Scientists are split over the theory that natural selection has come to a standstill in the West. Robin McKie reports
Sunday February 3, 2002
For those who dream of a better life, science has bad news: this is the best it is going to get. Our species has reached its biological pinnacle and is no longer capable of changing.
That is the stark, controversial view of a group of biologists who believe a Western lifestyle now protects humanity from the forces that used to shape Homo sapiens.
'If you want to know what Utopia is like, just look around - this is it,' said Professor Steve Jones, of University College London, who is to present his argument at a Royal Society Edinburgh debate, 'Is Evolution Over?', next week. 'Things have simply stopped getting better, or worse, for our species.'
This view is controversial, however. Other scientists argue that mankind is still being influenced by the evolutionary forces that created the myriad species which have inhabited Earth over the past three billion years.
'If you had looked at Stone Age people in Europe a mere 50,000 years ago, you would assume the trend was for people to get bigger and stronger all the time,' said Prof Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. 'Then, quite abruptly, these people were replaced by light, tall, highly intelligent people who arrived from Africa and took over the world. You simply cannot predict evolutionary events like this. Who knows where we are headed?'
Some scientists believe humans are becoming less brainy and more neurotic; others see signs of growing intelligence and decreasing robustness, while some, like Jones, see evidence of us having reached a standstill. All base their arguments on the same tenets of natural selection.
According to Darwin's theory, individual animals best suited to their environments live longer and have more children, and so spread their genes through populations. This produces evolutionary changes. For example, hoofed animals with longer necks could reach the juiciest leaves on tall trees and therefore tended to eat well, live longer, and have more offspring.
Eventually, they evolved into giraffes. Those with shorter necks died out.
Similar processes led to the evolution of mankind, but this has now stopped because virtually everybody's genes are making it to the next generation, not only those who are best adapted to their environments.
'Until recently, there were massive differences between individuals' lifespans and fecundity,' said Jones. 'In London, the death rate outstripped the birth rate for most of the city's history.
If you look at graveyards from ancient to Victorian times, you can see that a half of all children died before adolescence, probably because they lacked genetic protection against disease.
Now, children's chances of reaching the age of 25 have reached 98 per cent. Nothing is changing. We have reached stagnation.'
In addition, human populations are now being constantly mixed, again producing a blending that blocks evolutionary change. This increased mixing can be gauged by calculating the number of miles between a person's birthplace and his or her partner's, then between their parents' birthplaces, and finally, between their grandparents'.
In virtually every case, you will find that the number of miles drops dramatically the more that you head back into the past. Now people are going to universities and colleges where they meet and marry people from other continents. A generation ago, men and women rarely mated with anyone from a different town or city. Hence, 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.
However, such arguments affect only the Western world - where food, hygiene and medical advances are keeping virtually every member of society alive and able to pass on their genes.
In the developing world, no such protection exists.
'Just consider Aids, and then look at chimpanzees,' says Jones. 'You find they all carry a version of HIV but are unaffected by it.
'But a few thousand years ago, when the first chimps became infected, things would have been very different. Millions of chimps probably died as the virus spread through them, and only a small number, which possessed genes that conferred immunity, survived to become the ancestors of all chimps today.
'Something very similar could soon happen to humans. In a thousand years, Africa will be populated only by the descendants of those few individuals who are currently immune to the Aids virus. They will carry the virus but will be unaffected by it. So yes, there will be change there all right - but only where the forces of evolution are not being suppressed.'
However, other scientists believe evolutionary pressures are still taking their toll on humanity, despite the protection afforded by Western life. For example, the biologist Christopher Wills, of the University of California, San Diego, argues that ideas are now driving our evolution. 'There is a premium on sharpness of mind and the ability to accumulate money. Such people tend to have more children and have a better chance of survival,' he says. In other words, intellect - the defining characteristic of our species - is still driving our evolution.
This view is countered by Peter Ward, of the University of Washington in Seattle. In his book, Future Evolution, recently published in the US by Henry Holt, Ward also argues that modern Western life protects people from the effects of evolution. 'I don't think we are going to see any changes - apart from ones we deliberately introduce ourselves, when we start to bio-engineer people, by introducing genes into their bodies, so they live longer or are stronger and healthier.'
If people start to live to 150, and are capable of producing children for more than 100 of those years, the effects could be dramatic, he says. 'People will start to produce dozens of children in their lifetimes, and that will certainly start to skew our evolution. These people will also have more chance to accumulate wealth as well. So we will have created a new race of fecund, productive individuals and that could have dramatic consequences.
'However, that will only come about when we directly intervene in our own evolution, using cloning and gene therapy. Without that, nothing will happen.'
Stringer disagrees, however. 'Evolution goes on all the time. You don't have to intervene. It is just that it is highly unpredictable. For example, brain size has decreased over the past 10,000 years. A similar reduction has also affected our physiques. We are punier and smaller-brained compared with our ancestors only a few millennia ago. So even though we might be influenced by evolution, that does not automatically mean an improvement in our lot.'
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