Genetic differences between human and chimpanzee include ~50,000 amino acid changes, ~30,000,000 point mutations in non-coding sequences, and millions of insertions, deletions, inversions, genomic rearrangements, and transposable element movements [1]. The vast majority of these genetic changes are neutral [2] [3]. For neutral mutations, the expected number of generations required to reach fixation in the population is the reciprocal of the mutation rate per site per generation [4]. This holds irrespective of selection at other linked loci, changes in population size, or almost any other conceivable complication [4]. The human mutation rate, μ, is ~10-8 per site per generation [5]. Although μ can be orders of magnitude greater at certain sites, the fact that, as cited above, millions of neutral mutations occurred in the human line since its divergence from the chimpanzee line indicates that at least thousands of mutations occurred at the average rate of 10-8 per site per generation. Since the expected number of generations required for any one of these mutations to reach fixation in the population is the reciprocal of μ, this number equals ~108 generations. Since a generation is ~20 years for humans [5], the time required for any one of these thousands of neutral mutations to reach fixation is ~109 years.

According to the currently-known fossil record, the human line diverged from the chimpanzee line between 6 and 8 million years ago [7].

How is this major discrepancy between population genetics and the fossil record to be reconciled?


[1] Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium. Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Nature 437, 69–87 (2005)

[2] Harris, E. E. Non-adaptive processes in primate and human evolution. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 143 (Suppl. 51), 13–45 (2010)

[3] Vallender, E. J., Mekel-Bobrov, N. & Lahn, B. T. Genetic basis of human brain evolution. Trends Neurosci. 31, 637–644 (2008)

[4] Lanfear et al, Population size and the rate of evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, January 2014, Vol. 29, No. 1, Pages 33-42

[5] Kong, A. et al. Rate of de novo mutations and the importance of father’s age to disease risk. Nature 488, 471–475 (2012)

[6] Walker, R. et al. Growth rates and life histories in twenty-two small-scale societies. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 18, 295–311 (2006)

[7] Levin, N. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 43: 405-429 (2015)

  • $\begingroup$ I mean 10 raised to the 8th power. $\endgroup$
    – lenantak
    Aug 9, 2018 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ Oh ok.... you can replace 108 by $10^8$ and 10-8 by $10^{-8}$ for a much better formatting (don't forget the dollar signs). Just use the edit button to edit that. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Aug 9, 2018 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ HTML markup is much easier to remember — 10<sup>8</sup> for 10 to the power 8 (won't show in a comment). Use <sub> for subscripts. And that's what is being rendered by your browser. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Apr 1, 2019 at 22:27

1 Answer 1


Good literature work here and good question +1! In short, your main mistake was that you based your calculations on a single site and not on the whole genome. More info below.

Genome-wide vs sites specific mutation rate

The statistic of $10^8$ generations that you computed is the average rate of fixation of new neutral mutations per site. As considered the genome-wide statistic between humans and chimpanzee, you have to scale your predictions up to the entire genome. There are about $3 \cdot 10^{9}$ nucleotides in either the human of the chimp genome. That would result in a genome-wide mutation rate of $U ≈ 2 * 10^9 \cdot 10^{-8} = 20$ (the two is because mammals are diploids). Hence, the rate of fixation of 0.05 generation.

So, the expected time it would take for $30 \cdot 10^6$ new mutations to fix would be $30 \cdot 10^6 \cdot 0.05 = 15 \cdot 10^5$ generations. Because, such mutation can happen in either lineage (humans or chimps), we have to divide this number of 2 leading to $7.5 \cdot 10^5$. With a generation time of 20 years, that would take $1.5 \cdot 10^7$ years or 15 million years.

15 million years? Why not 6-8 million years as expected from fossil records?

Most of the discrepancy is probably due to vague approximation made in the computation. For example, you assumed a mutation rate of $10^{-8}$ while in reality, the average mutation rate is rather twice as large (Nachman et al., 2000, Kong et al., 2012, Wang et al., 2012, Rahbari et al. 2016).

Doubling this mutation rate would divide by 2 our expectation of 15 million years leading to an expectation of 7.5 million years that perfectly match the fossil records!

There is however another source that may cause an overestimation of the time needed... You assumed the absence of incomplete lineage sorting or in similar words, you assumed that the standing genetic variance in the ancestral population negligibly affected divergence among the two lineages. However, these discussions are for another time!

  • $\begingroup$ And you are assuming that the mutation rates stay stable over that many generations, which they probably don't. $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Nicolai I am not sure how fast the mutation rate evolves but to the level of approximation used here and given that we're dealing with genome-wide averages only, my intuition is that such an assumption is rather negligible. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Aug 9, 2018 at 14:37
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You have to half your estimated time because chimps have been evolving for that same amount of time not just humans. You are measuring two separate descendant lineages ,not comparing humans to their ancestor. Generations are also shorter for chimps, and presumably our distant ancestors. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 10, 2018 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @John I already did. Check out the sentence Because, such mutation can happen in either lineage, we have to divide this number of 2 leading to [..] I have now clarified what I meant by "either lineage". $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Aug 10, 2018 at 16:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf From OECD.org, In most OECD countries, the average age at which women give birth now stands at 30 or above [..]. I don't mean to claim that OECD countries are representative of all countries, and certainly not representative of our ancestors. Chimps only mature at about 15 years of age and then have only one child every 5 or 6 years. So, using 20 years felt like not too an awful choice but please, if you can come up with some references, I'd happily change this 20 to someone more accurate. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Apr 1, 2019 at 4:14

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