Multi-level human evolution: ecological patterns in hominin phylogeny.
Evolution is a process that occurs at many different levels, from genes to ecosystems. Genetic variations and ecological pressures are hence two sides of the same coin; but due both to fragmentary evidence and to the influence of a gene-centered and gradualistic approach to evolutionary phenomena, the field of paleoanthropology has been slow to take the role of macro-evolutionary patterns (i.e. ecological and biogeographical at large scale) seriously. However, several very recent findings in paleoanthropology stress both climate instability and ecological disturbance as key factors affecting the highly branching hominin phylogeny, from the earliest hominins to the appearance of cognitively modern humans. Allopatric speciation due to geographic displacement, turnover-pulses of species, adaptive radiation, mosaic evolution of traits in several coeval species, bursts of behavioral innovation, serial dispersals out of Africa, are just some of the macro-evolutionary patterns emerging from the field. The multilevel approach to evolution proposed by paleontologist Niles Eldredge is adopted here as interpretative tool, and has yielded a larger picture of human evolution that integrates different levels of evolutionary change, from local adaptations in limited ecological niches to dispersal phenotypes able to colonize an unprecedented range of ecosystems. Changes in global climate and Earth's surface most greatly affected human evolution. Precisely because it is cognitively hard for us to appreciate the long-term common destiny we share with the whole biosphere, it is particularly valuable to highlight the accumulating evidence that human evolution has been deeply affected by global ecological changes that transformed our African continent of origin.