A challenge to the concept of species

Comparison of DNA from ancient hominin fossils with that obtained from a broad spectrum of living people showed that on the road out of Africa in the last 130 thousand years some anatomically modern humans successfully interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans to produce fertile offspring. All non-African people contain a trace of those liaisons and include fertile hybrids in their ancestry, whereas Africans do not. Using quick, low-cost and sensitive genomic analyses these discoveries made similar searches for hybridisation among other supposedly distinct species a popular and fruitful line of research (Pennisi, E. 2016. Shaking up the tree of life. Science, v. 354, p. 817-820; doi: 10.1126/science.354.6314.817). They also challenge the long-held view that individual species are incapable of fertile interbreeding with others. Yet fertile hybrids have long been known among plants and butterflies without recourse to genomics. Now that it is a basic tool, it has been shown that up to 10% of known plant species have arisen from hybrids and examples are quickly being found among birds, insects, fish and mammals, including the famous Galapagos finches. Hybridisation introduces genetic variation more quickly than does mutation, potentially a major advantage in adaptive radiation.

Page from Darwin's notebooks around July 1837 ...

Page from Darwin’s notebooks around July 1837 showing his first sketch of an evolutionary tree. (credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the concept of ‘species’ is arbitrarily based on biological ‘form and function’, and in the same fashion as discoveries about epigenetics have shown genetic determinism to have an air of dogma, so hybridisation suggests that a ‘web’ is more apt as shorthand for the progress of evolution than is Darwin’s ‘tree’ or even a tangled ‘bush’. Another welcome outcome spurred by the pioneers of hominin comparative genetics is a powerful challenge to the dominant philosophies of reductionism and dualism among scientists; legacies of René Descartes bound up with the ‘scientific method’ – especially among physical scientists – and ideas such as ‘nature versus nurture’. A major revolution is in progress, from which the seekers for a Theory of Everything, from quantum mechanists through particle physicists to cosmologists need to draw some sharp and perhaps embarrassing lessons.

It is appropriate that the driving agency lies within anthropology, and thrilling too, for everyone can quickly learn a new way of approaching the world by contemplating their own origins. They would be hard-pressed to do that by pondering on the early nanoseconds of the cosmos …

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