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EMBL Forum Lectures

Craig Stark, University of California at Irvine

Jeremy DeSilva, Boston University

Wednesday, 7 May 2014 at 15:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Jeremy DeSilva, Boston University

Unintelligent design and the scars of human evolution

Abstract

The complexity and beauty of the human form has been celebrated in art, music, and poetry for centuries. But a much closer examination of human musculoskeletal anatomy reveals a puzzling and seemingly jerry-rigged “design” held together by the anatomical equivalents of duct tape and paper clips. Our backs, hips, feet, and teeth are far from optimal and are unequivocal evidence for the tinkering effects of evolution by means of natural selection. Backaches, difficulty in childbirth, collapsed arches, and impacted wisdom teeth are the painful reminders that evolution does not create perfection. Nor does evolution start from scratch, meaning that humans are necessarily modified apes, inheriting many of our imperfect anatomies from a quadrupedal, small-brained ancestor, well-equipped for life in the trees. The growing human fossil record is rich with transitional forms that uncover the pattern by which modern anatomies evolved, and further reveals that many modern musculoskeletal ailments have ancient roots. So, too, therefore may the traits of empathy, compassion and conspecific care be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. While intelligent design and other “creationism-in-disguise” movements continue to infiltrate American public classrooms, actual science is unearthing overwhelming evidence for a human epic with more depth and magnificence than any poet, artist, or theologian could have imagined. The human form is not to be venerated for its perfection, but as a stunning, and quite personal, example of the process of evolution and the power of natural selection.

Biography

Jeremy DeSilva is an Assistant Professor of biological anthropology at Boston University. He is a functional morphologist, specializing in the locomotion of early apes (hominoids) and human ancestors (hominins). His particular anatomical expertise – the evolution of the human foot and ankle – has contributed to the on-going debate of Australopithecine locomotion. He has studied fossil material in Museums throught Eastern and South Africa and is currently working on the foot and leg fossils from the the South African species Australopithecus sediba. He has studied locomotion in wild chimpanzees in Western Uganda, and currently oversees a research project studying the range of variation in modern human walking. In addition to his work with foot fossils, he has an interest in brain ontogeny and how it relates to the evolution of the pelvis. This work has led to new inferences about the mechanism of childbirth in early human ancestors and how this has shaped the anatomy and the evolution of the pelvis. Before entering academia, Jeremy worked as an educator at the Boston Museum of Science and continues to be passionate about science education. When he is not studying fossil foot bones, or lecturing on human evolution, Jeremy and his wife, Erin, are quite busy with their 3.5 year-old twin toddlers, Benjamin and Josephine.