Our Skulls Are Out-Evolving Us
September 29, 2019 12:16 PM   Subscribe

The Hanes family felt they had reached the limits of established medical practice and found no cure to Micah’s sleep and breathing problems. So Hanes did what any modern parent would: she turned to Google. There, she discovered a whole community of researchers and medical professionals who point to abundant evidence that Micah’s experience is increasingly commonplace. To them, Micah represents a perfect case study of an alarming trend in human development with far-reaching implications: over the last 250 years, our skulls have morphed in dangerous and troubling ways.. The problem with Micah, they say, is his face. (Katherine Reynolds Lewis, Medium OneZero)
posted by Johnny Wallflower (52 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is fascinating but what they're describing appears to be developmental problems caused by the environment, rather than genetic changes, so their constant use of the term "evolution" is misleading.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:24 PM on September 29, 2019 [50 favorites]


It's not that our skulls have "evolved", that would imply a genetic change. What this article is describing is a morphological change, and it's caused by the fact that we no longer feed our children the correct foods for proper bone and muscle development of their jaws, which drives the rest of the skull development. It's compounded by the rise in allergies and asthma, causing more mouth breathing. This has been known for a long time, I don't think it's a new revolution. There is a parallel theory that it drives the rise in glasses as eye sockets no longer form as well as they should. Make your kids chew tough foods and check for tongue tie and they'll develop proper jaws. Make them be very active and they'll have healthier backs.
posted by fshgrl at 12:33 PM on September 29, 2019 [20 favorites]


But these developmental changes are passed on to the next generation. Isn't that evolution?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2019


There’s a germ of an interesting phenomenon here to be sure. There’s also quotes like this “In evolution, there are winners and losers,” And yet again a focus on breastfeeding being the cure for all ills and a focus on the skull that would make phenologists proud. This needs way more study, and to be written about in a way that doesn’t twinge every last one of my “eugenics dogwhistles” alarms.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:47 PM on September 29, 2019 [59 favorites]


But these developmental changes are passed on to the next generation. Isn't that evolution?

Developmental problems due to the environment are not genetic and cannot be inherited.

There is some really sloppy science writing in this article that perpetuates common misunderstandings of evolution. And all of that is for no good reason--the story of a way to help kids with mouth and breathing problems earlier on should be a good story without the false "evolving skulls" narrative (and as Homo neaderthalensis notes, the eugenics language)
posted by hydropsyche at 12:50 PM on September 29, 2019 [40 favorites]


I was also confused by the intermingling of “evolution” with different behaviors, like: “There is no easy way to turn back the evolution of our skulls. It’s unrealistic to advise parents to eschew processed food, breastfeed longer, move to open-air cabins in the country, or perhaps put children on the Paleo diet to prevent these changes taking hold in the skulls of the next generation.”

I also thought the suggestion that it might be good to get orthodontists working on kids as young as two (!) sounded alarming.
posted by sallybrown at 12:59 PM on September 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


Hmmm... it's as if footbinding must have caused Chinese women's feet to evolve in shape. And as the practice disappered, Chinese women's feet devolved back to the way they used to be.

Amazing how "for hundreds of thousands of years, people had beautiful skulls." WTF?
posted by 2N2222 at 1:10 PM on September 29, 2019 [12 favorites]


I'd seen stories about how using cutlery changes your jaw, but this seems to be a great enlargement of that idea. Make your babies gnaw on crusty bread and tear the meat off bones instead of eating goldfish and cheerios.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:10 PM on September 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


The article's issues with confusion about environmental changes and evolution notwithstanding, I think a lot of comments here are ignoring what we've been learning about the influence of heritable epigenetic changes in changes to species' gene expression over time in response to their environment.

I doubt anybody has studied whether this specific area of expression is affected in this way, but it seems possible. At a minimum, socially-inherited behavior has a long-term effect. While the article's haphazard explanations and other significant problems aren't helping its case, the point that our rapid environmental and behavioral changes may be shaping us in ways we should pay attention to seems worth further (and better) study.

Generally speaking, I'm 100% on board with the latter half of hydropsyche's assessment - this would have been a better article if it put the interesting subject matter front-and-center without getting bogged down by placing a primitive/modern distinction, and all the baggage that carries, as its primary story framework.
posted by jiv at 1:24 PM on September 29, 2019 [8 favorites]


I also thought the suggestion that it might be good to get orthodontists working on kids as young as two (!) sounded alarming.

