Ardipithecus Ramidus: the evolutionary consequences of SS


Following the long anticipated unveiling of the Ardipithecus Ramidus materials (Oct. 2009) [1], White et al. put forth a new hypothesis to explain the acquisition of bipedality in hominids. Compared to fossil and modern apes, males of the Ardipithecus Ramidus species were shown to have a "significantly reduced size in their canine teeth". Under this hypothesis, two associated traits - reduced canine dentition and bipedality - carried by Ar. Ramidus males were selected for as "attractive reproductive traits" by the females of the species.

Paralleling Darwin in the Descent of Man [2], White et al. insist that unlike in most ape species where males compete with each other (using their canines as weapons) for access to females, Ar. Ramidus females chose less combative (by the indicator of reduced canine size) and more adequate bipedalist males as mates. Less combative males form more stable "monogamous, pair bonds", and more effective bipedalists transfer more resources to females and offspring (relative to more combative and less competent bipedalist males). [3]

White et al. raise the shift in a sexual selection mechanism from (apelike) "male-male competition" to (hominid-like) "female choice" to help unravel a persisting riddle: why did hominid species diversify rapidly in Africa after about 4 million years ago? Some of the descendants of this "hominid population explosion" acquired large brains, tool-making ability and articulate speech. Eventually, they spread out from Africa to colonize the entire planet.

Human females in male-female "pair bonds" (can) produce more offspring than polyandrous ape females who are compelled to live in dominant male harems when showing signs of ovulation. For example, chimpanzee females are fertile for a short period of time during the year (7-12 days), and they give birth to only one infant every 3 - 5 years. Human females are regularly fertile, and they (can) produce significantly more offspring than modern apes. It's postulated that by hominid females offering males sex on a regular basis for food (and other resources), the hominid lineage experienced a population explosion. [4]

Over time, the associated traits of reduced canine dentition (as a reproductive advantage) and bipedality (as both a reproductive and a survival advantage) became "fixed" in the hominid line which gave rise to humans. Less combative and better walking males out-produced - in terms of offspring - more violent and less agilely walking males. Reduced male canine size is to be understood as one of Darwin's "male ornaments", i.e. an attractive reproductive trait. For example, 4.5 Myr ago, (relatively) small canine teeth carried by Ardi males in a forest teeming with predators should not have conveyed an obvious survival advantage on them, but this trait through mate selection conveyed what appears to have been a reproductive advantage.

One conspicuous flaw in the "choosey female hypothesis" is that evidence for a shift in sexual selection from "male combat" in fossil apes to "female choice" in fossil hominids +4 Myrs ago cannot be found directly (to a high degree of certainty) in the fossil record. (Differentiating a survival trait from a reproductive trait from the fossilized remains of an organism is problematic.) It can, however, be inferred - indirectly - from the traits of bipedalism, reduced canine size, the capacity of the hominid line to produce more offspring than apes and the appearance of the abrupt "spinning off" of closely-related hominid species after 4 Myrs ago.

In insect, fish, bird, other mammal, etc. species, even minor shifts in female mate preference can (and have been convincingly shown) to have led to radical, long term evolutionary consequences - to wit: an increase (or decrease) in sexual dimorphism and in a few cases a proliferation of daughter species. The new hypothesis makes more evolutionary sense than previous hypotheses invoked to account for the appearance of hominid bipedality. The "choosey female hypothesis" resembles how evolutionary biologists confront and explain evolutionary breakthroughs and trends in populations of non-human organisms.

Contrast the "choosey female hypothesis" with two previous hypotheses advanced to explain the trait of bipedality in hominids: (1) the "savanna" and (2) the "brain cooler" hypotheses. Popularized in the 1970s after the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus Afarenis) by Don Johanson, the "savanna hypothesis" runs that a survival advantage was conferred on those hominids having the ability to "peer over" tall grasses in evading predators or locating food. The "savanna hypothesis" began to breakdown in the early 1990s - when at the time - sketchy evidence emerged that hominids walked upright PRIOR to the expansion of the African savanna (about 3.5 Myr). As a result, an older "brain cooler" hypothesis was dusted-off, revised and whipped-out to describe the appearance of bipedalism. [5, 6] Walking upright cools an increasing in size brain. A relatively enlarged brain is a massive heat generator. Bipedalism, under the "brain cooler" hypothesis, is said to have conferred a survival advantage on bipedalists - since less surface area of their bodies would have been exposed to the hot, African sun than on quadrupedalists, reducing the possibility of fatal heat-strokes.

The individuals of Ar. Ramidus lived in the forest and walked upright, so the "savanna hypothesis" is more than problematic. It's refuted. Ardi's brain-size is estimated to have been smaller than the size of a chimpanzee's brain, so the "brain cooler hypothesis" fits neither Ardi's cranial features nor (probably) the ecological conditions under which bipedality arose. The "choosey female hypothesis" ties multiple traits, patterns and trends in hominid evolution together seamlessly, giving it a greater explanatory power than other competing hypotheses.

Contrast again the approach of White et al. with that of Louis Leakey. [7] In 1964 at Olduvai Gorge, Leakey unearthed sets of tool-kits and specimens of two hominid species, one of which he believed ancestral to humans. He (and Raymond Dart) named this putative, ancestral species Homo Habilis. Habilines made tools, had largish brains (and by fragmentary evidence in 1964) walked up-right. (Some Habilis specimens have been reclassified as Homo Rudolfensis - a species from which humans did not descend). Leakey, also, pronounced that tool-making was "the hall-mark" of what it meant to be assigned to the Homo genus - because this trait is what makes our genus "special". Leakey's approach to looking at hominid species conflicts starkly with how evolutionary biologists look at other mammal, bird, insect, etc. species. To them, no genus requires an "ordinal trait" to prove it "special". What they study are anything-but-special organisms in nature and experiments.

Evolutionary biologists take Darwin at face value. As an example: in experiments conducted on fruit flies, female fruit flies have been shown to prefer mating with males carrying high concentrations of a specific pheromone, rather than with males carrying lesser concentrations. This "secondary sex trait" conveys signals of genetic quality to females. The males emitting alot of a particular pheromone out-breed males who emit less of it. They and their descendants' genes can swamp the population and shift the genetic profile (first of the cline then the entire species), triggering long-term evolutionary trends. [8]

The hypothesis of White et al. takes Darwin more at face value than other bipedalist hypotheses. As I've suggested due to the "choosey female hypothesis", finally - paleo-anthropology has become "fully Darwinized". [9] The emergences of the traits of reduced canine size and up-right walking can be depicted by Ardi females preferring to mate with Ardi males who "displayed" these "elaborate male traits". Ardi was in no way "special". He was forest-adapted, he had a large, opposable big toe, a puny brain and canine teeth-size intermediate between fossil apes and Lucy.

Will the "choosey female hypothesis" hold up over time as the explanation for the acquisition of bipedality in hominids? Every 10 to 15 years, the reigning scenario of hominid origins shifts, and the old scenario displaced. I predict that a paleo-anthropologist will "prove" that Ardi was not ancestral to Lucy - due to a new find or a re-interpretation of the Ardi materials, and the bold assertion that +4 Myr ago hominid males were "monogamous" and "pair-bonded" stretches credibility to the breaking point. Further, there is fragmentary evidence that the traits of reduced male canine size and bipedalism predated Ar. Ramidus by a million years or so.