Home BiologyEvolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
BiologyBy Joe Burgett -

Evolution, something that might not seem very complicated at first glance. Yet it is somehow always misinterpreted or messed up in explanation. We feel that this is a huge problem, so we wanted to make sure to explain it correctly for you. We want to remove any consistently mistaken material on the matter, which will allow you to truly understand Evolution. The goal for us is to teach you not just about evolution itself but also what causes it. We’ll also break down what evolution leads to and why it is so important.

We feel this is key to explaining it, as you may very well be unaware of some of this. It could also be that you were told things that you’re unsure about and you want to confirm something or forget about it. Regardless of the reasoning, we’re glad you’re here to check this article out. We will not be using any crazy language nor will we just leave you with hard to comprehend science. Instead, we’ll break down every single complicated part of Evolution worth your time. By the end of it all, you could likely tell a 5-year-old about Evolution and he or she could accurately tell others. With that said, let’s get started!


Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Charles Darwin and Darwinism

While Evolution is our main subject, it would feel wrong to start off an article about this and not include Charles Darwin and Darwinism. The main idea of Darwinism is that every species of organisms will arise and develop through a form of natural selection. In order to survive, they will need to be able to compete for food, reproduce to add the next generation, and much more.

The idea Darwin had with this was not really disputable. It is clear that one needs to be able to survive, which means the development of key traits will allow them to do this. He explained all of this in his book “On the Origin of Species,” which was published in 1859. His theories were not so much theory any longer but rather, scientific fact. Darwin also mentioned some incredibly broad ideas regarding the transmutation of species or “evolution.”

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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When “Darwinism” Was Coined

This was relatively useful, but some of the concepts or ideas he used were known a bit before Darwin’s book was released. Therefore, Darwin was not exactly the man to invent evolution or coin the term. However, his great work and studies did explain how a lot of this worked.

It was the concept of Natural Selection that truly helped us understand how plants and animal species were able to not only survive but thrive over thousands to millions of years. After his book was released and gained notoriety in 1860, Anthropologist/Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “Darwinism.” We have used it ever since. Yet Darwin was not the only person who came up with this concept (more on that soon).

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Evolution Explained Part 1

We wanted to go over Darwinism as well as Natural Selection to prepare you for the idea that, quite frankly, evolution is a complicated subject. It is often confused or people seem to want to believe things that are not true. People also misquote Darwin and other evolutionary biologists when discussing it. Many people in history have suggested that the human body, as well as animals, have managed to develop key survival traits.

It is not really something anyone had to actually explain. It was seen in human beings as well as animals, so how could we actually say otherwise? What truly is evolution? Ignoring Natural Selection, evolution is simply adjustments a species makes over a period of time. It could be merely one adjustment or several, depending on the species.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Evolution Explained Part 2

It is very important to note that a “species” makes these changes. It’s often not the same animal, human, or plant that does this. Bodily adjustments could happen in this case but nothing more, outside of man-made aids or additions. An example of that would be something like glasses we use to help us see better. This means that the characteristics and changes are “heritable,” or passed on from generation to generation.

Each species will add its own adjustment or tweak to fit the present period. We used the example above about how we use glasses to see better. If eyesight needs to improve for a species, it will be able to make this change. In order to live on, the eyesight must improve so the species will either adjust to this or die off as a result of not being able to adjust its eyesight.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Principles Of Evolution – Variation and Inheritance

A lot seems to be overlooked when it comes to evolution. In particular, how evolution operates. It manages to do this in four main ways, often referred to as the Four Principles of Evolution. Those are Variation, Inheritance, Selection, and Time.

Variation simply means that individuals in a species will differ in genetic makeup which means several types will be present. It is key that this is present as it allows for hereditary changes to happen, especially good ones. Without some version of a species possessing something in a particular realm, it is hard to pass on a major evolutionary change.

Inheritance goes along with this, in that the hereditary change that passes on will be inherited by the offspring. That same offspring will then continue to pass it on and any variation it has to its future offspring. It is important that this happens, as it is incredibly key.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Principles of Evolution – Selection and Time

Selection is where the big part comes up. A species might develop something very useful through inherited means. These genes allow them to survive a lot better, which means even more species can be produced by that individual. This will then create offspring that, like their parent, also inherited useful survival tools. They will then pass on their useful genes, which will eventually lead to a population of long-lasting and impressive members of a species.

