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How We Evolve
October 9, 2008 12:16 AM   Subscribe

How We Evolve: "A growing number of scientists argue that human culture itself has become the foremost agent of biological change, making us — for the past 10,000 years or so — the inadvertent architects of our own future selves." posted by homunculus (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not everyone agrees: No More Evolution for You, Says British Scientist
posted by homunculus at 12:22 AM on October 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


The HapMap will probably soon be surpassed by the 1000 Genomes project.

It's hard for me to understand how Steve Jones's claims that human evolution is over could be scientific.
posted by grouse at 12:26 AM on October 9, 2008


...mating is no longer a privilege that males beat each other senseless to secure.

Author has never had a Friday night out in Manchester.
posted by mandal at 12:34 AM on October 9, 2008 [7 favorites]


Human beings are evolution's conscious hands, eyes, mind. Yea us! (Hope we don't f' it up).
posted by tgyg at 1:21 AM on October 9, 2008




What a weird article. It reads like a yes, but not, but maybe, but yes, but it does not matter, but it is very important.

Anyway, I love this kind of article. They tend to expose the religiously evolutionist, those who believe in evolution as a matter of faith, without having a good understanding of the science. Even worse are the Dogmatic Blank Slaters, (EVOLUTION AND INHERITANCE APPLY TO EVERY ORGAN, EXCEPT THE MAGICAL HUMAN BRAIN!!!). And I love to see some people do mental somersaults to reconcile their political correctness with their view of themselves as rational and scientific (OF COURSE TRAITS ARE INHERITED, AND ORGANISM WITH DEEP COMMON ANCESTRY SHARE TRAITS, EXCEPT MAGICAL HUMANS, WHO ARE ALL EQUAL NO MATTER THEIR ANCESTRY).

Please don't disappoint me, I am feeling cranky today.
posted by dirty lies at 2:25 AM on October 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


1984 and turtle men.
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:32 AM on October 9, 2008


The FPP frays at the end but is interesting.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:43 AM on October 9, 2008


Of course we're still evolving; we have access to far more potential mates than we ever have before, across many ethnic types. One of my best friends, an ethnic Italian, married a beautiful Laotian woman -- and they live on a third continent, so their offspring will have even more choice than they did.

I think we're selecting for beauty. Humans in the future are gonna be gorgeous. I'm hoping for intelligent too, but that may be asking for too much.
posted by Malor at 3:10 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not everyone agrees: No More Evolution for You, Says British Scientist

A yes. President of the Eugenics Society. I mean Galton Institute.
posted by srboisvert at 3:41 AM on October 9, 2008


As people's ability to survive and reproduce continues to be based more on their social conditions than their health or abilities, I think human evolution has already been superceded by social engineering, and it will soon be superceded further by the intelligent design of cybernetic enhancement.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 5:34 AM on October 9, 2008


Interesting concept - the exponential rate of change could be attributed to human descovery and subsequent evolution of technology.
posted by SpaWorldOnline at 5:43 AM on October 9, 2008


i anticipate the north american arrival of males born with vaginas in the palms of their hands and women covered head to toe with fleshy breasts able to shit ground beef and piss a steady stream of mountain dew.
posted by kitchenrat at 5:51 AM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


It seems to me like we must be devolving (whip it, whip it good). The less educated and less intelligent among us have FAR more children than the educated/intelligent, thus flooding our gene pool with their attributes. So, we're sort of selecting for ignorance. At least until our global population grows so large that we are forced into a mass die-off and we get back to survival of the fittest. Which will probably be quite unpleasant.
posted by jamstigator at 5:56 AM on October 9, 2008


jamstigator -

Only if you believe that intelligence is first and foremost a biological/genetic rather than an environmental/cultural issue. I think there are much more prosaic reasons to fear for the wisdom and intelligence of future human societies.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:13 AM on October 9, 2008


