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'If you want to know what Utopia is like, just look around - this is it,'
February 4, 2002 6:03 AM   Subscribe

'If you want to know what Utopia is like, just look around - this is it,' the article asks is human evolution over? Two interesting "facts?" "points?" 1) the blending of our genes which will soon produce a uniformly brown-skinned population. Apart from that, there will be little change in the species. 2) Just consider Aids, and then look at chimpanzees,' says Jones. 'You find they all carry a version of HIV but are unaffected by it. Something very similar could soon happen to humans. In a thousand years... Link via www.cursor.org.
posted by bittennails (39 comments total)

 
This seems crazy to me. Some humans have more offspring than other humans, so some genes get passed on more than other genes. Also, some genes mutate. As long as these facts remain true, we'll have evolution.
posted by grumblebee at 6:30 AM on February 4, 2002


I think this highlights (and propogates, unfortuneately) a misconception that evolution is directional and necessarily for the 'better' whatever that is. As long as some mutation is occuring and some pre-reproductive death is occuring there will be shifts in the gene pool. The pace may be fast or slow depending on the selective pressures of the era, and I, for one, am glad to be living in a relatively selective pressure-free era. This will change: 1) Population growth will someday exceed earth's carrying capacity and there will be a massive die-off. 2) A catastrophe like nuclear war, or an asteroid collision will occur. 3) A new devastating microbial epidemic will spread. All these things are known to cause population 'bottlenecks' where only the hardiest individuals survive and where the largest phenotypic shifts will be apparent. The survivors will be optimized for the post-bottleneck world which may be very different ( but not 'better' or 'worse' and certainly not 'utopian').
posted by plaino at 7:02 AM on February 4, 2002


By its very nature evolution will never be over. Next step for humans is no wisdom teeth, after that probably no appendix, and someday we'll look like the stereotypic alien - big brains, small mouths...grey skin.
posted by perorate at 7:27 AM on February 4, 2002


the blending of our genes which will soon produce a uniformly brown-skinned population

Actually, if we tried the Bulworth solution to racisim, we wouldn't get a world where everyone was the same color. You'd get a bell curve of colors all the way from the lightest to the darkest. The extremes would be rare but they'd still be there. Those genes are still going to be in the population unless they get selected against.
posted by straight at 7:37 AM on February 4, 2002


In the past if a gene mutated and it gave someone an increased ability to survive they would live longer and have more children, compared to say, their sibling, who had "average" genes and thus died early and had few surviving children.

Now that person is just as likely to have no children at all, while the children of someone who has a genetic defect may well be saved by science and medicine to live a long life and have many children. People are living and thriving who would have died before. So you could say that "natural" selection has come to a standstill at least in the Western world.

"I think this highlights (and propogates, unfortuneately) a misconception that evolution is directional and necessarily for the 'better' whatever that is."

I think you are spot on. In the cases you mentioned that would be thought of as a "devolution" rather than an "evolution" of the species.

Of the three scenarios you describe, this one falls into the category of "evolution" rather than "devolution"

"3) A new devastating microbial epidemic will spread. All these things are known to cause population 'bottlenecks' where only the hardiest individuals survive"

That's only true if you withhold advanced medical care. Otherwise, it's not the "hardiest" who survive, it's the richest and most highly educated (who will be more aware of their choices and have more contacts)

Single generational events don't change the gene pool so much as shrink it. Evolution takes thousands of years and there's no evidence that we are changing into sub-species. We don't look or act any differently from an ancient Egyptian, we just live longer because we don't have scorpions, sand in our food eroding our teeth, cyclical famine, and all the other joys of ancient life.
posted by lucien at 7:40 AM on February 4, 2002


Evolution, like entropy, cannot be stopped. Anyone that says otherwise is simply an arrogant nutcase with an agenda.
posted by aramaic at 7:53 AM on February 4, 2002


True, it cannot be stopped, but that does not mean it inevitably leads to utopian society, or even greater complexity.

(Wisdom teeth and appendices have very little if any bearing on reproduction in the modern world, evolution will not dispose of them. Besides, there is growing evidence that the appendix is important to the immune system early in life.)
posted by Nothing at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2002


I don't think evolution has stopped, though the article makes good points, we now have ways to counter evolution and manipulate it. Most probobly we'll become grey aliens I think... well, maybe not, but generally I think we're getting taller and slimmer.

