The Evolution of the Human Face

Speaker: Dr Adam S. Wilkins, geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Humboldt-Universitat Berlin

By Adam S. Wilkins
By several measures, the human face is a highly unusual one. Although we take it (unconsciously) as the standard for judging the oddness or even comicality of the faces of other mammals, our face is actually one of the oddest in its physical features (as will be described). It is also unusual in the degree to which it participates in our social existence. Our faces not only provide instant physical identification of individuals but, in their expressions, convey much about their personalities. In effect, the human face serves to broadcast information about ourselves, for social purposes. Yet, for most other animals, those social functions of the face are much reduced or absent. The main purpose of the face in these species is to receive information about the environment, principally about food. While our faces serve those functions too, they do much more. How did the human face acquire its special features and functions? In this talk, I will sketch the evolutionary history of the human face, starting with the first vertebrates, tiny fish of more than half a billion years ago, and describe the main events that led to our unique face. The last fifty million years or so, I will argue, feature a tale of mind over matter – how various mental activities and states indirectly but powerfully influenced the evolution of a physical entity which, in turn, contributed to shaping the evolution of mental processes.