A (relatively) new hominid named Ardipithecus ramidus is described in several papers that appear in the Oct 2 issue of Science.
Carl Zimmer is ahead of the curve on his one1 and I urge you to read his blog and learn about this important new ancestor of ours [Ardipithecus: We Meet At Last]. The main point is that this represents the earliest well-described species in our lineage. Ardipithecus ramidus lived in what is now Ethiopia about 4.4 million years ago.
The publicity surrounding these papers gives me an opportunity to raise a related issue. Here at the University of Toronto we are about to reorganize our first year biology courses. One of the required half courses will be BIO
The stated goal in the second course is to teach evolution, recognizing that "All science students require an understanding of evolutionary and ecological principles so they can make informed decisions on pressing societal issues ...."
I know what you're thinking ... you're thinking that Moran will be upset about the adaptationist slant in that course. You're right, I'm angry about that, but that's not what I want to talk about today.
The course will not mention fossils and it will not describe the history of life as determined by the fossil record. I think this is a mistake. I think that in order to understand evolution you need to examine all of the evidence that supports it and learn to appreciate that many different disciplines converge on the same conclusion; namely, that living things evolved over hundreds of millions of years.
Not only that, there are many fascinating parts of the fossil record that provide good opportunities for learning about evolution and for critical thinking. Hominid evolution and our relationship to the other apes is only one of them. There's also the Cambrian explosion, mass extinctions, the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, and punctuated equilibria.
It's true that you can't cover everything in a first year half course but the fossil record is too important to leave out, in my opinion. We also have a proposed new required second year course that's supposed to teach evolution. It's called BIO
What do Sandwalk readers think? Should we be graduating students with a life sciences degree when they've never heard of the fossil record in class?
1. Where does he find the time to write so many excellent articles and books? Has he been cloned?
[Reconstructions: Copyright 2009, J.H. Matternes.]