I hope that within even a hundred years we'll achieve a way to settle other planets in a way to accomodate our entire population.
posted by tiaka at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2002


the likelihood of human evolution is not very good, but it's not impossible. (if there were ever an apocalypse brought on by disease, there could well be an evolution caused by the few who have mutated a gene to survive and reproduce.) the ridiculous thing to me is the notion that we shall all have brown skin. does it seem obvious to you everyone is about to have children with everyone else regardless of skin color on an absolute scale, even in the western world? it's telling that McKie's reasoning is merely anecdotal.
posted by moz at 8:17 AM on February 4, 2002


While I am all for the fact that evolution must continue unhampered, which may not be realistic in our times, I wonder what this "agenda" is that you mention aramaic?
posted by bittennails at 8:18 AM on February 4, 2002


I tried to post this yesterday but it wasn't 24 hours from my last post. This is truly a frightening article. If the scientists are this ignorant, what chance have the laypeople in our society to understand natural selection and evolution? Two points:

1) You may be able to alter evolution somewhat, in the small ways of society/technology/medicine today or the larger ways of genetic engineering, etc. to come. But that just reroutes or redirects it. It doesn't stop--it CAN'T stop or be stopped, by its very nature.

2) These fools are totally anthropocentric when it comes to time scale. Humans have been impacting evolution for a couple hundred years? So what? That's not even a blip. Talk to me when we've been driving the car for a few hundred million years. Everything that has happened in the last 10,000 years could very easily be wiped out in an instant and disappear completely from the genetic record.
posted by rushmc at 8:25 AM on February 4, 2002


Gosh, I hope we don't "stop evolving". We're not very well-suited to our environment as it is. Our spine is screwy, our pelvis is too narrow, our knees are poorly-engineered, are jaws are too short for all our teeth. We are prone to all kinds of diseases, disorders and syndromes. We kill each other right and left. We go out of our minds. Most of us would be dead right now if it wasn't for the technological incubator that is modern society. No utopia, this.
posted by Hildago at 8:39 AM on February 4, 2002


The thing about evolution in modern humans is that it's difficult to tell what changes are being caused because of genetic evolution and what changes are due to any of the other factors of human life that have so dramatically changed in the past two hundred years. The height thing is a great example, a quick search will find scientists saying the increase in human height (around four inches in industrialized countries in the past 150 years) has been genetic, while others attribute it to nutrition., and each with good reasoning.

I think it's interesting that some people feel that our technology and medicine are unnatural factors that somehow insulate us from evolution. Everything we have created, society and technology and art and everything, is either part of us, an evolutionary solution to a problem, or part of a self-created environment. As the former, there is no reason one advantage should preclude others, and for the latter, the variables are all that have changed, the game is the same.
posted by Nothing at 8:41 AM on February 4, 2002


the variables are all that have changed, the game is the same.

Precisely.
posted by rushmc at 9:08 AM on February 4, 2002


I wonder what this "agenda" is that you mention aramaic?

There are several likely candidates: social darwinism, eugenics, run-of-the-mill racism, etc. etc. etc. None of which may apply to these particular theorists, but all of which hover uncomfortably in the background whenever anyone talks about evolution having ended in humans.
posted by aramaic at 9:12 AM on February 4, 2002


The article ignores the fact that we are evolving culturally at a great rate. In the last two hundred years, the human body has extended itself widely in space and time, thanks to all the communications media (from the telegraph to the Net) and transportation devices (from the railroad to cars and planes) that we have invented. (Not to mention weapons of mass destruction and technologies with side-effects of massive pollution). The point is that these technologies, for good and for ill, have changed how we live and who we are much more radically, and much more quickly, than genetic changes alone could have done.
posted by Rebis at 9:18 AM on February 4, 2002


The design of our knees is, I think, the best argument *against* the "intelligent designer" belief. :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 9:36 AM on February 4, 2002


"None of which may apply to these particular theorists, but all of which hover uncomfortably in the background whenever anyone talks about evolution having ended in humans."

No. It's quite the opposite. It's a unifying theory. We a single species.

Genetic engineering is not evolution. Genetic engineering is a single deliberate event that may or may not improve a species' chance of survival.

Evolution is not simply change. Nobody is arguing that change will not continue to occur.

"These fools are totally anthropocentric when it comes to time scale."

Well, they are just discussing human evolution.

"Everything that has happened in the last 10,000 years could very easily be wiped out in an instant and disappear completely from the genetic record."

