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Since I was young, I always understood that evolution taught that we descended from monkeys (or apes, not too sure a distinction was ever made). However, someone recently told me that this isn't correct, and that we actually share a common ancestor, but not a direct line of evolution.

Can anyone clarify which approach (if either) is correct?

Assuming the latter is correct, doesn't it raise problems of missing fossils? If we descended from monkeys, there is less of a gap to fill, but if we share a common ancestor, we would need to fill a much bigger gap, right the way back to the point where our family trees diverged.

As I said, I don't know much about this, and find most of the online material too technical to understand. If anyone could explain this in simple terms, I would be very grateful.

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  • $\begingroup$ The essence of what you say is all true, but some very important details are missing. Generally the comparison is to chimpanzees, which, as Remi.b points out, we did not descend from. We do share a common ancestor with chimpanzees which you can call a monkey. The concept of "missing fossils" or "gaps" is and has always been a red strawman herring. $\endgroup$ – Amory Sep 30 '15 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Well, first of all scientists are not sure that we eloved from monkeys. They arent 100% sure! None knows that. $\endgroup$ – The_Mad_Fish Sep 30 '15 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Nor do we know 100% whether or not we are in The Matrix. $\endgroup$ – johntreml Oct 1 '15 at 2:31
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Welcome to Biology.SE.

About your post

It is a very standard question and a common source of misunderstanding from the general public. If you just google do we descend from monkeys you will get tons of hits that will answer your question.

Because this question is introductory and has already received a lot of answers online, there is therefore no point for me to make a long and extensive answer here. I will just state the essentials and let you investigate it further through the multiple online sources that exists.

Note by the way, that if you want to get some introductory knowledge in evolutionary biology, you might want to have a look at a few course on Understanding Evolution by UC Berkley

The actual answer

In short, It makes no sense to say of any species that it descends from any other extant species. Two extant species share a common ancestor though. The Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) is of particular interest. Following this logic, humans do NOT descend from modern days chimpanzee, but humans and chimpanzee have a common ancestor. Their MRCA was another ape, but not an ape that exists today (even though it may look like one).

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    $\begingroup$ I believe chimps and our MRCA were apes, not monkeys. Big difference. $\endgroup$ – MattDMo Sep 30 '15 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ That was a language issue. I meant that their MRCA was a primate. Thanks for the comment. I edited my answer. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Sep 30 '15 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ "It makes no sense to say of any species that it descends from any other extant species." It does if both are still extant. $\endgroup$ – endolith Aug 3 '17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @endolith while your claim may hold playing out with the definition of species (see here), it is never considered as such. At a speciation event, the ancestral species stop existing under its name as it evolves into the two descendant lineages. Have a look to any introductory course to evolutionary biology for more information. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Aug 3 '17 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @endolith You may also want to have a look at this answer for an intro to phylogenetics $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Aug 3 '17 at 20:19
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Remi provides a great answer here. One thing I would like to add is an analogy: Humans and Chimps are both modern species (i.e. existing today). Compare this to you, your brother, and your cousin all of whom are in the same generation.

To ask whether Humans evolved from Chimps is comparable to asking if you are a descendant of your cousin. Neither of you descended from the other, instead, all three people have a common ancestor - in this case, your grandparents (which, in very real terms, are your MRCAs).

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Assuming the latter is correct, doesn't it raise problems of missing fossils? If we descended from monkeys, there is less of a gap to fill, but if we share a common ancestor, we would need to fill a much bigger gap, right the way back to the point where our family trees diverged.

The missing fossil thing isn't really much of a problem. Fossils are hard to find - they're often burried and poorly preserved.

And we have found plenty of fossils of early homo and pre-homo hominids.

Have a look at these for example.

Examples of early homo fossils include: Neanderthals, Denisovans, Floresiensis, Heidelbergensis, Erectus, Antecessor, Naledi

Examples of pre-homo fossils include: the various australopithecines (afarensis, africanus, anamensis, bahrelghazali, garhi, sediba), the various paranthropus (robustus, boisei, aethiopicus), the various ardipithecines (ramidus, kadabba)

Not only that, but we have sequenced Neanderthal and Denosovan genomes and found instances where they are more similar to chimps than we are as well as instances where we are more similar to chimps than they are.

It simply isn't true that missing fossils present a problem.

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