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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ardipithecus ramidus

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 BIO130H: Molecular and Cell Biology and the other will be BIO120H: Adaptation and Biodiversity.

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 BIO220H: From Genomes to Ecosystems in a Changing World. The fossil record isn't going to be taught in that course either.

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.]


  1. i think most of us (biology graduates) don't rememeber anything about fossils. :P

  2. For once, we fully agree.
    This is a vicious cycle: there are not that many people around who actually know about the fossil record.
    The fact some people that know very little about the fossil record are evolutionary biologists does not help, either.
    Some myths by TH Morgan, the father of modern genetics, have been well-perpetuated.He argued that Paleontology was a 'historical" sciences that could never know anything for sure. Which is stupid, but there you go.

  3. Absolutely not. A class on evolution that does not mention fossils is a laughable joke. Matter of fact, any biology graduate that knows nothing about the fossil record should not have been allowed to graduate.

  4. I have just started reading Jerry Coynes' book, "Why Evolution is True." Boy, is he ever an adaptationist. He even goes so far as to state that, in his opinion, genetic drift is far less important in speciation then selection. I don't recall whether Prof. Moran reviewed this book but I suspect that, if he read it, it will not be high on his list of recommended reading. However, at least in the first two chapters, he states that the fossil record is of great importance in accumulating evidence for evoltion and gives examples.

  5. That's nuts! No fossils? How are people supposed to know what happens after mass extinctions like the one we're entering if they don't look at the fossil record (millions of years for full recovery)? If you only look at living apes to figure out human evolution, you might think chimpanzees were a decent stand-in for our common ancestor with them. Ardipithecus shows why that's wrong.

  6. Yes, leaving out fossils is daft, as you say. That's especially so in this day and age when folk like Neil Shubin are integrating paleontology, evo-devo and genetics.

  7. Where or when are the students supposed to learn of the geological record for evolution?

    Abandonment of hard evidence seems to be a poor way to teach.

  8. Ayn Rand's voice is channeled from beyond to refute a creationist who thinks Ardipithecus disproves Darwin.

  9. Ayn Rand's voice is channeled from beyond to refute a creationist who thinks Ardipithecus disproves Darwin.