When Darwin first put forward his theory of Natural Selection there was general outcry, not so much at the theory itself, but at the suggestion that humans were related to, and descended from, apes. Most Victorians after all, believed that we were placed on this earth by God, who had made man in his own image. How could we possibly have evolved from mere animals?
Whilst some still believe this, evolution (via the mechanism of natural selection and the survival of the fittest) is now accepted as fact by the majority of the scientific community and is taught in schools from a young age. The reason? Regardless of whether you approach it as a geneticist, a physiologist, a cellular biologist or an archeologist, the evidence is simply overwhelming. We share up to 98% of our genetic sequence with chimpanzees. The cells that make up our bodies are the same as those that make up the body of a mouse, a cow or any other mammal. The chemical processes that take place within them are highly conserved and the development of our skeletons can be traced millions of years through the fossil record to when the first animals took to land (and beyond).
In spite of all this we still think of ourselves as different. In our lectures we are given countless examples of the evolutionary processes that give rise to the animal behaviours and adaptations seen today, yet examples concerning humans are few and far between. Admittedly humans are difficult to study, not least because of ethical concerns. However, this in itself reinforces the idea of us being different. Why should experimenting on humans be any different from experimenting on animals? I’m not endorsing human experimentation but we are, after all, animals ourselves. The truth is, despite being genetically, physiologically and evolutionarily similar to other mammals, no other species has been quite so successful, nor has had such a big influence on both their own evolution or on the planet as a whole, as Homo sapiens.
For more information on the evidence for evolution I highly recommend Jerry Coyne’s book, ‘Why Evolution is True’