Did Human Men Evolve to Take a Punch?

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Did five million years of duking it out over females build the modern human male visage?

Evolutionists not only believe molecules-to-man evolution explains human anatomy and intellect but also human nature. University of Utah biologist David Carrier and physician Michael Morgan believe our faces evolved to deal with our violent neighbors.

Their research is expected to generate controversy, but not because of the biological impossibility of molecules-to-man evolution or even the complete lack of observational evidence to support the claims of ape-like–ancestor-to-human evolution. The claim that violence has shaped human evolution—that our ancestors had a violent nature—rocks the world of those who choose to believe that at our core we are essentially good.

Evolved to Punch

The best fist a chimpanzee can make is a donut. Last year we reported that Carrier and Morgan assert human hand anatomy evolved to deliver a powerful destructive punch while maintaining precision dexterity.1

Their conclusions have drawn criticism from some who do not believe human ancestors were inherently violent. To admit that violence shaped human evolution impugns the image of the “noble savage.”

Evolved to Take a Punch

Now Carrier and Morgan have published a study in Biological Reviews asserting that, just as the hand evolved to punch, so the human male face evolved to take a punch. They write, “When humans fight, the face is a vulnerable target. Given that the hand proportions that allow humans to form a buttressed fist appear to have been present in the earliest hominins, do the faces of early hominins exhibit evidence of increased robusticity and buttressing that would be protective in instances of interpersonal violence? Specifically, do the bones most susceptible to fracture during fighting, the mandible, zygomatic arch, nasal region, orbit and maxilla, exhibit increased robusticity?”2

Their answer is “yes.” They believe the differences between the various living and australopithecine apes and humans exist because hominid ancestors were evolving more punch-resistant faces to go with their violent fists.

Evolutionary anthropologists maintain that extinct australopithecine apes are the evolutionary antecedents of humans. Though australopithecines naturally differ in some respects from living apes, evolutionists have painted them as missing links in human history. We have examined specific claims made about australopithecine anatomy in many articles, such as

Because australopithecines are generally regarded as the oldest actors in the human evolutionary story, Carrier and Morgan compared the facial structure of humans to several australopithecine species—Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, and Paranthropus boisei. The mandible (lower jawbone), the orbit, and the zygomatic arch (the arched bone in front of your ear) are larger and thicker in australopithecines.3 They are comparable to or exceed the size of corresponding bones in gorillas.

Spinning Head Is Bad

Ape jaws protrude. Humans have a more vertical face and non-protruding (i.e. orthognathic) jaw. What happened to our ancestral jutting jaw? Carrier and Morgan offer their evolutionary explanation: a jutting jaw is out in front, just waiting to be hit. And if struck by a powerful hook, a jutting jaw would tend to spin the head. A less prominent jaw, the authors indicate, might allow the energy from the blow to be absorbed by the neck muscles and the muscles that clench the jaw.4 This apparently makes the vertical human face a superior design from a pugilistic perspective.

Nasal Bones

Humans have protuberant nasal bones that make it possible for our skulls to wear glasses. Living apes do not. Australopithecines do not. “The nasal bones of australopiths were similar to those of chimpanzees and gorillas in being relatively small and recessed in-line with the profile of the face, rather than protuberant as in Homo,”2 the researchers write. They offer this evolutionary explanation: “Presumably as a consequence of this plesiomorphic configuration, the nasal bones of australopiths were less vulnerability [sic] to injury than is the case in modern humans.”2

An ape cannot easily break its nasal bones because they do not protrude like they do in humans. Thus it seems, within the scenario these authors propose, that humans evolving toward less violence have risked growing bony support for their eyeglasses.

protestThese are artistic reconstructions comparing the jaw-jutting robust profile of three apes—chimpanzee (A), Australopithecus afarensis (B), and Paranthropus boisei (C)—to the more vertical and more delicate faces of humans—Homo erectus (D) and Homo sapiens (E) (scale bar 100mm). Image: University of Utah, from D. Carrier and M. Morgan, “Protective buttressing of the hominin face,” Biological Reviews (2014) doi:10.1111/brv.12112

Violent Version of Humanity’s Past

Carrier and Morgan’s theory demands that our supposed ape-like ancestors were aggressive enough for violence to primarily shape our evolution. That view is not popular with everyone, as some have followed the lead of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He argued that before civilization humans were “noble savages” and that violence results from various evils of society.

