Humans are uniquely unique, in terms of the extreme differences between them and other living organisms, and the impact they are having on the biosphere. The evolution of humans can be seen, as has been proposed, as one of the major transitions in evolution, on a par with the origins of multicellular organisms or the eukaryotic cell (Maynard Smith & Szathmáry 1997 Major transitions in evolution). Major transitions require the evolution of greater complexity and the emergence of new evolutionary levels or processes. Does human evolution meet these conditions? I explore the diversity of evidence on the nature of transitions in human evolution. Four levels of transition are proposed-baseline, novel taxa, novel adaptive zones and major transitions-and the pattern of human evolution considered in the light of these. The primary conclusions are that changes in human evolution occur continuously and cumulatively; that novel taxa and the appearance of new adaptations are not clustered very tightly in particular periods, although there are three broad transitional phases (Pliocene, Plio-Pleistocene and later Quaternary). Each phase is distinctive, with the first based on ranging and energetics, the second on technology and niche expansion, and the third on cognition and cultural processes. I discuss whether this constitutes a 'major transition' in the context of the evolutionary processes more broadly; the role of behaviour in evolution; and the opportunity provided by the rich genetic, phenotypic (fossil morphology) and behavioural (archaeological) record to examine in detail major transitions and the microevolutionary patterns underlying macroevolutionary change. It is suggested that the evolution of the hominin lineage is consistent with a mosaic pattern of change.This article is part of the themed issue 'Major transitions in human evolution'.
Keywords: hominins; human evolution; human evolutionary ecology; major transitions; mosaic evolution; tempo and mode of evolution.
© 2016 The Author(s).