Today, Febraury 11, 2013, is International Darwin Day – a day to highlight the contribution to science made by Charles Darwin (and his finches). I thought it would be nice to pull a post from the archives, a blog written by research manager Erin Ehmke for Darwin Day last year. Enjoy! -Chris Smith, Education
In celebration of Darwin Day, I thought it appropriate to broach the topic of evolution – a unifying force for all primates, human and nonhuman alike. Here at the DLC, we are a home to the tiny mouse lemur and to the graceful sifaka and then everything in between. Now add in monkeys to the mix. And don’t forget the apes (including us humans!). Voila! You have the makings of the amazingly diverse Primate Order. But what’s truly amazing is that all primates, from aye ayes to gorillas, have one fundamental thing in common: an ancestor.
We did not evolve from chimpanzees. Darwin never claimed that we did. But such misconceptions fuel the controversy that surrounds evolution and take away from scientific advancements. Humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor approximately 6 million years ago, and that common ancestor was as different from today’s chimpanzees as we are. Now go back 70 million years! Based on molecular evidence, that is when a population of rodent-like mammals first evolved definitive primate traits: grasping hands, forward facing eyes, and a relatively large brain (among other things). Modern day prosimians (the lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies) most closely resemble those first primates, and that’s one of the many reasons that the research done at the Duke Lemur Center is so important and so interesting!
Researchers from around the world come to the DLC to study these unique primates, not only to better understand and therefore better conserve their wild counterparts, but also to understand our own evolutionary history: genetic diversity, cognition, play behavior, mate preference, locomotion, metabolism and energetics, communication… And these studies would not be possible were it not for Charles Darwin, the men and women that prompted the Scientific Revolution before him, and the men and women that have continued the advancement of scientific knowledge since.
Happy Darwin Day!
-Erin Ehmke, Ph.D
DLC Research Manager