The Role of Neoteny in Human Evolution: From Genes to the Phenotype

  • Mehmet Somel
  • Lin Tang
  • Philipp Khaitovich
Part of the Primatology Monographs book series (PrimMono)


Humans are separated from their closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, by 6–7 million years of evolution. This is a short period in evolutionary terms: genetically, the two species are as much as 99% identical. Within this short time, however, human ancestors evolved a unique set of cognitive abilities distinguishing humans from other species. This raises the question: how, mechanistically, could human cognitive abilities evolve in such a short time interval? More than 30 years ago M.C. King and A. Wilson had already proposed that identifying differences in the timing of gene expression during brain development between humans and apes would be crucial for understanding human evolution. Indeed, change in timing and rate of ontogenetic changes, or heterochrony, has long been known as a potent mechanism of creating evolutionary novelties. If true, this mechanism offers a solution to the conundrum of human evolution, by allowing novel human cognitive abilities to develop on the basis of preexisting cognitive machinery. Comparison of human and chimpanzee ontogenetic changes on the molecular level, however, has visibly lagged behind those in model organisms. Here, we describe recent advances in this field, which imply a molecular link between the evolution of two seemingly independent human-specific features: cognitive abilities and longevity.


Gene Expression Change Human Phenotype Human Longevity Human Lifespan Extrinsic Mortality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.





Messenger RNA


Reactive oxygen species



M.S. was supported by Chinese Academy of Sciences young scientist fellowship (no. 2009Y2BS12) and a Natural Science Foundation of China research grant (no. 31010022).


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© Springer 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Partner Institute for Computational Biology, Shanghai Institutes for Biological SciencesChinese Academy of SciencesShanghaiChina
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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