Shared Traits: Baboons and Humans

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One of the fundamental components of anthropology is to examine the link between human beings and other species.  Some of humanity’s closest relatives come in the forms of the primates of the world, specifically cercopithecine monkeys such as the baboon.  A comparison between the two species, humans and baboons, shows just how closely related the two are, from rudimentary social structures all the way down the microscopic in terms of genetic similarities.  It is through these sorts of comparisons that humans are able to observe and map out the evolutionary progress that our species has made over time considering that evolutionary scientists have theorized that there existed a common ancestor between the two species.  By examining the elements that are shared and the ones that are different between human beings and cercopithecine monkeys, one can gain a much better appreciation of both the similarities and diversities between two separate but related species.  

First, to understand the similarities of species, it is important to gain a rough understanding of the habits that are displayed by cercopithecines, specifically the baboon, in their natural environment.  The cercopithecines are a subset of the roughly 80 species of animals that are categorized as Old World monkeys (O’Neil).  There are also categorizations of New World Monkeys (NWO). The subfamily that is known as the cercopithecines is compiled of individual species that include baboons, mangabeys, mandrills, patas monkeys, and guenons (O’Neil).  This group of Old World monkeys is known to inhabit the southern half of Africa and southeastern Asia and can be found in a multitude of different environmental conditions that range from forests, cliffs, arid regions, to even mountainous areas (American Wildlife Foundation).  Particularly with the baboons, it is quite common to see a large difference between the genders of the species.  The males of the species are known to grow much large in both size and weight when compared to the females.  For example, the male savanna baboon is to grow up to 80 pounds, much larger than the size of the females of the species (O’Neil).  The baboon, like most other mammals, is considered an omnivore.  They are known to eat, “fruits, grasses, seeds, bark, and roots,” (National Geographic).  The species is also known to have a taste for a variety of meats as well and have become known as very opportunistic eaters.  They are known to eat meat from rodents, birds, and even the younger, smaller members of larger mammal groups such as antelopes and sheep (National Geographic).  

The social structure of the baboon is one that is shared by many other primates, even including that of humans.  Members of this species are known to be organized into large social groups often called communities (American Wildlife Foundation).  These groups are usually numbered somewhere around 50 individuals that are built of a small number of males and mainly females and their offspring.  There exists a distinctive social hierarchy within these communities that is made up of a delicate balance of power between the members.  The dominant males are the leaders of the community and have their choice of mates, food, and general respect of the group (American Wildlife Foundation).  Different levels of hierarchy also exist within the females of a community as some are elevated to leaders of the group, usually based upon age, aggression, or number of offspring that the female has produced (O’Neil).  Each member of the group performs a very specific job to ensure the group's safety and longevity.  The females serve as guardians and nurturers to the young.  They will ensure that the infants do not wander away from the group and keep a watchful eye for potential predators that could threaten the group’s safety (O’Neil).  The males serve as the main protectors for their communities.  They will attempt to drive off the predators that threaten the group if possible and will take an active role in alerting and protecting the female and infants of their group whenever possible (O’Neil).

In terms of purely social behavior, some of the traits that are displayed by baboons are quite similar to that of the traits that human beings display in a social sense.  Humans naturally gravitate towards a social group, albeit that the close-knit groups that humans create are much more open to outside contact with other social groups.  In a rough sense, humans compete within their social groups much like the baboons to be placed within certain levels of a social hierarchy.  For example, there exists a battle for the dominant male within a group of humans, however, it is rarely as openly violent as the same battle that would exist within a group of baboons.  Instead of physically fighting one another to prove dominance, humans will tend towards a more psychological or social dominance to establish the social hierarchy in a given situation.  The similarities between the two species are not merely limited to the social and behavior sense, as there is also a close relationship on a biological level.

Like all living organisms, human beings are genetically programmed to display certain physical and physiological traits.  The genetic mapping that leads to the display of these traits is found within our DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid (Stein & Rowe).  DNA is responsible for “the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms,” (Genetics Home Reference).  It is through the DNA that particular information about how an organism will be structured is determined.  Through the four chemical bases of DNA (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) the basis that “determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism,” is formed (Genetics Home Reference).  But, what does the presence of DNA have to do with the relationship that exists between humans and baboons?  It is through the similarities of the genetic sequences that one can gain an appreciation of the closeness of the relationship between the two.