Time is simply the period when a species will develop all of its key survival skills and/or abilities. Some changes that are easy to make could take days to adapt to, while others take millions of years. The most successful of the species will pass on their genes to create more successful members of their species, and so on. It is also key to mention that even if a species develops a lot of key evolutionary traits over a long period of time, it is possible that it too may one day be unable to adapt. This will, in turn, make a once very adaptable line into a useless member of a species that needed them to get where they are today. That’s the sad part about evolution, you either adapt or you die off.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Differing Patterns Of Evolution

Evolution comes in many forms, with each being seen as important for different yet similar reasons. All are critical to evolution as a whole, with some being drastic.  There are also four main patterns of evolution. Those break down to Convergent Evolution, Divergent Evolution, Parallel Evolution, and Coevolution.

Each version is easy to understand, and we’ll even give you examples of how you can separate them from each other a bit easier. Due to the fact that they can sometimes differ wildly, a lot of people get them confused. This is why it is key that you know more about each. Let’s discuss them!

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Convergent Evolution

This a process where species that are technically not connected or closely related, yet independently evolve to have traits similar to each other. For example, you can see this with Eagles, Falcons, Bats, etc. All have wings that they evolved to possess. Scientists call this a type of analogous structure.

However, they do not owe their evolutionary change to each other. The wings evolved independently for survival or reproduction, meaning though similar they evolved differently. What we mean by this is, you did not need a long-term hereditary change among numerous species to reach this. It could begin with one and slowly allow more species or altered versions of the same to crop up.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Divergent Evolution

Differing from convergent, evolution that is divergent WILL come from a common ancestor. Other species might come from this, but they’ll have some relation to each other. This can even happen if the traits they have aren’t completely similar. The best way to explain this is with the vertebrae limb, which differs a bit in many species. Whales, Humans, and Frogs clearly are not the same but they actually connect in some form.

Since we all have vertebrae limbs, with the whales having flippers and frogs having forelimbs, it is clear this evolved from an ancient jawless fish. Even our arms, though not flippers or forelimbs, connect. Meaning we have the same fish ancestor as the whale and frog. Science refers to these as homologous structures. As they are related in spite of wild variations. Crazy, huh? Of course, science separates divergent evolution into four major speciations. Those are the Allopatric, Peripatric, Parapatric, and Sympatric.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Four Speciations Explained: Allopatric and Peripatric

Allopatric occurs when a species population separates into two different, isolated subpopulations. Kind of like a group of jocks in school that separate from the nerds. Once this particular separation happens, genetic drift and especially natural selection will result in independently produced evolutionary outcomes.

Peripatric occurs when a smaller subpopulation ends up becoming isolated from its larger majority group. Due to the small nature of the group, divergent evolution can happen in such a way that there will be connections to the previous group. Yet the changes in the subpopulation will result in changes that could wildly differ from their majority group. This is due to the “Founder Effect,” where the subpopulation is more receptive to rapid change due to the lack of a majority group nearby.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Four Speciations Explained: Parapatric and Sympatric

Parapatric occurs when a smaller subpopulation remains within the habitat of its majority, but enter a different niche. Major physical changes won’t be as common nor will there be breeding between the two species groups. Yet there will be enough to make them different but not massively due to the shared habitat and possibility of comingling.

Sympatric occurs in an odd way. It’s incredibly rare and sometimes even controversial. It happens when there is no form of isolation between two different groups. This means they could be in the same habitat, comingle, and even mate between the two species types. In spite of this, the separation genetically will happen.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Parallel Evolution

Parallel Evolution is very similar to convergent evolution, yet they differ in some critical ways. This type of evolution happens when two different species start with a similar ancestor, thus develop similar traits over time. Parallel Evolution happens because the two might share a different ancestor, yet they have to develop key traits to survive a particular environment. This will, in turn, make them like each other as both have to evolve to the same place.

Due to these pressures upon them, though the two species will differ even still, they MUST adapt. For example, you’ll see this in various plants in their leaf formation. It is clear that many plants have leaf formations, but not all plants that have “leaves” are related. It’s clear that the leaf formation was done for an evolutionary purpose, otherwise, they would not remain. This is merely a form of evolution that makes one species just like another, but this still does not create a mirrored version.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Like parallel evolution, sometimes there is a need to develop similar traits for survival. Other times, the need to evolve comes directly as a result of the species you’re evolving alongside. This happens with predator and prey as well as host and parasite pairings in nature. Think of the Turtle for example.