Believing his study shows we have a naturally violent past, Carrier says, “The hypothesis that our early ancestors were aggressive could be falsified if we found that the anatomical characters that distinguish us from other primates did not improve fighting ability. What our research has been showing is that many of the anatomical characters of great apes and our ancestors, the early hominins (such as bipedal posture, the proportions of our hands and the shape of our faces) do, in fact, improve fighting performance.”5

Me Tarzan, You Jane

Their theory, the researchers contend, is also the only reasonable explanation evolution provides for the facial distinctions between the males and females of some species—known as sexual dimorphism. Human males generally have a boxier, sturdier facial bone structure than females, but among some apes—like gorillas—sexual dimorphism is dramatic.

Evolutionary explanations that associate skull features with dietary demands cannot explain this gender difference. Why would males evolve bigger and thicker jaws, facial bones, other skull bones, and muscles of the head and neck if the need to grind or chew a lot of hard or tough food were the driving force of the evolution. Females must eat too, after all. These researchers believe they have finally put an evolutionary face on the difference between males and females.

In Carrier and Morgan’s view, the violent aggressors in our past were the males. Carrier says, “When modern humans fight hand to hand, the face is usually the primary target. What we found was that the bones that suffer the highest rates of fracture in fights are the same parts of the skull that exhibited the greatest increase in robusticity. These bones also show the greatest difference between males and females in australopiths and humans. In other words, male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males.”

As the authors analyze each part of human and ape head and neck anatomy in their study, they do so with the belief that the “why” of it must depend on our evolutionary history. For instance, it seemed to them that sturdy neck muscles would be important in animals that fight by biting. But humans do not, so why, they wondered, do men have sturdier neck muscles than women? They determined that sturdier neck muscles evolved and persisted in males to absorb energy from a punch to the head and protect them from concussions. Thus, human males need sturdier neck muscles than women even though they don’t generally fight by biting.2

Not only does this theory maintain human ancestors were violent but that, at our deepest roots, dominant males were viciously fighting over females. The social implications of the notion that women evolved to be dominated and possessed are disturbingly obvious, at least they are for those who believe that humans—body, minds, and morals—are the products of evolution.

Getting Better?

We humans can best defeat the violent nature we inherited from our forebears, becoming good citizens of the peaceable kingdom on earth, in the view of these authors, if we simply admit the truth about ourselves and set our minds to overcoming it. Morgan says: “I think our science is sound and fills some long-standing gaps in the existing theories of why the musculoskeletal structures of our faces developed the way they did. Our research is about peace. We seek to explore, understand, and confront humankind’s violent and aggressive tendencies. Peace begins with ourselves and is ultimately achieved through disciplined self-analysis and an understanding of where we’ve come from as a species. Through our research, we hope to look ourselves in the mirror and begin the difficult work of changing ourselves for the better.”

And perhaps we are already on our way, they tell us! Having traced the very robust features of our supposed australopithecine ancestors toward the human face, the authors must explain how the sturdy bones of the australopithecine shrank to the more delicate features of humans, even human males. “Our arms and upper body are not nearly as strong as they were in the australopiths,” Carrier explains. “There’s a temporal correlation.”6

Carrier and Morgan propose that as we have become less violent as a species, we have evolved to be less robust and less powerful than our hominin ancestors. They write, “The facial skeleton of Homo presents a challenge to the protective buttressing hypothesis. The skull of Homo is distinguished from that of Australopithecus by a reduction in the masticatory system. . . . The trend of reduced facial and dentition size continues in species of late archaic Homo and in H. sapiens.”2 They indicate that decreasing upper body strength in humans has co-evolved with the now decreasing robusticity of the face, writing, “striking power must have decreased and the level of buttressing necessary to protect the face against fist strikes during fighting would also have declined.”2

That the modern human facial structure and upper body strength are not nearly as robust as that of our australopithecine ancestors suggests, in their view, that humans are already evolving away from our violent millions-of-years australopithecine heritage.

