Allow me to direct your attention to the cover story from the current issue of Newsweek. It provides a useful summary of recent developments in human evolution.
It’s a decent article, and I recommend reading it through to the end. There are, however, a few irritating points:
The science of human evolution is undergoing its own revolution. Although we tend to see the march of species down through time as a single-file parade, with descendant succeeding ancestor in a neat line, the emerging science shows that the story of our species is far more complicated than Biblical literalists would have it–but also more complex than secular science suspected.
Secular science? Oh, brother. There is, of course, only one kind of science.
And who, exactly, is the “we” that tends to see the march of species down through time as a single-file parade? Certainly not scientists, who haven’t held so simplistic a view of things for decades. Sadly, one of the tropes of science coverage in mainstream media outlets is that everything has to be presented as a revolution. That often requires oversimplifying the way people “used” to look at things. Alas, this trope comes up several times in the article.
Mostly the article discusses how genetic analyses and paleoneurology (roughly, using the impressions on the insides of skulls to draw inferences about the kinds of brains they housed) are supplementing fossils as a way of resolving details of human evolution. I found the following example especially interesting:
Head lice live in the hair on the head. But body lice, a larger variety, are misnamed: they live in clothing. Head lice, as a species, go back millions of years, while body lice are a more recent arrival. [Mark] Stoneking, an evolutionary anthropologist, had a hunch that he could calculate when body lice evolved from head lice by comparing the two varieties’ DNA, which accumulates changes at a regular rate. (It’s like calculating how long it took a typist to produce a document if you know he makes six typos per minute.) That fork in the louse’s family tree, he and colleagues at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology concluded, occurred no more than 114,000 years ago. Since new kinds of creatures tend to appear when a new habitat does, that’s when human ancestors must have lost their body hair for good–and made up for it with clothing that, besides keeping them warm, provided a home for the newly evolved louse.
114,000 years ago is certainly a plausible estimate, based on other evidence, for when hominids started losing their hair. I like this, since it is yet another small example of the way numerous tiny pieces of evidence dovetail into a coherent picture of our evolutionary history. What Stoneking did here, applying evolutionary theory to a small question that hadn’t previously been investigated, and being rewarded with a satisfactory answer, is precisely what the ID folks never do.
At any rate, go read the whole thing. Just take the more dramatic claims of revolution with a grain of salt.