Very little has happened to human evolution in the last 10,000 years.

Single catastrophic events such as the pandemic flu in the early 20th century wiped out millions of lives. Those who survived, survived not because of genetic advantage, but because of their general health, age, location, surrounding population density, and luck. Even this catastrophic event did not wipe out the genetic record of Europe. It simply diminished it.

"The article ignores the fact that we are evolving culturally at a great rate."

Cultural change (a value judgement) is not evolution in a biological sense.
posted by lucien at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2002


Oh, I get what you mean, aramaic, but I don't get that feeling from this article, there have been a few that have scared me, particularly about eugenics and such like.

I don't quite know that if public opinion feels that we have completed our natural evolution, that, we are then entitled to opt for manipulative methods to evolve.
posted by bittennails at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2002


in galapagos we turn into furry seal-like creatures (who like to fart :)
posted by kliuless at 9:47 AM on February 4, 2002


According to Gould and Eldridge's theory of punctuated equilibrium, long periods of evolutionary stasis (on the order of thousands or even millions of years) are the norm for most species. According to this theory, significant evolutionary change happens primarily at "bottlenecks" such as plaino refers to, or when some factor in the environment changes significantly. The scientists quoted in the link above may be correct that humans in Western civilization are not subject to much in the way of natural selection pressures during this century, but the fact is that we (humans as a whole) may not have been doing a lot of evolving this century anyway. What conditions may be like a thousand years from now is a different story. Of course, by then artificial modification of the gene code will likely be moving at a pace to WAY outstrip natural selection. (I'm not buying into the hype that recombinant DNA will change a lot for us in this generation but wait a century or two and see what weirdness will be going on. )
posted by tdismukes at 9:55 AM on February 4, 2002


Wisdom teeth and appendices have very little if any bearing on reproduction in the modern world, evolution will not dispose of them

Features don't have to be related to reproduction to be affected by evolution - and there is already the beginnings of a trend towards the extinction of wisdom teeth.
posted by perorate at 10:23 AM on February 4, 2002


the elementary particles
posted by mlang at 10:57 AM on February 4, 2002


(can't say much more about the book without spoiling the 'surprise ending' (which is actually rather gimmicky, imho), but it touches on this issue and it's an excellent read.)
posted by mlang at 11:03 AM on February 4, 2002


perorate - "Features don't have to be related to reproduction to be affected by evolution"

Actually, evolution is driven by features that affect the statistical likelihood of surviving to sexual maturity and having offspring who then in turn survive & have offspring, which I believe is what Nothing meant. Vestigial features only are selected against to the extent that they represent biological resources (energy, etc) which could be invested in some other survival feature. Professor Jones's thesis is that currently we are not undergoing the survival pressures which would cause such features to have a significant impact on the likelihood of surviving and reproducing. Of course, as I pointed out above, this state of affairs has only held for a few decades even in the parts of the world where it's true at all. If Dr. Jones thinks human civilization will hold it's present form for the millions of years that human evolution would normally take place in, then he's not much of a student of history.
posted by tdismukes at 11:04 AM on February 4, 2002


recently, i was gawping an the box when it gushed forth with this soundbite 'africa contains a large proportion of all human genetic variants' (or something). The proposition was that there is as much genetic variation amongst humans in africa as there is in the rest of the world.
given that *we* follow the out of africa theory, can anyone explain how this genetic diversity could be sustained over time? it seems somewhat at odds with the 'fear of a grey planet' theory.
posted by asok at 11:14 AM on February 4, 2002


Very little has happened to human evolution in the last 10,000 years.

Precisely. Ten thousand years is such a spectacularly short time that it barely deserves mention. As others have said, once we've been a stable species for a million years or so, then we can talk about whether evolution has stopped.

...and we'd still be wrong.
posted by aramaic at 12:21 PM on February 4, 2002


Anyone that says otherwise is simply an arrogant nutcase with an agenda.


At the very least traditional natural selection has been dead for quite some time. Well, not dead, but since the discovery of germ theory and the fact that all sorts of people regardless of how fit they are get treated for all sorts of ailments and tend to reproduce kind of screws with tradition. I guess we can always look forward to infant mortality as a sure sign that natural selection is still with us.

