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Published: Tuesday, 5/23/2006

Monkey business

When it comes to theories of mankind's origins, there's plenty of unintended irony in the lyrics of an old Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart tune: "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees. People say we monkey around. But we're too busy singing, to put anybody down."

When Boyce and Hart penned the words to that infectious TV theme song for the pop group the Monkees, they had no idea that a few decades later, an article in the journal Nature would lend the words a degree of scientific legitimacy.

Biostatisticians and geneticists from Harvard and MIT now believe humans are a lot closer to monkeys in the family tree than Darwin and his intellectual heirs said they were. The theory they're pushing posits that the ancestors of modern humans and chimpanzees interbred 1.2 million years after splitting from a common ape-like ancestor.

Instead of going their own way, mankind's hairy progenitors on both sides of the evolutionary divide got together to make soulful music. If the theory is correct, it means that modern human beings are descended from some sort of chimp/human hybrid. It's a new concept and holds major implications for any understanding of what "humans" are.

Older fossils previously identified as human will have to be reclassified, throwing much of what science thought it knew about early man out the window. Humans may be a lot younger than previously believed, but they're still far older than the timetable allowed by literal interpretations of Genesis.

After last year's Pennsylvania court case that focused nationwide attention on the debate over the version of creationism called "intelligent design," new theories of human origins are once again emerging from the frontiers of evolutionary science. Let our God-given intelligence pursue the scientific exploration.

If in chasing our ancestors' footprints across the sands of time we come across a paw or two, so be it. That's just a part of who we are as a species. It's not the whole measure of a man.

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