I don't think there's really sufficient evidence for the whole less-intelligent-breeding-more idea over the kind of time scales and population proportions required for the "devolution" you're talking about. Do you believe East Asian societies are self-selecting for low intelligence? Nordic countries? African societies? Middle Eastern societies?
posted by penduluum at 6:25 AM on October 9, 2008


It seems to me like we must be devolving

I agree. How many hundreds of thousands of years did it take to evolve the opposable thumb? And here we are, Soccer is the most popular sport in the world.
posted by clearly at 6:59 AM on October 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


I think we're selecting for beauty. Humans in the future are gonna be gorgeous

If you notice many of the world's most beautiful models and actresses (obviously beauty is subjective, but just going on basic popularity), a high proportion of them are of mixed ancestry. Compare with any royal family (excluding Sweden ;).

It's seems like being of mixed race could be a big evolutionary advantage.

I heard the claims of "evolution's over!" on NPR the other day. Bah. Now that I read the article, double bah. Humans are making sexual selections based on a myriad of factors. How can be possibly know how our current collective global choices will affect our future? And what if the environmental conditions of the planet change drastically?

The main link is fascinating, thanks. Just as humans are now the primary catalyst in the evolution of the planet, we are the driving factor in the evolution of the species. Save us, Jeebus.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:28 AM on October 9, 2008


@jamstigator

But there's always been unwashed, uneducated poor people spamming out babies at faster rates than their ummm... more intellectually and fiscally advantaged peers, because there's always been more poor than wealthy. Remember, once upon a time in western history literacy was confined to (mostly) celibate clergy and the slim minority of nobles who weren't engaged in subsistence farming.
posted by Phalene at 7:30 AM on October 9, 2008


Just for anecdotal value, think of the people you know and how many children they have. Who has the most? How do the parents look and behave? How much of this can you see in the children already? How about the childless ones?

In my particular case, the results are very scary.

One of my hobbies is keeping plants, small aquatic invertebrates and tiny fish. My favorite thing to do is get some of the gorgeous variants people have spent decades artificially selecting, and hybridize them like crazy; just like mixing all your play-doh until you end with a big gray ball.

Right now I have a tank full of blue, orange and chocolate Cambarellus patzcuarenzi dwarf crayfish. The first female is berried, and I am excited. I hope it will take a short time until all of them are grey again.

I am the anti-eugenist.
posted by dirty lies at 7:43 AM on October 9, 2008


jamstigator What exactly is this fittest that you speak of? Fitness simple refers to the ability to outbreed your competitors before you die, and "the less educated and less intelligent"of which you speak are doing that just fine. They're as fit as their environment needs. In fact, they are more fit than people who decide to delay parenting till they've had a career, or whatever, because they get more copies of their genetic material out there.

Really, devolution doesn't happen - to devolve, you have to have a linear path of evolution, with one goal ahead and one goal behind. We don't go "backwards" because there is no backwards. Evolution is not an ongoing set of improvements to create the most beautiful, most intelligent, most compassionate people. We're just cramming adaptations on as we go along, like a guy building a house who just slaps rooms on at random whenever he needs more space.
posted by Jilder at 7:54 AM on October 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


It seems to me like we must be devolving (whip it, whip it good). The less educated and less intelligent among us have FAR more children than the educated/intelligent, thus flooding our gene pool with their attributes.

It seems like the Victorian Hangover comes up in every thread about evolution. Evolution has no inherent direction. It has no reference to human notions of progress.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:59 AM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wut Jilder sed.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:00 AM on October 9, 2008


And no-one has yet mentioned Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? He posited a cultural (read: spiritual) evolution years ago and was darn near excommunicated for it. More specifically, he suggested that human evolution was focused on spiritual and mental development (ie the brain) rather than any other part of the body. It's based on some previous work on what was termed the noosphere.

It's good stuff, but pretty thick reading and can sound a little weird. Still, Pere Teilhard de Chardin was scientist as well as a Jesuit priest and his ideas have even been adopted into sci-fi books.
posted by elendil71 at 8:53 AM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


If you notice many of the world's most beautiful models and actresses (obviously beauty is subjective, but just going on basic popularity), a high proportion of them are of mixed ancestry. Compare with any royal family (excluding Sweden ;). It's seems like being of mixed race could be a big evolutionary advantage.

