The human adaptive journey

Human evolution is one of the great events of the life sciences. Despite the amazing achievements of animals, and the complexities and subtleties of their ways of life, none can match the nature of humanity. Indeed it is the special nature of our own species that has led so many people to think that humans are the product of a special creation, or are not product of natural selection and evolution, or, if they were at their point of origin, are now free from its constraints.

The distinctiveness of humans has been a challenge to evolutionary theory, and for the most part the issues of human evolution have been treated as a ladder of progress, a trajectory towards ourselves. However, the core of all evolutionary biology – deriving from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection – is that evolution is about successive adaptations. Adaptation – the fit between an organism and its environment, arising from and leading to reproductive success and the survival of offspring – is the underlying reason for evolutionary change and success, and so any explanation or understanding of humans in an evolutionary context must focus on adaptation. Humans have many key adaptations – bipedalism, hairlessness, large brains, altricial young, culture and language