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The evolutionary origins of human bipedality
“You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men.” -Max Beerbohm
Physical Anthropology Perón, 4076 February 18, 2001
As humans, we take our bipedal gait for granted. We are the only species on earth to possess this most unique form of locomotion. And while bipedal locomotion offers the obvious advantage of hand use, its specific evolutionary advantage is less clear. For our primal ancestors, a body designed for quadrupedal locomotion allowed for faster movement, better climbing ability, and more accurate footing. It is hard to believe that the complex set of traits required for bipedality could have been reproductively selected within such an established quadruped environment. In his paper “The natural detective”, on the origins of human bipedality, C. Owen Lovejoy suggests that this new form of movement was favored by the processes of evolution for the specific positive effects it had on our ancestors’ childrearing and food gathering abilities. Evolution is the process by which living organisms adapt on a generational level to changes in their environment. The theory of evolution, first formally proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859, states that organisms within a species will be “naturally selected” by the pressures of their environment for more successful reproduction (Park, 1999). The beneficial traits of those more reproductively successful organisms will thus be passed on with greater frequency to the proceeding generation. In the case of bipedality, it is hypothesized that this form of locomotion emerged almost four million years ago in a species of early hominids called Australopithecus afarensis (Lovejoy,
1984). However, evolution is a slow, gradual process; consequently, there was no “first” bipedal creature to walk the earth. Instead, the many traits that allowed our ancestors to walk upright would have been favored gradually over time through many subsequent generations. That is, over many generations, those animals that could walk on their hind legs more efficiently and for greater lengths of time were somehow favored to survive and reproduce over those who could not. This begs the question: what in their environment proved to favor these many subtle traits? The answer requires a careful, indepth look into our evolutionary past. The essential problem of applying the theory of natural selection to the evolution of bipedality is that we cannot assume that early partiallybipedal hominids shared the same advantages that we as completely adapted individuals enjoy today. Unlike a simple monogenetic trait such as that for sickle cell anemia, where the phenotype is controlled by a single pair of alleles, the traits separating quadrupeds and bipeds are nonlinked and numerous, from the bone structure of the feet, legs, hands, and spine, to the distribution of muscle mass and the structure of the innerear (Park, 1999). A common misconception of the emergence of bipedality is that twolegged movement allowed for greater physical endurance, and thus enhanced our ancestors’ hunting abilities (Lovejoy, 1984). However, as Lovejoy points out, it is quite likely that early chimps found walking on two legs to be cumbersome and slow (as do modern species of chimpanzees), favoring quadrupedal movement. Lovejoy (1984) refers to this mistake of assuming the advantages of a trait
were present throughout the whole process of its evolution as the “adaptive trap”. Instead, he proposes that there were specific advantages of even partial bipedality that these early chimps enjoyed that proved to favor progressively greater bipedal locomotive traits over time. The obvious advantage of bipedal locomotion is that it frees up the hands for both transport and tool use. And since it is clear that our ancestors did not make extensive use of tools, it is likely that bipedality was favored because it allowed them to carry things. But what was it that they needed to carry? The most obvious item is food. Modern chimpanzees have been found to use even their limited upright walking abilities to carry food for short distances (Park, 1999). The advantages of increased foodcarrying abilities are twofold. First, as suggested by Michael Allen Park in Biological Anthropology, our ancestors could carry their food to safer areas in which to eat. Lovejoy adds that this would also expand their potential foodgathering area and allow them to keep their young in a safe area (Lovejoy, 1984). This brings to mind the cave dwellings of early humans, which were essentially a safe shelter far from the hunting area where women and children could remain while the men went to hunt for food. More adapted bipeds could venture further and further from the established shelter to gather food without having to uproot the colony. Furthermore, since quadruped animals could only transport a single infant with them at a time, this would have severely limited their ability to have multiple offspring. With a safe shelter for their young, better adapted bipeds on the other hand,
could gather more food as well as support more offspring (Lovejoy, 1984). Thus, those with more advanced bipedality would have passed their traits on the next generation in greater numbers than their more limited quadruped counterparts. It is also seems likely to this author that this new dexterity allowed for better care of the injured and weak. If an animal was injured while carrying food, a fellow biped could help it to safety. The injured, weak, and elderly could then stay behind while the others hunted for the rest of the colony. A group of quadrupeds, by contrast, would have been more nomadic than bipeds, because of their limited hunting area, and would probably have left injured animals behind for lack of a practical way of carrying them. This unique faculty may have been what offset the initial awkwardness of the early accidentprone bipedal gait! Additionally, ever longer foodgathering distances might have prompted our ancestors to make use of simple devices to aid in their carrying ability, perhaps prompting the first emergence of regular tool use (Lovejoy, 1984). Lovejoy notes that another important consequence of the evolution of bipedality was the rise of monogamy. In bipedal colonies, the primate couple that remains together through raising their young would be more likely to produce reproductively successful offspring than one that does not. The reason being that with more adapted carrying abilities than their quadruped counterparts, biped parents could efficiently provision their labor, keeping the female to safeguard the children within sheltered areas, while allowing the male to venture out further for food (Lovejoy, 1984). But how could a behavior such
as commitment have been selected through the processes of natural selection? In earlier primates, females evidenced temporary signs of ovulation. It follows that these uneven signs of fertility would attract males, and thus have a detrimental effect on fidelity. One might conclude that the external signs of ovulation would be selected against and disappear altogether. Yet, those females showing lesser signs of ovulation among their more obvious peers would be regarded as infertile and selected against. Instead, our female ancestors were favored for their increasingly continual signs of ovulation, since such traits increased their abilities to keep the males “interested” and committed to the relationship (Lovejoy, 1984). Australopithecus afarensis, in fact, is thought to have been monogamous (Lovejoy, 1984). It is humorous to note that these evolutionary steps to increase fidelity, established so many years ago, are proving so inadequate today! The evolution of bipedality had farreaching effects on our ancestors, from allowing for safer childrearing, to fostering tool use, to establishing monogamy. It’s clear that its development was instrumental in forming the behaviors and culture of our evolutionary ancestors as well as ourselves. The example of the development of bipedality is a perfect illustration of the complexities, and yet simplicities, of the process of evolution. At first, the concept of evolution of bipedality seems overly complex, even impossible. How could so many traits have coincided to bring about what we now think of as welladapted twolegged locomotion? In his paper, Lovejoy offered a clear, solid explanation for how these traits, taken in tandem, could have evolved gradually over a
long period of time. It is particularly humbling to think that if the environment in which bipedality developed didn’t prove supportive to such an unstable form of locomotion, I may not have been writing this paper. Like most other humans, I started this paper as a "bipedal snob". I took my two free arms for granted, and never stopped to wonder how lucky it was that, at least in evolutionary terms, I didn’t need them to walk. Like the millions of American soldiers who died in past wars that allow me to live comfortably today, I never acknowledged those creatures who came before me that helped evolve this most useful of stances. The study of evolution is both intriguing and humbling: For not only do you learn that the traits you now take for granted were once conditions for survival and reproduction, you also come to think of yourself as a very small piece in the very large puzzle of life. As I stand up now on my two legs to stretch, I can’t help but appreciate the magical simplicity of evolution, and thank those first primates who, however incidentally, learned to stand on their own two feet.
Lovejoy, C. O. (1984, October). The natural detective: An anthropologist probes the
mysterious origin of human bipedality. Natural History, 93, 24. Park, M. A. (1999). Biological Anthropology. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Company.
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