It is clear that if you look at this slow-moving creature, it’s not much of a threat to anyone. If left unattended, the turtle will die easily in nature. Yet the turtle’s ancestors seemed to realize this, which is where the shell came from. Now, the turtle can keep a lot of its problematic issues while also remaining protected by its shell.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Coevolution Extended

Yet other animals have different forms of defense. Take the skunk for example. The species has developed a blinding spray that contains a horrible smell.  Even though it might not be a threat in several forms, this spray keeps them alive. It was a forced evolutionary trait.

However, this also occurs when it comes to things like pollination. Bees and Hummingbirds both go from plant to plant, taking needed resources to help plants pollinate. Even though the plants are not touching each other, they are essentially pollinating to create the next generation via their flying friends.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Only The Strong Survive

Natural Selection in evolution dictates that only the strong will survive. This is not meant to be that a powerful species will survive, though this can be useful. Rather, we use “strong” in this area merely means a species will be capable of getting through problematic issues it might face.

Therefore, it “evolves” to be capable of this. Whether that evolution is present in a small, medium, or large way, it is crucial to survival just the same. In fact, a small change over a long period of time will turn into a large evolutionary change eventually. This is where the real sad part comes into play. Sticking with the eyesight example, if one needs to have better eyesight but cannot develop this, it will die.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Well, It’s Sort Of True Only The Strong Will Survive

The only way it won’t is if its species has a society of some type where the blind or terrible seeing person, plant, or animal can rely upon aid from others. This will take a community or society of some type. It can be quite helpful, therefore, to be in a species that will have a pack mentality.

In fact, out of all animals that have ever been on Planet Earth, the least likely to go extinct are those that use a “pack mentality.” Essentially, the “only the strong survive” concept is sensible but only so much. It is true in terms of the species that goes it alone mostly, whereas it’s not as big of a problem in species that naturally travel in groups.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Pack Mentality Can Forgive Evolutionary Failure

In the animal kingdom, packs or groups of animals exist to avoid this problem. Being part of one is actually crucial to some animal species too, such as most species of wolf. This is also a distinct evolutionary decision made by the species too. It is the concept of “One vs All” compared to “All vs One.”

The group will be able to protect or help other members of the group. That is a period in which animals are able to adjust to any lack of evolutionary aid. For example, a wolf is capable of taking down a lot of animals but bigger species might be harder to take down alone. The bigger the species, the better chances there are for survival as it’s more food.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Pack Mentality Can Forgive Evolutionary Failure 2

You want to take it down but you’re too small, so now what? Sure, one would surmise that a species needs to go after smaller animals until it evolves to be bigger. However, even then it may always be too small. That means you need to figure out how to get more. One can accomplish this in a group where a bigger animal will feed a group of perhaps 5.

While they have to share, more will be available for all. Therefore, you are not sacrificing anything in doing this. Yet an animal like the tiger has grown big enough to be considered “Apex” and therefore capable of taking any animal down it pleases for food. It could rely upon a group, but it simply does not have to. Yet the Lion, also considered Apex, actually does still rely upon a group. Why? Simple, it’s insurance.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Hereditary Changes Cannot Occur Without Reproduction 

What does one do when they cannot seem to evolve quickly enough or at all? You guessed it, the species dies. Even more important than this is that sometimes a species will die off simply because it cannot reproduce. Loner animals, such as most species of Rhino, have seen this issue. For many years, poachers killed several rhino species in Africa. The Northern White Rhino, a very beautiful species of Rhinosaurus, was hunted by poachers for decades due to its horn.

Rhinos use the horn as a tool and weapon, which means its removal can be harmful in several ways. For example, even if it survives being shot by a poacher, it could still die from other predators that choose to attack. If it needs the horn for a tool purpose, especially when using it to obtain food, it could die from the lack of food resources. In any case, we know this same species of Rhino does not reproduce in large numbers.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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The Other Problems The Northern White Rhino Faced

Rhinos are typically loners, meaning they won’t have as much sex with Rhinos of the opposite sex. You have to be around them to do this, right? When a male and female do run into each other, the species might mate with the two then going off on their merry way after. Rhinos are that person you mistakenly slept with in Vegas that one time.

Due to this lack of reproduction, high poaching led to the species dying off. With the last male of the species now dead, only two females remain as of this writing and thus ensure it will come to an end. Regardless of all the Rhinos did right evolutionarily, they still could not battle back. Therefore, adaptation to issues takes not only personal change but sometimes an entire species mentality.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Human Evolution

What is the human role in all of this evolutionary stuff? This can be quite controversial but very important to understand. Man evolved from another creature, who evolved from another creature, and so on. We have ancestors that allow us to relate to other species we still see today. However, we’re not those species.