It wasn't clear in the article, but it sounds like Dr. Boyd is a practitioner of orthotropics, which is a non-surgical intervention to reshape the mouth and palate. Quite a few pediatric dentists seem to be advocates, but I am not qualified to say whether it's legit or not. One of the reasons behind it's advocacy is to avoid surgeries and braces and more invasive realignment techniques.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:31 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


Also the article is horrible and unscientific and seems to have a photo of Dr. Monge but no evidence to back up the claim that she is on board with the premise of the article or even a quote from her. It's all very sloppy.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:33 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of comments here are ignoring what we've been learning about the influence of heritable epigenetic changes in changes to species' gene expression over time in response to their environment.

No. That's things like trauma altering methylation of DNA. That's not in any way relevant to this topic at all.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:43 PM on September 29, 2019 [16 favorites]


A fun thing that I discovered partway through this article is that I am very sensitive to dental horror, even if the "horror" is just how our mouths are meant to work.
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:59 PM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of comments here are ignoring what we've been learning about the influence of heritable epigenetic changes in changes to species' gene expression over time in response to their environment.

That is not what is happening here. It is true that kids born with bad malocclusions no longer tend to die due to their inability to extract calories from food but there's no evidence the actual genetics of skull development or the pre-programmed template have changed.

This is a legitimate field of study with lots of papers but a badly written article.
posted by fshgrl at 2:04 PM on September 29, 2019 [17 favorites]


I'm just here because I want to use the term Neo-Lamarckianism.


Neo-Lamarckianism.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:26 PM on September 29, 2019 [49 favorites]


Evolution takes much longer than 250 years; it's a process of random mutations better suiting individuals to the environment. It's not a matter of genes figuring out what would be useful and so producing that kind of trait.

Poor Micah and his mom, for sure, but it seems like there are any number of things that could explain their difficulties. The opening reminded me of Lorenzo's Oil … yikes. I bet it's not deteriorating myelin sheaths, though.
posted by allthinky at 2:37 PM on September 29, 2019


The ENT offered no other ideas. 

Diagnosis? Do not be hasty, hroom hoom hm...
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:47 PM on September 29, 2019 [15 favorites]


What’s this about the brain shrinking? Don’t we need brain? I thought brain good?
posted by um at 3:08 PM on September 29, 2019 [14 favorites]


Theoretically, developmentally-induced changes can over time become genetic changes, through a process called "genetic assimilation" or "genetic accomodation." It's one of my most favorite counter-intuitive evolutionary scenarios, and one that seems to be pretty straightforwardly true in the evolution of eusocial insects.
1) Environment induces developmental variation with no genomic mutations
2) Certain developmental variations turn out to yield really good phenotypes
3) Selection occurs for genotypes that are better at developing into the new, environmentally induced phenotype
4) Additional accumulation of mutations locks the new phenotype in, so that it no longer has to be environmentally induced

Oh, *all* the handwaving, yes, but the idea that phenotype change can precede genotype change in evolution is a well-respected one. Developmental plasticity is GREAT because it means that the genome can adapt to environmental changes really FAST, but if those changes persist, the genome will catch up. All of which is just to say, yeah, they're confusing evolution with development, but they're not *totally* wrong.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:14 PM on September 29, 2019 [13 favorites]


also I have a weird shaped head because I have tongue thrust because for some reason I never learned to keep my tongue up against the roof of my mouth and always pressed it against my teeth and I'm teaching myself to hold my tongue properly now but like, it's really late in life for me to do that, and I have no doubt that the resulting weird shape of my face has contributed to sleep apnea problems. My dentist also notes that my right masseter is way stronger than my left, and she wants me to try to chew with my left side more, because bones do really change shape throughout your life, and bones are really influenced in their shape changes by the muscles that are pulling on them.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:17 PM on September 29, 2019 [4 favorites]


The claim that babies went straight from nursing to solid, chew requiring food also struck me as odd, why don't we think pre industrial revolution societies were relying on the many, many low tech schemes we have for making soft food?
posted by heyforfour at 3:22 PM on September 29, 2019 [10 favorites]


Will no one think of the poor necromancer, laboring away with substandard materials all these years? As usual, a disgraceful focus on the needs of the living!
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:31 PM on September 29, 2019 [19 favorites]


{Forgive me, I haven't read the article yet}
I saw something about how the use of forks changed our overbite {actually, saw the same thing on another blog recently, but can't locate it.}

[edit] Are, there it is. 25 Fun Facts About Food from Gastropod - Item 6
Also, it seems to me that the case must change before the contents do, similar to fish growing to the size of the pond they inhabit.
posted by Dub at 3:38 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


Was going to complain about the confusion between evolution and development. But you all already had it covered. My people!
posted by biogeo at 3:39 PM on September 29, 2019 [8 favorites]


Neo-Lamarckianism.

