilets, lead author and professor in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Their goal with this review summary was to apply the framework of modern speciation theory to human origins and summarize recent research to highlight the fact that Darwin’s Descent of Man foreshadowed many recent scientific developments in the field.

They focused on the following three insights:

  1. We share many characteristics with our closest relatives, the anthropoid apes, which include genetic, developmental, physiological, morphological, cognitive, and psychological characteristics.
  2. Humans have a talent for high-level cooperation reinforced by morality and social norms.
  3. We have greatly expanded the social learning capacity that we see already in other primates.

“The paper’s insights have important implication for understanding behavior of modern humans and for developing policies to solve some of the most pressing problems our society faces,” Gavrilets said.

Gavrilets is director of the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity (DySoC) at UT, which promotes transdisciplinary research into the origins, evolution, and futures of human social complexity. This paper is one of the outcomes of activities from the Center. Other related outcomes include free online learning modules on cultural evolution and a series of online webinars about cultural evolution and human origins, which thousands of students and researchers worldwide have watched.

Reference: “Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s Descent of Man” by Peter J. Richerson, Sergey Gavrilets and Frans B. M. de Waal, 21 May 2021, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba3776

Co-authors are Peter Richerson, a cultural evolutionist with the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis, and Frans de Waal, a primatologist with Living Links, Yerks National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The paper was sponsored by the UT National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis with an NSF award. Researchers also received support from the US Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research, the John Templeton Foundation, and the NIH.

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