What gives, right? Remember what we explained above regarding the patterns of evolution? Those patterns affect plants and animals yet we’re no different. We’re “animals” ourselves if you want to get technical. What is so interesting is that mankind kind of fits every single evolutionary pattern in some form.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Human Evolution Extended

We see large and small people, both in height and weight. Some people have incredible gifts like impressive athletic ability or heightened senses. Sometimes, these things can be trained but other times you either have these gifts or you don’t. This brings about the old “Nature vs Nurture” Debate.

While trained gifts are impressive, a person with natural-born traits, who trains the same as someone born without, will often trump the one without due to their natural abilities. Yet one could pass on those natural abilities as well as things like mutations, skin color, and much more. Yet there are many gifts humans have that they do not even realize.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Mutations: The Real Type

Sorry Marvel Comics fans, but we’re not talking about the mutants of the X-Men here. However, some mutations might make you think otherwise. For example, the LRP5 mutation. We normal people call it the “unbreakable mutation.” While this mutation could result in brittle bones, making bones easier to break for those who have it, there are some with the opposite effect.

Remember, there can be types of the same thing in evolution. This happens with mutations as well. That is how the very same mutation can have a nearly exact opposite. In that, those with this type of LRP5 mutation will have extremely dense bones. Thus, their bones are almost impossible to break. Sort of like having a skeleton made of adamantium or something.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Mutations Extended

Other mutations you might see are more simplistic. In that, some have a mutation in their genes that allow them to be unable to contract HIV/AIDS, Malaria, or another virus/infection. Other mutations have allowed people to have low cholesterol in spite of their diet as well as have little need for sleep.

These types of mutations are not uncommon, yet some things might come off as mutations when they are actually different evolutionary responses. People with mutations like this can play an important role in science, as they can help us develop cures to major illnesses as well as vaccines.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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The Role Of Melanin

Melanin dictates skin color and changes that happen to it. In particular, this is a response to the environment and especially the sun. The body slowly begins to switch color to battle the sun’s rays. This is how black and brown people exist, along with reproduction obviously. Every human today has a black or brown ancestor. All over the world, this was the case. The Middle East, as well as various tribes in North and South America, saw people that were either brown or a darker shade.

This darker shade slowly began to be black. Both Brown and Black people were present due to the human beings of the time being outdoors more often in an incredibly hot environment. They were also outside a lot under the sun to work or do business. They might go indoors during the cooler periods but typically they were outside. This all switched up when people gravitated to the northern sectors, leaving places like the modern-day Middle East and African territories.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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How Melanin Changed In Humans

Due to the temperature, people wear layers a lot more and slowly begin staying indoors more. Thus, melanin had no choice but to switch to a less protective tone. This gave us white people. Those same white people can still darken to handle the sun’s rays, which is the concept behind why white people “tan.”

On an interesting note, technically modern brown and black people might not tan like a white person. However, they ARE changing in melanin the more they are outdoors vs indoors. Melanin also dictates hair thickness as well even our eye color! The more melanin in the iris of our eyes leads to brown but less will result in blue or green. Melanin will also dictate the darkness of those eyes too.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Alfred Russel Wallace Was Just As Influential On Evolution As Charles Darwin

As mentioned, Charles Darwin was not the only person to discover that natural selection was a key part of evolution. Alfred Russel Wallace also discovered this. Both men did this independently but came up in the same field together. Wallace was also a biologist who, like Darwin, had a lot of success in his field.

Why does Wallace seem to get no credit while Darwin gets all of it? This seems to be due to how they went about delivering their information to the world. Wallace wrote a paper on Natural Selection while Darwin wrote an entire freakin book! His paper was published alongside Darwin’s in 1858. The seemingly interesting success from this pushed Darwin to write his book.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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The Wallace Line

Alfred is very notable in the world of geography as well, but both his biology and geographic experience came together when he spoke about the Malay Archipelago. This had to do with a clear separation between Asia and Australia as a result of a line that animals and fauna picked themselves seemingly. Today, we call this the Wallace Line. Alfred discovered that the Indonesian Archipelago was able to be separated into two different parts.

A Western Portion is easily more Asian as it shows proof of creatures that connect to Asia. An Eastern Portion, however, shows fauna that connects to the Australian region. Why is this so compelling? Because it proved to us that, like with humans, animals and plants also pick the conditions that are best for their survival. If the two worlds met between the West and East, they’d naturally take each other out. The separation, however, allows us to keep them apart and both can survive as a result.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Man’s Place In The Universe

Wallace was a pioneer in the world of Biogeography and was even far ahead of his time in terms of speaking to life on other planets. In his book “Man’s Place in the Universe,” he became the first biologist to make a serious attempt to claim or hypothesis the possibility that life could be on other planets. In particular, he wrote about Mars.

