Continuity

Humanchimp_2015Since the earliest hypotheses on human evolution there is major issue on continuity vs discontinuity. Charles Darwin suggested that only a matter of degree separates human and non-human species, also in the cognitive sense. From the opposite side, many biologists (mostly those involved in molecular sciences) are constantly looking for unique features, single changes that can switch the light on. The fact that there is still no agreement or evidence giving definitive support to any of the two perspectives may suggest that the debate is simply oriented toward an unfruitful direction. If there is still no good answer, maybe it is because there is a bad question. Is a faster car faster just because it supports higher speed or because it is differently designed? Both. What about evolutionary “shifts” based on the same processes? Are they a continuous or a discontinuous phenomenon? Both. Brain evolution is particularly sensitive to the continuity vs discontinuity debate. Is there a real biological frontier between continuity and discontinuity? It looks like a fractal loop and any change is, after all, a discontinuity in something. In paleontology, continuity is often a matter of appearance concerning the homogeneity of the fossil record, which gives a partial and largely incomplete view of the variation. Paleontology is furthermore based on a specific biological component – morphology – which may not necessarily have a linear correspondence with the underlying evolutionary processes. What if continuity and discontinuity are just in our head, in our eyes, in the form we perceive reality, in the form we analyze reality? We need fixed categories to decompose the scene and then recompose it by searching for relationships. Maybe this necessity is a limit, or maybe it is an advantage. But we think through categories. Evolution does not.

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