Evolution is a blanket statement for so many factors that semantically it would be wrong to claim its stopped, but I think its a safe assumption to claim that on the macro scale we're currently in stasis and without big external changes like changes in the environment (which luckily for evolution is actually happening) or changes from within like bioengineering we would be stuck in macro stasis for quite a while.
posted by skallas at 12:43 PM on February 4, 2002


> long periods of evolutionary stasis (on the order of
> thousands or even millions of years) are the norm for
> most species.

Check. Most of the folks who have posted above (and several of the scientists quoted in the linked article) are talking about mere change or variability in natural breeding populations, not evolution -- defined by Darwin and a thousand modern textbooks as the origin of species by means of natural selection.

A newly originated species is reproductively isolated from its parent species, with reproductive isolation understood as meaning "can't have grandchildren." Is anybody seriously suggesting that a new species, in genus Homo but reproductively isolated from Homo sapiens is now arising anywhere? For that to happen you need a geographically or ecologically isolated subpopulation, left alone for some millions of years, or else one of those bottleneck events. Lacking either of these you still have change in the human species (the frequency distribution of the alleles isn't static) but you don't have Darwinian evolution.
posted by jfuller at 1:02 PM on February 4, 2002


I am fascinated by the suggestion that a human social pattern (geographically dispersed mating) may be homogenizing out any changes which otherwise could sufficiently concentrate in an isolated group to give rise to a developmentally significant increment to fitness.

Equally significant as contemporary challenge to the supositions that evolutionary change is on-going is the disalignment between competitive environmental success and reproductive success (number of reproducing offspring), which have likely been aligned throughout the tens of millions of years of Hominid evolution. In other words, it is far better -- evolutionarily -- to be the richest farmer in an African village, with one's modest relative competitive success and insignificant absolute competitive attributes, than to be a CalTech MIT with millions of stock options in one's pockets.
posted by MattD at 1:28 PM on February 4, 2002


jfuller - "A newly originated species is reproductively isolated from its parent species"

Gould & Eldridge might agree with you on that one, since they've linked the concept of speciation to their theory of punctuated equilibrium, but I'm not totally convinced that covers all the possibilities of natural selection. (I don't think most evolutionary biologists are either.) Consider this scenario: A gene arises through mutation which makes the possessor less likely to die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Over the course of millenia, this gene spreads through the population, because those who possess it are more likely to survive to reproduce. The new population would still be considered Homo Sapiens, would only be "reproductively isolated" by the passage of time, but would in fact have been altered by the pressures of natural selection. I think most evolutionary biologists would recognize that scenario as Darwinian evolution. However you are right that many would consider the isolated population or bottleneck event as a major factor in ensuring the new gene doesn't get swamped in the genetic pool as a whole.

I read something a while back which made me suspect that the concept of "reproductive isolation" as the defining element of a species might be a bit arbitrary. It seems that there is a species of gull which has a geographic range extending from the English Channel to halfway around the world. The gulls vary genetically in a continious fashion throughout this range so that the birds in any one location are similar enough to interbreed with their neighbors 50 or 100 miles down the coast. However if you go 500 or a 1000 miles, the differences have added up so interbreeding is not possible. (I'm making up the mileages - I don't have the book with me right now.) Question - How many species of birds do you have here? Population A can interbreed with Pop. B can interbreed with Pop. C, but Pop. A can't interbreed with Pop. C., etc.

All that being said, I predict that in 500 years humans will have genetically engineered themselves to where they won't be interbreeding with humans of our genotype. (And if I'm wrong, you can come back in 500 years and call me on it. I'll admit my mistake. That's just the kind of guy I am.)
posted by tdismukes at 1:41 PM on February 4, 2002


I think the essential point is that Darwinian evolution is so slow that it will be completely irrelevant in comparison to the capabilities for self-modification that will develop in the next few decades. We already know that some people are willing to modify themselves, even if it's relatively expensive, risky, or painful: witness breast implants and other forms of plastic surgery, "cosmetic psychopharmacology', etc. Add nanotechnology and genetic engineering to this mix and you get the potential for huge changes that probably can't be stopped even if we want them to.

Plus, I don't see any signs of Moore's law (the extended version that includes transitions from one computing technology to the next) stopping any time soon, and if that trend continues, in a few decades it won't really matter what the dumb monkeys think relative to the machines.