Today, we know Mars once had water, though we still don’t know if any life ever did. Other planets, however, have proof of plants, trees, etc. Some still living to this day! Their form of evolution and especially natural selection could differ. However, it is clear that both terms are universal, quite literally. In that no matter what, life will have to abide by these principles. In fact, humans have even shown that we evolve even as we enter space.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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NASA Twin Study

We see a decrease in body mass, an increase in inflammation, artery walls thicken, gene alterations and mutations can be triggered. People have also gotten taller due to the lack of gravity. This, however, goes back to normal when a person comes back to Earth. While we saw how it affected many in space, it was hard to note how much we changed. This was when a test was done to find a way to compare and contrast exact issues. NASA studied two twin men, where one of the twins went into space while the other twin stayed on Earth.

Mark and Scott Kelly both are obviously the same in several ways but would they look any different if one left the planet? Not only did Scott (space twin) show differences in his looks when he came back, but there were other big differences too. After spending near a year in space, Scott on just his appearance had gotten taller than his brother. In his face, he also looked younger than Mark. NASA also found several other differences between the two men after Scott returned. To learn more about this study, you can read NASA’s findings here.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Didn’t We Come From Monkeys Or Apes?

You might hear this a lot when it comes to those who like to try and dismantle evolution. These same people are also incorrect and correct at the same time. It is true that humans are technically primates, just like monkeys and apes. However, while we do share a common ancestor, humans did not “come from apes or monkeys.”

We all belong to the Hominidae Family, but humans belong to the Hominid Sector. Remember how we discussed the patterns and types of evolution above? It plays a critical role in the development of modern-day humans. We also have a lot in common with those in the Hominidae family.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Proof Of Our Connection: Palmar Grasp Reflex

There’s a lot of proof that evolution exists, as we can look at our similarities to other primates. For example, we all have hair that grows all over our bodies. It might not be as much in humans, but some have mutations that cover them in literal head to toe fashion. One way we can prove this is through the Palmar Grasp Reflex. The Grasp comes from a period in which humans are just like their primate brethren.

When a human baby is first born all the way up to 6 months of age, they are able to hold themselves up. Yes, they can hold their own body weight. This can be tested where you have a baby hold a bar, like one of those from gym class. They’ll hold themselves up relatively well though it is unpredictable. This is leftover from a period in which newborns had to hold onto the fur of their mothers as mom swung from tree to tree.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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Proof Of Our Connection: Goosebumps

Goosebumps are often felt when we get scared or feel cold. It is also a book series, but we don’t need to go into that world any time soon. You might even refer to Goosebumps simply as “chill bumps.” As most might assume, this seems kind of weird so why does it happen? Centuries ago, this worked for two big reasons.

The first was that it made our hair come up like a protective layer to warm us when we’re cold. It was also present to puff up and make us look bigger to predators. Thereby making them not want to attack us. Of course, humans kept the bumps section of this but our lack of major hair removed the other cool stuff.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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The Split From Other Primates – The Start

We split from other primates somewhere between 7 to 14 million years ago. This is a critical thing to remember, as we did not completely separate right away. Thus, ancient humans were part of a few early groups. The first was the original Hominini, this was the closest related ancestor we as humans have to the ape, chimpanzee, etc. The second is the Ardipithecus, which slowly became a period where the first bipedal humans came to be. This is essentially the time when we first began to walk on two legs.

The third is the Australopithecus, which was the first to begin using stone tools and other means to create things. The fourth in the line is the Homo habilis, thought to be an evolved set of the Australopithecus. You could likely call them the earliest known version of the caveman. The fifth ancestor to the human is the Homo Erectus, the first version of humans to use fire and cook.

Evolution Explained So A 5 Year Old Could Understand
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The Split From Other Primates – Where We Are Today

H. heidelbergensis was the sixth and final ancestor to the human. People tend to connect Homo Erectus and H. heidelbergensis with the Neanderthal. However, the latter was the main period in which the Neanderthal lived. It is the period when we first began to wear clothing of some kind.

Right after this, Homo Sapiens (modern humans) came to pass. Keep in mind that for a period of time, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal lived alongside each other. This meant we could have seen the two sides mate, which could have led to some of the humans that lived isolated from others for thousands of years. As you can see, we are at least 6 evolved generations away from the ape and chimp, living in the 7th.