I'm not so sure. Just an anecdote, but I'm mixed race and I'm not exactly a beautiful model. My mom says I'm handsome, though.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 8:58 AM on October 9, 2008


I think that there are better models for the interface between culture and biological evolution than Chardin's semi-mystical melange. I admire the man for the creativity and intellectual courage he showed in his writings, but that's about all that's admirable about his work.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:20 AM on October 9, 2008


I think we're selecting for beauty. Humans in the future are gonna be gorgeous.

Are they having more kids than the ugly couples? If not, I don't see how this is selecting for anything.
posted by bjrubble at 9:35 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I used to say it all the time in college: "The advent of technology has spawned the evolution revolution". As soon as we get the telepathy thing going (we're halfway there, we have the darn bluetooth in the ear, all we need now is the neural interface) the real fun will begin.
posted by joecacti at 9:50 AM on October 9, 2008


I buy the notion that evolution has run at an accelerated rate over the last 10k years. What I don't buy is that it's really going on now.

Evolution is driven by failure to propagate. For most of its history, civilization has been pretty difficult, and engendered a lot of such failure. Disease, economics, and warfare have been constantly cutting down individuals, groups, and entire societies. Combined with a huge increase in genetic mixing, this would be expected to accelerate the propagation of alleles through the population.

But modern first-world societies are a relative cake-walk. Only the most genetically unfortunate are deprived of the chance to procreate, and the only determinant of the number of one's offspring seems to be one's personal preference. (Which is arguably more determined by culture than genetics.)

My beef with stories like this is that they talk about "recent" evolution, which is indeed recent in evolutionary terms (where 10k years is the blink of an eye), but it's not really recent in terms of the human experience. And the human environment has changed so phenomenally in the last few hundred years that the "recent" past is really not like the present at all.
posted by bjrubble at 9:51 AM on October 9, 2008


You cannot devolve. Evolution does not go backward.

Also, people who say that we have "stopped" evolving do not understand the meaning of the word "evolution."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2008


It seems to me (and please correct my bystanderish understanding, you actual biologists and social scientists) that this sort of thing is a political minefield, not a scientific one. The science isn't the problem: it's the selective, politically-motivated application of it.

Listening to some people, or reading some dodgier texts, I sense that the sleight of hand seems to happen somewhere around qualitative notions of what makes a "better" person, as if that matters to evolution. It's usually "intelligence" they choose as a yardstick, but by that I think they really mean "level of education"... but by that they really mean "wealth"... but by that, they really mean "white American-ness." I think that's the playbook, anyway.

As Jilder and Adamschneider say above, though, natural selection doesn't work that way. It doesn't care about "best" in any of those high-level, subjective, abstract ways. It only cares about who breeds the most. That is the only "best" when it comes to evolutionary pressure, and there's no positive correlation between breeding success and "success" on the intelligence/education/race/wealth scale.

Inserting intelligence/education/race/wealth as the alleged "natural" goals/outcomes of evolution is replacing Darwinism with social Darwinism... a very different and much scarier animal.

I'll stop because I just hit my quota on scare-quotes. Am I on the right track here?
posted by rokusan at 10:03 AM on October 9, 2008


Evolution is driven by failure to propagate.

You've got it totally backwards. Evolution is driven by descent with modification. Until we start reproducing asexually and without any mutation, we're still going to have evolution.

Also, people who say that we have "stopped" evolving do not understand the meaning of the word "evolution."

Right. One of the things that troubles me about Steve Jones's talk, and apparently he has been saying this stuff since 2002 at least, is that he clearly does understand the meaning of the word, yet is oversimplifying in communicating to the public.
posted by grouse at 10:06 AM on October 9, 2008


Rokusan, you are correct in your bystanderish understanding.