♫ Lamarck is dead ♫
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:00 PM on September 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


Appalling article. The nostalgia for a pre-modern past is so misplaced and it’s all through the alternative-medicine community. I’ve been working on a book chapter on infant and child mortality in the Roman Empire and I don’t think that better dental alignment and sleep are worth average life expectancy at birth of around 25 (that means nearly half of all children die from infectious diseases by age 10). In skeletons from Roman Italy the bones often have defects caused by physiological stress, that is, disease or malnutrition in childhood.
posted by bad grammar at 4:25 PM on September 29, 2019 [16 favorites]


The problem with Micah, they say, is his face.

I can’t be the only one who hears an echo of schoolyard insults.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:00 PM on September 29, 2019 [9 favorites]


Yeah, no, the idea that pre-modern societies didn’t soften food for babies to eat is utterly hilarious. We have had the technology to it a little extra water in the grain cooking pot, or to mash up the bread with a little extra milk for a very, very long time.

And that’s if you’re fancy. Plenty of human cultures have traditions of mothers chewing food and then putting it in the mouths of their infants. It’s been seen in chimps, ffs.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:54 PM on September 29, 2019 [19 favorites]


for hundreds of thousands of years, people had beautiful skulls

Big red flag for me too. Having looked at a lot of skulls and specifically at their teeth for my anthro degree, I can say for certain that they were not the picture if dental health. Pre-modern people absolutely had a plethora of cracked and missing teeth, alveolar abscesses, and many many other dental problems.

The biggest change in human dentition has been the various adoption of staple carbs leading to increased caries, a process that was supercharged with the ubiquitous use of refined sugar. But the "tough foods" diet presented as a cure-all in the article carries it's open drawbacks; it's routine for pre-modern teeth to be worn flat down to the dentine or beyond.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:09 PM on September 29, 2019 [15 favorites]


Needs more mention of tongue ties and vitamin K2. I found The Dental Diet to be a really valuable read.

And yeah, it’s depressing that I’m just learning about all this now, when it’s too late to change the shape of my jaw and airway. Wish my parents had been more on top of it while I was developing.
posted by mantecol at 6:51 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


Echoing what joyceanmachine said here; coincidentally, I was just listening to a radio programme that mentioned research into the use of what seem to have been feeding "bottles" for babies going back as far as the Neolithic, with traces of non-human milk in the ceramic. The assumption that babies were exclusively breastfed until the industrial revolution seems ridiculous, let alone the idea that they were directly weaned onto hard chewy foods.

One genuinely genetic change that may be relevant here is the lack of wisdom teeth, which varies widely between ethnic groups, and for which I am personally very grateful, since my family have this useful mutation.
posted by Fuchsoid at 7:16 PM on September 29, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think we abandoned the field of corrective phrenology too soon. Just sayin'.
posted by sneebler at 7:38 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


This just sounds like so much ... woo? Plenty of research shows that snoring peaks when kids are 5-8ish, and surgery doesn't necessarily help much. Kids have to grow into their tonsils and adenoids. This also seems like an outgrowth of the breastfeeding propaganda crew, which likes to sometimes claim all sorts of dire outcomes if you don't breastfeed your kid for 2 years. Also, I don't know about your kids, but my kid was chewing a lot of stuff just fine by a year? It's not like they go from the devil formula to 5 years of applesauce? Was I supposed to be feeding him porkchops and oats?
posted by schwinggg! at 7:43 PM on September 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


The comments on the original article run the gamut. Look out for the person who thinks "cross-breeding of different populations" is at fault for misaligned teeth.
posted by homerica at 7:51 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


mantecol: Needs more mention of tongue ties and vitamin K2

Could you elaborate? My grandson was treated for tongue tie at eight months and seems fine now (22 months).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:06 PM on September 29, 2019


For those interested in the science, but perhaps put off by the discussion in the OP, I'd recommend two recent books on similar topics that give the subject a fuller treatment:
  • Built On Bones, about the biological changes to human bodies since the advent of agriculture and urbanization.
  • Paleofantasy, about the evolutionary changes we've undergone since becoming H. sapiens and especially in the last few thousand years.
There's overlap, but not as much as you might think: as discussed in this thread that "biological changes" and "evolution" are different things, and both the authors (who are working scientists) do a good job explaining what they are describing.
posted by mark k at 11:06 PM on September 29, 2019 [9 favorites]


After browsing the article, it seems that the central claim of the article, that human skull shape has changed significantly in the last couple of centuries, is backed up by the statements of that one guy Boyd.

The idea that human skull shape "evolved" significantly in the space of a few generations is just. . . . Unbelievable? impossible?