Considering how many base pairs exist within DNA, it would be very hard to argue that a relationship between species does not exist if they share similarities in the structure.  Human beings and baboons, as well as most other mammals, share such a similarity.  These two species have “roughly the same number of nucleotides in their genomes – about 3 billion base pairs,” (Stubbs).  Drawing from this fact, the work done via the Human Genome Project has led many to the conclusion that the “comparable DNA content implies that all mammals contain more or less the same number of genes,” (Stubbs).  Based on these findings, it appears quite clear that there must be a link between the two species considering the similarities that are shared in terms of genetic markers.  Studies have shown that, in fact, our DNA is so similar to that of the baboon that there is a less than 2.0% difference between the two (Smithsonian).  

The basis of the similarities between the two species from the DNA evidence of similarity all falls in line with the theory that is explained via evolution.  Followers of this theory believe that the relationship between humans and other primates comes from the fact that we shared a common ancestor.  Under this premise, a common ancestor that lived 25 million years ago began to separate via the evolutionary process that accounts for the divergence of monkeys and apes in a genetic sense (Smithsonian).  In a continuing divergence nature, the common ancestor that separates humans from apes was theorized to have existed as few as 6 to 8 million years ago (Smithsonian).  This ancestor that the two species shared continued to diverge in an evolutionary sense until the two distinct species exist in the modern world.  It should be noted, however, that the theorized ancestor that links the human to our closest ape relatives has yet to be discovered in terms of physical remains and is theorized based upon the most recent and relative data on the subject.  

Though human beings are closed related to the cercopithecines, the two species are clearly different.  Regardless of the shared ancestry and DNA structures, the two have very distinctive and separate behaviors, appearances, and ways of life.  For example, baboons have surprising mental capabilities. It is also important to keep in mind that the scientific evidence that today is the leading information of the field could easily become outdated or disproven over time.  Humanity may come to find that our closest ancestors diverged from each other much earlier, or later than what is now theorized, and be opened to the possibility that other, currently unknown complications may exist in finding the full story of the human evolutionary process.  As with many endeavors in the scientific community, the more data that is collected the better and more accurate the theories proposed by scientists become.

Anthropology is known as the science of humanity.  Its aims are to help give humanity a better understanding of what makes an individual act and behave as a human.  There is no better way to understanding why humans behave in certain ways than by understanding the history of humanity from a biological sense.  It is through investigation and inquiry that our species is able to understand many of the reasons of how and why humans have evolved and become what they are today.  One of the questions about our own origin that anthropologists attempt to answer stems from the relationship that exists between human beings and other primates, who are our closest genetic relatives.  Through the examination of a particular offshoot of a species of primates, the cercopithecine monkeys specifically baboons, an observer can see just how closely related the two species are in both a behavior and social sense and a biological sense.  Through the mapping of DNA, one can see that the biological similarities between these two species are extremely close, and through tracing of genetic origins, it has been theorized that a common ancestor links the two species.  Though humans tend to separate themselves from other animals, the extremely close relationship between the two species shows just how related humans are to the animal kingdom.                  

Works Cited

American Wildlife Foundation. "Baboon." American Wildlife Foundation. 2007: n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/baboon>.

Genetics Home Reference. "What is DNA?." Genetics Home Reference. 11 Mar 2013: n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/basics/dna>.

National Geographic, . "Baboon: Papio anubis." National Geographic. n.d. n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/baboon/>.

O'Neil, Dennis. "Primates: The Taxonomy and General Characteristics of Prosimians, Monkeys, Apes, and Humans." Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College. 1998: n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://anthro.palomar.edu/primate/Default.htm>.

Smithsonian. "What does it meant be human: Genetic Evidence." Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. n.d. n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics>.

Stein, Philip, and Bruce Rowe. Physical Anthropology. 10th. McGraw Hill, 2010. Print. 

Stubbs, Lisa. "Functional and Comparative Genomics Fact Sheet ." Human Genome Project Information. 24 Aug 2011: n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2013. <http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/faq/compgen.shtml>.