I don't mean to get all millenarian, or hijack the thread, I just think that if you're interested in the future of the human race, traditional Darwinian evolution is not the right place to look. And to think we've reached some kind of steady state where nothing's going to change is dangerously naive.
posted by mcguirk at 1:42 PM on February 4, 2002


tdismukes:

[herring gull example]

You're also describing oak trees. Subspecies 1 will interbreed with 2, 2 with 1 and 3, 3 with 2 and 4, etc., until you complete the circle by "...and 12 will interbreed with 11 and 1." The wierdest thing about this is that all these subspecies are found in the same area. The whole species concept is much less clear for plants than it is for animals, but the last time I checked, plants counted as living things subject to evolution.

Having granted that speciation events and evolution may not be exactly the same thing, I also feel that speciation events are evolution par excellence; the appearance of the various australopithecine species followed by Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens are the best available examples of specifically human evolution, and if that kind of evolution isn't happening these days, if no one can point to any example of a speciation event splitting something else off from H. sapiens or even of circumstances that look like typical preconditions leading to speciation, then the notion of "contemporary human evolution" becomes pretty wooly; and arguments about whether evolution is presently taking place in human populations devolve into semantic quibbles about whether phenomena like your SIDS example should or should not count as evolutionary changes. Frankly, I think that's all the linked controversy amounts to.

posted by jfuller at 2:04 PM on February 4, 2002


i heard on cnn this morning that gorillas and chimps might be interbreeding. given how violent gorillas can be, i was thinking it was probably more like gorillas raping chimps, but i was also thinking it might be possible for humans to interbreed with chimps and gorillas, altho i wouldn't want to have sex with them! unless of course... nevermind :)
posted by kliuless at 2:11 PM on February 4, 2002


Well, they are just discussing human evolution.

"Human" evolution is an arbitrary and artifical ex post facto distinction that really doesn't even make sense. There is only the operation of evolutionary processes within a defined locale (the earth) and the genetic families that result. It's not a branded phenomenon.
posted by rushmc at 2:20 PM on February 4, 2002


if no one can point to any example of a speciation event splitting something else off from H. sapiens or even of circumstances that look like typical preconditions leading to speciation

You make some good points, jfuller, but I submit that at no time in history, even presupposing a qualified observer, could such an example be pointed to. Particularly within a 200-year window.
posted by rushmc at 2:22 PM on February 4, 2002


> I submit that at no time in history, even presupposing a
> qualified observer, could such an example be pointed to.
> Particularly within a 200-year window.

Sure it could. Take a geographically isolated sub-population of newts of species X. These little guys are morphologically distinct from other members of species, and strongly buffered from significant genetic exchange with the main population due to whatever it is that isolates them (usual example, geography.) Classic case of "typical conditions leading to speciation," easily observable, many examples in the literature.

Oh, you meant "concerning humans." Well, you may be right. If you are right, then at no time in history (a mere eyeblink of time) has there been an instance of the best kind of evidence that evolution still applies to humans.

But that's very hard to believe. I expect that at some time in the course of the H. sapiens saga there have been instances of isolated sub-populations - morphologically distinct from members of the mainstream breeding population and buffered somehow from significant genetic exchange with the larger population - that would have been identifiable as showing typical preconditions for speciation. And a qualified observer, had one been "on the ground" at the right time and place, could have spotted them as such. That there's no such instance (that we know of) right now this minute is valid evidence for the evolution-is-over crowd (though not conclusive, IMHO.)
posted by jfuller at 4:12 PM on February 4, 2002


Classic case of "typical conditions leading to speciation," easily observable, many examples in the literature.

Well, if you're going to define "typical conditions leading to speciation" that loosely, I suppose. One could equally describe "typical conditions leading to extinction" or "typical conditions leading to imminent adaptation." Conditions don't necessarily lead to predictable or expected conclusions. There are too many variables to track.

That there's no such instance (that we know of) right now this minute is valid evidence for the evolution-is-over crowd (though not conclusive, IMHO.)

And this is exactly the kind of short-sightedness I am referring to. As has been stated above, every species goes through long (i.e., longer than 200 years) periods of decreased pressure to adapt (including such physical separations as lead to speciation). Therefore, attempting to make ANY kind of assessment based upon such a limited window is specious.

For all anyone knows, humanity could colonize outposts of some sort in space over the next few hundred years, creating new and varied opportunities for speciation to occur. If so, any claims based upon the current state of affairs in our tiny window will be viewed in hindsight as ridiculous. And that's just one example of what the future might bring.
posted by rushmc at 5:59 PM on February 4, 2002


isn't that what happens in the integral trees?
posted by kliuless at 6:33 PM on February 4, 2002


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