Showing posts with label The Genographic Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Genographic Project. Show all posts

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Taxonomy and the Wonder of Our Species

When I was a young anthropology student, the easiest way for me to remember the taxonomic classification system was to think in terms of a pneumonic device. The one my professor, Dr. Gustov always liked was, "King Philip Come Out For Goodness Sake. This easily rendered the classification system into, (K)ingdom; (P)hylum, (C)lass; (O)rder; (F)amily; (G)enus and (S)pecies.  Then as today, both anthropology and biology students use the same or similar device to remember the overall classification system for all living creatures on our planet. I know this because I instruct my students to do the same rote and basic memorization.

Taxonomy is very important to understand because without it, errors can be made as to where humans, both ancient and modern, fit into the scheme of all carbon-based life forms.  Even folks who may study or believe in evolution can be confused into thinking about a linear progression of evolution, and while taxonomy does seem to list all life this way, it certainly isn’t how evolution is known or accepted today. Think bush rather than chain.

A new friend strongly suggested that humans were indeed apes. He felt that there were little, if any differences between apes and humans aside from our bigger brains. However, taxonomy is based on morphology, so we can use the classification system to show that there are many differences between our species and modern apes.

Least we not mention bi-pedalism, reduced canines, and our general hairlessness. Plus, there are genetic markers and dozens of other phenotypic differences between our and ape bodies. These ancient changes kept the ancestors of modern apes in the forests and allowed our own ancestors to eventually enter the savannahs and exploit niches to ultimately create city-states, language and even spirituality and religion. The last part we can certainly do without as I believe religion is a vestige of our evolution.

So to call our species “apes” does and injustice and insults our genus and that of orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas.

Certainly, we are primates but we are not apes. Taxonomy shows descent, we have common ancestors, even share DNA with the greater and lesser apes (as well as old and new world monkeys, too), but we have very different evolutionary histories and futures. I believe that is it reductionist to call humans apes simply because we are not. This doesn’t mean we’re any better as a species, it just means we’re different. Heck, you cannot even say we’re more evolved since we’re not evolved from apes. We share a common primate ancestor and heritage, but all primate species are on their own evolutionary course - DNA shows this, as does the fossil record.

When we consider that 99% of all species that have ever lived on the planet are now extinct, and yet we still have tremendous biodiversity, we can only imagine how full the Earth was prior to the mass extinctions of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and at the end of the Mesozoic, some 65 million years ago in the Cretaceous.  This is awe inspiring and humbling to know that for our own species’ existence, we owe thanks to both our ancient descendents and the accidental and randomness of the process of natural selection as recent as a few hundred thousand years ago all the way back to 490 million years. Knowing this is certainly better than any biblical creation myth, and we have the added benefit of knowing that evolution is both true and provable.

While the complexity is astounding, we have to remember that the natural mechanics of the world make the process of biological evolution clear and easy to understand and accept for many, but for some others scary and difficult to concede.  This is because religious faith requires no element of science to validate one's beliefs. Many people would rather cherish mythology than, as Carl Sagan said, "grasp the world as it truly is." While the scientific method and those who practice it require evidence for their understanding of both life on Earth and the operation of the universe, those who espouse faith do not.

Indeed, taxonomy and animal classification began in early the writings of Aristotle and through later attempts by religious naturalist John Ray. However, it was Carolus Linneaeus and his work Systemo Naturare, and the work of French anatomist Gorges Cuvier, which helped found science’s current taxonomic system. However, Linnaeus and Cuvier were Christian believers and while they saw the complexity of biological life, they attributed it all to their lord and savior.  

As modern science has shown, there is no need to put god or gods into the processes of life. Nor is there any proof that a spiritual deity put forward any design for the universe, our solar system or our species evolution. However, we must know our place in the animal kingdom since without deference to this knowledge, the sometimes superficial and imperialistic nature of our species can and will do harm to countless other organisms on the planet. This in turn has dire consequences for our continued evolution and our species ability to adapt to the environment as well as the safety of the planet. 

But there is something quite humbling in knowing that your brethren came from the same organic soup that created the universe.  This is why we rely on science and not metaphysics to cure disease, explore our terrestrial and inter-stellar environments and advance our technology.  The awe that I feel knowing that we are all star stuff is both incredibly beautiful and also deeply inspiring.  For me, religion as a human contrivance could never bring me as much joy, fascination and wonder.

And this is why taxonomy is so important as it plainly shows the connectedness of all life on Earth. If you doubt either your human or an inter-species connection, my advice is to send your DNA to the National Geographic Society's The Genographic Project for genetic analysis.  Here, you may offer your genes for science to study and in response to providing them your blood and a swab of your mouth, you can learn where your family came from and the genetic distribution of alleles found in other common groups around the world.  Finding this out by using science is satisfactory in many ways, for self-perseveration and to acknowledge the successive genetic changes in your own family's history.