Evolution Goes Hollywood

Many of us grew up reading (or having read to us) the adventurous tales of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and recently we have been entertained by full Hollywood productions of the trilogy. And while, as I read these delightful tales I would project myself into the characters, as most of us will, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I was related to these creatures J.R.R. Tolkien called “hobbits.” Thanks to a new discovery, I can now count them as my relatives.

Both Associated Press and USA Today have produced articles reporting on a 3 foot tall skeletal specimen which is figured to be included in the extended human family. The specimen is thought to be female and fully mature, estimated to be around 30 years old at death. While the scientific name given this specimen is Homo floresiensis or Flores man, she has quickly become known as “Hobbit.” These specimens have been dated from 12,000 years to 95,000 years and are restricted to the island of Flores, in remote Indonesia.

This find is suppose to add controversy to the evolutionary theory(s) of the origin of man (that comes as no surprise). One article wrote that “…it demonstrates that Africa, the acknowledged cradle of humanity, does not hold all the answers to persistent questions of how – and where – we came to be.” One comment I find particularly interesting was made by Peter Browns’ (professor at Australia’s University of New England) team regarding the suspected reason for the size of the specimen.  They believe that this is an example of island dwarfism, the widely observed tendency of isolated species to evolve toward small sizes because they are separated from mainland predators. Evolution downward? Seems to be self-contradictory.

However, the theory that genetic isolation led to the dwarfism is quite plausible; and this theory could be applied in many different situations, if approached with intellectual honesty.

Finally, the Missing Link

If the scientists who reviewed the specimen affectionately called “Hobbit” felt that the finding of this skeleton could have repercussions regarding the current theory about human origins, this next story will send them over the edge.

A research team out of Spain will be sharing the results of a find they made near Barcelona, in the upcoming issue of Science magazine. To wit, they proclaim to have made the discovery of a 13 million year old ape, that is supposedly the last probable common ancestor to all living humans and great apes. This new species has been named Pierrolapithecus catalaunicus.

The article in USA Today was very quick to point out that “the researchers sidestepped a controversy raging through the field by not claiming their find moves great ape evolution – and the emergence of humans – from Africa to Europe.” Can you imagine? Just when they get this evolution thing nailed down, it jumps continents on you. How discouraging. They did go on to say that they believe this type of skeleton will turn up in Africa, because the fossil record in Africa is very scarce. So, all’s well.

According to these latest thoughts on human evolution, the great apes (which included humans) are supposed to have split from the lesser apes about 14 to 16 million years ago. This moves man back farther than ever!

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