If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Friday, October 10, 2008

How We Evolve


A growing number of scientists argue that human culture itself has become the foremost agent of biological change.

When the previous generation of life scientists was coming up through the academy, there was a widespread assumption, not always articulated by professors, that human evolution had all but stopped.

It had certainly shaped our prehuman ancestors — Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and the rest of the ape-men and man-apes in our bushy lineage — but once Homo sapiens developed agriculture and language, it was thought, we stopped changing.

It was as though, having achieved its aim by the seventh day, evolution rested. "That was the stereotype that I learned," says population geneticist and anthropologist Henry Harpending. "We showed up 45,000 years ago and haven't changed since then."

The idea makes a rough-and-ready kind of sense. Natural selection derives its power to transform from the survival of some and the demise of others, and from differential reproductive success. But we nurse our sick back to health, and mating is no longer a privilege that males beat each other senseless to secure.

As a result, even the less fit get to pass on their genes. Promiscuity and sperm competition have given way to spiritual love; the fittest and the unfit are treated as equals, and equally flourish. With the advent of culture and our fine sensibilities, the assumption was, natural selection went by the board.

Science must evolve new tools to raise us to such a commanding vantage, as well as to avert a self-inflicted extinction. Technology might some day enable us to control aspects of evolution, or it may prove to be the ultimate selection regime, culling all of us.

Perhaps we already find ourselves wishing we'd lacked the intelligence to monkey with howitzers. Either way, the culture that we've created is, strangely, evolution's most powerful tool and its potential nemesis, the womb of human nature and perhaps its grave. By our own hand: this is how we evolve.

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