So to back up this incredible claim, we are presented with what evidence? A few sentences of that Boyd guy looking at skulls in a musuem and one mention of Etruscan children apparently having excellent teeth? big claims backed by flimsy evidence.
posted by Pantalaimon at 11:16 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


Oh goody books to read! Thank you Mark K!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:18 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is a hoax, y’all. I remember being surprised to see this totally garbage article circulating on left twitter after being posted by normally solid weird/progressive/science tweeter @pooklebinky, and it’s strange to see that it’s gotten enough traction to make it to the blue. The “beautiful skulls” line jumped out at me, like it did for a lot of people in this thread, as something with the same basic cadence and vocabulary as a Trump tweet. The illustrations of a “hunter-gatherer” vs “industrial” human skulls are literally stolen and relabeled stock image of homo neanderthalensis vs homo sapiens. I guess anxieties about the catastrophic effects industrialization has had on us as a species were high the week this bullshit came out, but this is serious, pure bullshit. Shana Tovah and let’s all do some better science reading.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 12:22 AM on September 30, 2019 [20 favorites]


This article is absolute garbage.
posted by spitbull at 12:49 AM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]


Evolution takes much longer than 250 years

Well now, this isn't necessarily true. Evolution is often a lot less gradual and a lot more like a series of jumps than people think - when there are sudden changes in the environment, those with the wrong genes can die very fast and only the advantaged are left, and bam evolution. See the colour change of the peppered moth to dark and back to peppered again as an example.

Of course this doesn't apply to more complex moves like the development of eyes. And this article seems to have a very poor grasp of science. And I wish I had no wisdom teeth like fuchsoid because I currently have one that seems to be coming in sort of sideways and ugh teeth pulling.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:55 AM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sure. But there is no way a change 8 generations ago in a population as diverse as humans could propagate to the extent the author claims. Especially in the case where the mutation is a disadvantage which is after all the whole point of the source material (if you have trouble breathing as a child you are certain to, on average, have less descendants than someone who doesn't have trouble breathing). What would be driving the selection of this trait?
posted by Mitheral at 5:54 AM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah, fucking Franz Boas disproved this more than a century ago, with his systematic study of the skull shapes of different ethnic groups (Native and non-Native) in the US, and the changes that occur in the skulls of the children of recent immigrants following their families' arrival in the US. It's not evolution, skulls are just highly mutable dependent on environmental factors.


Neo-Lamarckianism.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:35 AM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]


"Worst of all, this anatomy encourages mouth-breathing …"

Judging by the current state of politics, this claim is well supported.
posted by Kabanos at 6:57 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


There's just a spate of articles implying or stating outright that "modern life is why your child is sick" that totally ignore the significantly greater likelihood that "modern life is why your child continues to survive."
posted by Selena777 at 8:10 AM on September 30, 2019 [9 favorites]


Very curious about the "precursor" to the New England Journal of Medicine, that the author describes as dating back somewhere between 1917 and 1922.

The New England Journal of Medicine was first published in 1812.
posted by borborygmi at 9:56 AM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


Is it Weston A. Price again for the ninegajillionth time?
posted by Don Pepino at 12:03 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeah, fucking Franz Boas disproved this more than a century ago, with his systematic study of the skull shapes of different ethnic groups

True story: Boas sent a young PhD student named Zora Neale Hurston our to the corner of Broadway and 125th Street to measure the skulls of random African American passers-by.
posted by spitbull at 3:22 PM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]


I never knew I needed to know that about Hurston, but I definitely did need to know that. Measuring skulls. Wow.
posted by asperity at 3:32 PM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yes, Boas did it to disprove the theory that skull size was a racial characteristic, and that it was linked to an intellectual hierarchy of races.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:02 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


Is anyone else going to point out how delightfully eponysterical that was? No? OK then, guess it'll be me.
posted by asperity at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


to disprove the theory

Sort of, although it’s a bit more complex than that and has to do also with the legitimation of social anthropology as a science, under conditions of the hegemony of racist pseudoscience (that are not all that gone, or are resurgent, today). The racial politics of Boasian anthropology have been generally lauded and celebrated (by anthropologists and several generations of the educated public who have encountered an anthropology shaped in his image and by his students in college courses) for their anti-racist implications and intentions. But in practice and on the ground of course it was more complicated and there’s a lot of recent scholarship on the subject. I love this New Yorker piece from a few years back by Claudia Roth Pierpoint (which goes into the Hurston measuring skulls thing, but less into how Hurston came to be alienated from her experience at Columbia). But I also recommend a very recent essay by Audra Simpson, a Mohawk anthropologist who occupies the chair Boas once sat in at Columbia now, entitled “Why White People Love Franz Boas, or the Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession.”
posted by spitbull at 6:10 AM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


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