The Story of Human Evolution: Were We Chimps?

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

Does human evolution mean that our ancestors were chimpanzees hanging from trees in forests? The short answer is no. The complete answer begins with no species turns into another through evolution, and continues with how some are related through shared ancestors. How does the answer end?

Close-up of a chimpanzee's skull on a bench.
Humans and chimpanzees had a shared ancestor about 10 million years ago, but no human evolved from a chimpanzee. (Image: Delvin Zimmerman/Shutterstock)

Humans were chimps. Human evolution explains that we are distant cousins to them, which means we have a shared forefather from thousands of years ago. Humans’ closest cousins were Neanderthals.

Were Humans Neanderthals?

Neanderthals were close cousins to humans, but not their ancestors. They are now extinct, and only 1% to 4% of their DNA can be found in modern humans unless they originate from Africa. Neanderthals did not evolve or coexist in Africa at all.

Neanderthal DNA is most common in Europeans, but the Chinese or the American Indians can also have some. Some of the humans’ recent ancestors and Neanderthals had interbreeding, but after a few generations, they were thoroughly separated, and Neanderthals became extinct. However, chimpanzees still exist, so were they human ancestors?

Learn more about humans are not peas: myths about genetics.

Chimpanzees in Human Evolution

Chimps are, in fact, humans’ distant cousins. They share a distant ancestor—maybe a million-great grandfather and or grandmother. The split between the two species began around 10 million years ago. However, it was not a linear and simple process and took some other millions of years for humans and chimpanzees to become thoroughly isolated from each other and form their own communities.

Evolution of the human skull.
Chimpanzee ancestors were fully isolated from human ancestors about six million years ago. (Image: Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/Shutterstock)

Like with the Neanderthals, human ancestors had some interbreeding with chimp ancestors as well. Australopithecus and Homo habilis are some of these ancestors. Nevertheless, the two species were completely separated about six million years ago. The changes in species lead to a common misconception about human evolution or evolution in general: purpose.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What Is the Purpose of Evolution?

Despite what it may look like, evolution has no ultimate purpose. There is no perfect creature that evolution tries to create. Evolution is a process that will never stop, as environmental changes do not. The sole purpose can only be the survival of the species. Evolution is not a force that purposefully changes creatures; it is the process that species undergo to avoid extinction. Intelligence is also one of these changes through evolution, not a purpose for all species.

Learn more about getting smarter about intelligence.

Intelligence in Human Evolution

Intelligence is not only a human characteristic, but human intelligence is unique. Dolphins, ravens, apes, and octopi can solve complex problems to get food, and this signifies their intelligence. As species evolve, so does their intelligence as a means to survive. However, human-like intelligence is not what they will all achieve.

In the whole history of life and among the millions of species that ever lived, human-like intelligence evolved only once. Thus, it is very unlikely that it would form again. Indeed, other species will gain enough intelligence to survive and strive, but ways of survival are too many to be limited by intelligence alone.

How Do Species Survive?

The purpose of survival is reproduction. Humans have a few children and raise them until they can reproduce as well. Rabbits have many children, knowing that many of them will not survive, but some will reach adulthood and will continue the family line with offspring. What about, for instance, bees?

A closeup of bees on a honeycomb.
Queen bees are the only fertile females and can be made through feeding before they hatch. (Image: Darios/Shutterstock)

Most of the bees are sterile and are only workers who bring food for the fertile queen. In a healthy honeybee hive, there can be about 80,000 bees in total, with the one queen and a few hundred males to impregnate her. Other queen bees are made occasionally, through the food they get before they hatch. Thus, reproduction-wise, the only bees that matter are the queens, princesses, and males. As strange as it may seem, it is an efficient way of survival. However, this does not mean that bees are less evolved than humans or other species.

Learn more about e=mc2 and other relativity myths.

Can a Species Be More Evolved?

Having a different kind of intelligence, being able to create fertile princess bees through feeding, and being able to live as pet cats all show high levels of evolution, but in different ways. For example, humans and cats shared a common ancestor, perhaps about 80 million years ago, when the order Carnivora and Primate diverged.

The two species grew further and further apart from each other and evolved in different manners, but neither evolved less than the other. Today’s cats look as different from their ancestors as do humans from theirs.

Hence, human evolution never turned chimps into humans. It just created separate species that can survive better in their environment.

Common Questions about Human Evolution

Q: What did humans evolve from?

Human evolution dates back to about 315,000 years ago. Contrary to common belief, we were not chimpanzees. Long before we looked distinct from chimpanzees, we Homo sapiens had a common forefather. However, we were neither the ancestor nor the distinct species that evolved from the same ancestor.

Q: What animal did humans evolve from?

Humans evolved from ancestors like Australopithecus and Homo Habilis that had shared ancestors with chimpanzees and apes, millennia ago. It is not true to think humans evolved from monkeys, as neither monkeys nor humans look anything like their common ancestor.

Q: How many years have humans existed?

Perhaps, human evolution started more than 300,000 years ago. The oldest fossils of modern humans date back to about 200,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic. The humans of that era are sometimes classified as Homo sapiens.

Q: How did humans evolve from monkeys?

Humans did not evolve from monkeys. Human evolution started from a shared ancestor with monkeys that looked neither like humans nor like monkeys. This shared ancestor dates back to some million years ago, while the earliest human fossils date to 200,000 years ago.

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