The Real Truth

So can evolution reveal why humans can make fists and chimps can’t? Or why ape jaws jut and human jaws do not? Or why male and female skeletal structures differ in some species? Can the differences between ape faces and human faces reveal to us whether we are inherently a violent species? And are humans naturally becoming better, kinder, more peaceful people?

There are plenty of good uses for a fist that have nothing to do with fighting or aggression.

There are plenty of good uses for a fist that have nothing to do with fighting or aggression. When I punch open a box or punch down a mound of bread dough, I have no violent intent. I have a friend who routinely opens coconuts by punching them. He surely means no fellow human harm. Likewise, the human face—even the face of the more rock-‘em-sock-‘em-robot–type men among us—did not evolve to serve as a punching bag.

God designed humans, male and female, with many similarities and some differences, many of which are hormonally mediated. We do not have to explain how humans became different from apes or how women became different from men through evolution. We already know from the Bible, Genesis chapter 1 and 2, that God created all kinds of land animals as well as Adam and Eve on the same day—no evolution involved or needed.

God created Adam and Eve good but they rebelled against Him. Humans do have a violent and sinful nature and have had it since Adam sinned. Cain’s murder of Abel demonstrates that rebellion against God gave way to human violence very early in human history. But our violent nature did not drive the evolution of our God-designed anatomy. The assumption that the human face developed from an ape-like template through the process of evolution and natural selection is an insupportable assumption, but is at the foundation of all Carrier and Morgan’s conclusions. They may tell an amusing story, but they are in fact just story-telling about a past that we humans do not have.

The image of an ape punching another ape and giving his head a spin as he ponders the virtue of evolving a flatter jaw is funny, but there is a danger to this cute story. Humans and apes have different responsibilities and opportunities in this world. Apes—extinct or living—are animals. Men and women, boys and girls, have the opportunity to know the God who created them. Each of us is responsible for the sins in our lives. Each of us has available to us the matchless grace of Jesus Christ to save us from the guilt we as human sinners bear. Never, never—if you value your eternal destiny and that of those you love—take your theology and moral understanding from an ape or from those foolish enough to disregard God’s truth and tell you we evolved from them.

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Answers in Depth

2014 Volume 9


  1. While many engineering approaches could produce the dexterity for fine precision work, only one such design could also make a tight fist able to remain stable while punching. And that is the shape and construction of the human hand. See “Evolutionary Researchers: Human Hand Evolved for Dual Abilities.”
  2. D. Carrier and M. Morgan, “Protective Buttressing of the Hominin Face,” Biological Reviews (2014), doi:10.1111/brv.12112.
  3. The sturdy buttressing of the orbit by a thick wide “frontal process” at the lateral margin and thick lateral walls, for instance, could inspire engineers and architects, being in the case of Au. afarensis even larger than that in male gorillas.
  4. They write, “Beginning in early hominins, the trend towards a more vertically oriented, orthognathic face (Rak, 1983; Lieberman, 2011; Fig. 2) reduced the rotational moment on the skull from a blow applied in the region of the mandibular symphysis. At the same time, this change in shape of the face increased the mechanical advantage of the jaw adductor and neck muscles that may provide protective energy absorption when the chin is struck.” From Carrier and Morgan, “Protective Buttressing of the Hominin Face.”
  5. “The Human Face Developed over 5m Years of Fisticuffs, Scientists Claim,” June 9, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jun/09/human-face-developed-over-5m-years-of-fighting-scientists-claim.
  6. Jonathan Webb, “Male Faces ‘Buttressed Against Punches’ by Evolution,” BBC, June 9, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-27720617.


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