Here, have some more scare quotes: """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
posted by dirty lies at 11:17 AM on October 9, 2008


As people's ability to survive and reproduce continues to be based more on their social conditions than their health or abilities, I think human evolution has already been superceded by social engineering, and it will soon be superceded further by the intelligent design of cybernetic enhancement.

Curiously enough, as purposeful change through genetic engineering and cybernetic enhancement takes off, the augmentation of biological evolutionary theories with elements that could be called "Intelligent Design" will become useful. (To some extent, see already-existing evolutionary perspectives on domestication.) Of course it will be something hopefully cogent rather than Jesus plopping down humans among the dinosaurs, but it's still pretty funny.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:47 AM on October 9, 2008


Well, we are already bending evolution by controlling natural selection, keeping alive those who would not otherwise survive.

I posit that the only meaningful point of our existence is to produce an intelligence greater than ours. We are making the first steps already by assembling ever more accomplished representations of he human brain.

For us, such independent, creative and self-reflecting higher intelligence would be very useful in accelerating improvements and inventions. Laws of robotics notwithstanding, such intelligence will be bound to realize that it is in fact us, the humans, who keeps disrupting the systems of the world.

Hence, that higher intelligence will likely want to restrict us much as we would a pest or a virus.

I say we let it, but then, I know none of this ever happens because we'll throw ourselves back a century or so through our own and very collective ignorance and hostility to everything and everyone.
posted by Laotic at 11:56 AM on October 9, 2008


I'm mixed race and I'm not exactly a beautiful model.

Everyone is beautiful! There are always ranges of attractiveness, etc in any group. But it seems that humans do have a home-race bias, i.e. we generally find people of our own race more attractive. If someone represents multiple races, he/she expands his potential suitors. Not to insert the USP election into a non-related thread, but it will be interesting to see how well BHO does in November. I personally think it will be *quite* good.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:25 PM on October 9, 2008


(OF COURSE TRAITS ARE INHERITED, AND ORGANISM WITH DEEP COMMON ANCESTRY SHARE TRAITS, EXCEPT MAGICAL HUMANS, WHO ARE ALL EQUAL NO MATTER THEIR ANCESTRY)

I agree with much of what you say, but this statement sort of smacks of "I really have a biological reason to be racist." It doesn't seem like you're pointing to simple inter-individual variation, but to "ancestry" as a trope. I hope I'm misinterpreting your statement.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:50 PM on October 9, 2008


Seems to me the word "evolution" is being used wantonly here. I detect at least three meanings:

1. Changes in the genomically based phenotypic distribution within a species.

2. Changes, presumably phenotypic, for the better in a population of humans, defined by human aspirations.

3. Natural selection.

There may be more, but, boy howdy, is it making for some amusing interchanges.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:57 PM on October 9, 2008


...we generally find people of our own race more attractive...

What is this "race" you speak of?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:58 PM on October 9, 2008


AdamCSnider:

Only if you believe that intelligence is first and foremost a biological/genetic rather than an environmental/cultural issue.

That is not true. Even if intelligence is only 20% genetic and 80% environmental, then (all other things being equal) if less intelligent people have more children than more intelligent people the average intelligence of the population will decrease. That's the case if the heriditary component of intelligence is anything above zero. AFAIK the heritability of IQ is between 40% and 80%.

Personally I find the constant playing down of human biological differences by "socially responsible" science journalists to be patronising and cringe-inducing. Eugenics is basically scientifically sound: sterilizing less intelligent people and encouring more intelligent people to have more children will over time raise the intelligence of the population. However, I would still oppose it on ethical grounds. Likewise I would oppose a national DNA database of every single individual, even though it would help police catch criminals. That doesn't mean I doubt the science behind it.

Most "progressive" people recognize that the possible social implications of Darwinism (decline in public morality etc) are no reason to endorse Creationism if Creationism does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. However they lose this Faustian spirit when it comes to science that calls into question their belief in the "blank slate" fungible and equal human beings, molded by their environment and perfectable through social progress. This is never more obvious than when eugenics or biological differences between groups of people are being discussed.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:00 PM on October 9, 2008


AFAIK the heritability of IQ is between 40% and 80%.

