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Research and Mechanisms of Evolution

No monkeying around—our DNA is 95% similar to that of chimpanzees. In fact, chimps are our closest living relatives, besides your second cousins of course. Humans and chimps parted ways approximately 4-6 million years ago.

The chimpanzee is our closet living relative. Image from here.

In trying to understand evolution, current research is focusing on the similarities and differences between our ears. Human brains tripled in size about 1.5 million years ago. Our brains today are three times the size of chimps', even though our body size isn't as different. Though humans and chimps display social interaction, communicate, and participate in tickle fights, we have developed sophisticated language skills and hair removal methods that set us apart from our ancestors.
Recent experiments measuring the size of our brains, as well as their growth and activity have been done using ultrasound and MRI techniques. Human brains grow for a longer period of time in utero even though humans and chimps bake in the oven for a similar amount of time. Differences in brain growth could allow us to become bigger brainiacs. We can hold a dinner conversation, check out current events, and tweet at the same time. Take that, chimps.

At the molecular level, studies are being done to see which genes are different between chimps and humans, and if these genes are expressed differently. Over 100 genes so far fit the bill. The challenge is sorting through them, and trying to figure out which ones were responsible for our speciation. One candidate is the gene FOXP2. Humans developed language around the time FOXP2 changed significantly. This gene has also been implicated in speech-related disorders and autism in humans, meaning these studies may also help us understand significant health problems.

As you contemplate how current research aids in understanding human evolution, our common ancestors, and disease, we'll leave you with another video because we just can't help ourselves. It's time for adorable chimp babies. Aww.

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