Models of Primate Evolution


Models are generalised abstractions or explanatory hypotheses used to organise or understand data. Primates are the order of mammals to which humans belong, and for that reason have attracted considerable attention. Competing models have been proposed to explain the origin of primates, their evolutionary relationships, their unique social and ecological behaviour and their remarkable intelligence and brain complexity. Other models have focused on the origins of perhaps the strangest primate, the human being. All can be examined with ever‐accumulating information from both living and extinct species, and problematic proposals can be discarded or modified. While a considerable amount is known about primate anatomical and behavioural evolution, it is likely that the most comprehensive models regarding many relevant topics have actually yet to be constructed.

Key Concepts

  • Model building is key to scientific progress, and is vital for helping to understand primate evolution.
  • The models of primate origins developed to date focus on anatomical features related to locomotion and feeding, as opposed to social or other life variables.
  • There is wide consensus on the broad outline of primate evolutionary relationships, but often less consensus on the recognition of particular genera or species, or relationships between species.
  • The two major approaches to explaining patterns of primate socioecology have focused on identifying environmental and/or physiological determinants; future work should give detailed consideration to both.
  • Models of primate brain evolution have in the past emphasised either complex feeding behaviour or social relationships; some more recent work incorporates these and other factors.
  • Models for human origins and evolution are particularly controversial.
  • Models for human origins (e.g. why hominids walk on two legs) have focused on carrying tools, thermoregulation, reproductive behaviour and other factors.
  • Models of primate evolution are continuously subject to reevaluation as new data from living and fossil species accumulates.
  • Successful models of primate evolution should consider their subjects in a holistic sense, as opposed to focusing on a small subset of anatomical and/or behavioural characters.

Keywords: hypothesis testing; primate origins; primate phylogeny; primate socioecology; primate brain evolution; primate intelligence; human origins; human evolution; bipedal locomotion


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de Waal FB (ed) (2001) Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Washburn DA (ed) (2007) Primate Perspectives on Behavior and Cognition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Westneat D and Fox CW (eds) (2010) Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Sayers, Ken(Nov 2015) Models of Primate Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026406]