Modern and Early Humans
Humans have undergone major anatomical changes over the course of evolution. This illustration depictsAustralopithecus afarensis (center), the earliest of the three species; Homo erectus (left), an intermediate species;and Homo sapiens (right), a modern human. H. erectus and modern humans are much taller than A. afarensis andhave flatter faces and much larger brains. Modern humans have a larger brain than H. erectus and an almost flatface beneath the front of the braincase. John Sibbick/National Geographic Society
All species of organisms originate through the process of biological evolution. In this process, newspecies arise from a series of natural changes. In animals that reproduce sexually, including humans,the term
refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed, resulting in fertileoffspring—that is, offspring themselves capable of reproducing. Scientists classify each species with aunique, two-part scientific name. In this system, modern humans are classified as
The mechanism for evolutionary change resides in genes—the basic units of heredity. Genes affecthow the body and behavior of an organism develop during its life. The information contained in genescan change—a process known as mutation
The way particular genes are expressed—how they affectthe body or behavior of an organism—can also change. Over time, genetic change can alter a species’soverall way of life, such as what it eats, how it grows, and where it can live.Genetic changes can improve the ability of organisms to survive, reproduce, and, in animals, raiseoffspring. This process is called adaptation. Parents pass adaptive genetic changes to their offspring,and ultimately these changes become common throughout a
—a group of organisms of thesame species that share a particular local habitat. Many factors can favor new adaptations, butchanges in the environment often play a role. Ancestral human species adapted to new environmentsas their genes changed, altering their anatomy (physical body structure), physiology (bodily functions,such as digestion), and behavior. Over long periods, evolution dramatically transformed humans andtheir ways of life.