As we humans were jet setting all over the world, creating farming and developing technologies, the chimpanzees of the world – who are considered our closest relatives – kept living in trees and eating fruit.
It is pretty amazing to think about how much longer these chimps have been on the Earth as compared to humans. Many estimate that modern chimps have in existence for around one million years, while humans have been around for approximate 300,000 years.
Do Humans and Chimps Share the Same Family Tree?
However, humans and chimps started traveling on their own evolutionary paths about 6 million years ago. So when whenever we think of them as our ancient cousins, we last shared common family trees many years ago.
The question now becomes why did one of those family tree branches achieve so much more than the other branch. Why did one species develop so much higher intelligence than the other?
Why Did One Species Develop so Rapidly?
“The reason other primates aren’t evolving into humans is that they’re doing just fine,” stated Briana Pobiner, who is a paleoanthropologist from the famous Smithsonian Institute located in Washington, D.C. Every primate that is living today, which includes the mountain gorillas that live in Uganda, all those howler monkeys from the Americas, and even the stunning lemurs who live in Madagascar, have simply demonstrated that they are doing just fine living in their present habitats – which is where natural place them in the first place.
“Evolution isn’t a progression,” points out Lynne Isbell, who is a professor of anthropology from the University of California. “It’s about how well organisms fit into their current environments.” According to the scientists who spend their lives studying evolution, humans are not “more evolved” than their fellow primates. While the incredible ability to adapt will allow human beings to manipulate pretty much every different environment on the planet to meet their own needs, this simply isn’t enough to put human beings at the very top of nature’s evolutionary ladder.
A Matter of Priority
A case in point is ants. “Ants are as or more successful than we are,” Isbell explained. “There are so many more ants in the world than humans, and they’re well-adapted to where they’re living.”
Even though ants have not created things like literacy or computers, they are considered to be very successful insects. They just do not excel at things that are important to human beings.
“We have this idea of the fittest being the strongest or the fastest, but all you really have to do to win the evolutionary game is survive and reproduce,” Pobiner pointed out.
Distinguishing the Species
The way that humans have evolved differently than chimps is a prime example. The thing is that science does not currently possess a completed fossil record for chimps or humans. But experts combined fossil evidence along with behavioral and genetic clues that were gleaned from modern primates to learn more about species that are extinct. And these are those species that would later evolve into chimps and humans.
“We don’t have its remains, and I’m not sure if we’d be able to place it with certainty in the human lineage it if we did,” Isbell stated. Most scientists believe that this ancient creature actually resembled a chimp more than a person, and it most likely spent more time in the tree canopy and traveled from one tree to another without ever hitting the ground.
Experts believe that these ancestral humans started to distinguish themselves from ancestral chimpanzees the moment they began to spend more of their time living on the ground. One belief is that our human ancestors started to search for food while exploring brand new habitats.
“Our earliest ancestors that diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees would have been adept at both climbing in trees and walking on the ground,” Isbell replied. It was much more recent, perhaps some 3 million years ago, when the legs of these ancient humans started to become longer and their big toes started to grow forward – giving them the ability to walk full-time.
“Some difference in habitat selection probably would’ve been the the first notable behavioral change,” Isbell pointed out. “To get bipedalism going, our ancestors would have gone into habitats that didn’t have closed canopies. They would have had to travel more on the ground in places where trees were more spread out.”
All the rest is history. As for the chimpanzees that we love, they didn’t stop evolving simply because they continued to living in trees.
“They’re clearly doing a good job at being chimps,” Pobiner urged. “They’re still around, and as long as we don’t destroy their habitat, they probably will be” for many years to come.