Not arguing in the least, but how did you come up with those numbers?
posted by paisley henosis at 8:02 PM on October 9, 2008


I don't see why you need to sterilize anyone. Why not simply stratify social services based upon intelligence, drive, career, etc.? We already have merit based scholarships for this very reason.

For another example, you don't want child raising to take away from economic activity or to limit women's career progressing. So you give everyone free child care when they are working (and ideally some incentive for grand parents to care for children). But you also create some procedure limited by career for awarding additional child care privileges, i.e. longer possible hours.

If you support mild eugenics, then you add some IQ component into this procedure. I however doubt you'd really need it given that careers warranting the extra social services require more intelligence.

Of course, all this is a moot point since homunculus first comment was absolutely wrong. We are surely breeding less healthy & stupider people, but our memes are evolving far far faster than our genes are deteriorating. I mean, how long do you think we'll wait before genetically enhancing kids intelligence? 20 years? We'll also have some basic brain implants arriving within some similar time frame. We ideally should even develop brain implants that allow for creating "massively parallel humans". Natural selection simply can't compete once we've figured these things out.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:31 AM on October 10, 2008


AFAIK the heritability of IQ is between 40% and 80%.

Not arguing in the least, but how did you come up with those numbers?


Relevant link - Nature. 1997 Jul 31;388(6641):468-71
Maternal effects, often assumed to be negligible, account for 20% of covariance between twins and 5% between siblings, and the effects of genes are correspondingly reduced, with two measures of heritability being less than 50%.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:49 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pere Teilhard de Chardin seems responsible for this very wrong idea that evolution has "goals". I suppose this makes sci-fi more interesting, but such goals don't really exist.

I'd say the best real approximation is : One replicator type may eventually refine itself for more rapid evolution (eukaryotes, sexual selection, etc.) or even create another faster replicator (memes). Such expensive changes may offer profound improvements for survival of the original critter, say by offering better immunity to parasites, and hence won't later be eliminated.

Of course, I don't see exactly how one models this idea compellingly because evolution is "accelerated both by an error correcting code that limits mutations "accelerates" evolution and by sexual selection that continually mixes diverse genetic material. So each "acceleration" event may have some fundamentally different and unique character.

I love considering "acceleration of evolution" in place of "minimizing suffering" as a utilitarian style moral metric, which seems vaguely Chardinian, but honestly neither seems particularly computable.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:56 AM on October 10, 2008


We ideally should even develop brain implants that allow for creating "massively parallel humans".

You're soaking in it.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:27 AM on October 10, 2008


AFAIK the heritability of IQ is between 40% and 80%.

Not arguing in the least, but how did you come up with those numbers?


from here:
In the case of the inheritance of IQ or a certain degree of giftedness, the relatives of probands with a high IQ exhibit a comparably high IQ with a much higher probability than the general population. Bouchard and McGue (1981) have reviewed such correlations reported in 111 original studies in the United States. The mean correlation of IQ scores between monozygotic twins was 0.86, between siblings, 0.47, between half-siblings, 0.31, and between cousins, 0.15. From such data the heritability of IQ has been estimated at anywhere between 0.40 and 0.80 in the United States. The reason for this wide margin appears to be that the heritability of IQ rises through childhood and adolescence, peaking at 0.68 and 0.78 in adults, leaving the overwhelming majority of IQ differences between individuals to be explained genetically.
The trend in sociobiology has been overwhelmingly towards nature and not nurture in the last 10 years.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 8:05 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the links, I had no idea that was the current understanding.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:01 AM on October 11, 2008


i think culturally directed evolution* is a form of group level selection in the post-darwinian era! cf. uplift & the quasi-transhumanist ousters :P i mean x-men/heroes, helloooo?
posted by kliuless at 8:21 PM on October 12, 2008




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