Editorial: Are we still evolving?
11 March 2006
Questions about the evolution of modern humans must rank among the most intriguing in all science - new insights are coming thick and fast
QUESTIONS about the evolution of modern humans must rank among the most intriguing in all science. Are we still evolving? If we are, what subtle pressures are changing us? In which direction are they pushing us and what will we be like in, say, 1000 years?
Fascinating as these questions are, they are also controversial, and the answers are likely to offend sensitivities over such things as the relationship between genes and intelligence, or genes and "race". Equally, negative memories of eugenics are never far away.
Oddly enough, negative memories of the tens of millions slaughtered by egalitarian ideologies are always far away.
In the face of such fraught political questions, some biologists would prefer to believe that our evolution more or less stopped before the emergence of modern humans some 50,000 years ago. That position is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain (see "And us"),
Are we still evolving?
11 March 2006 Kate Douglas Magazine
Some say no, but others believe the process is moving faster than ever - so which is it, asks New Scientist
"ARE humans still evolving? In the vernacular sense of improving morally and intellectually - by cultural changes - I think so," says Steven Pinker. "In the biological sense of changes in the gene pool, it's impossible to say." If pressed to come off the fence, however, the Harvard-based evolutionary biologist [actually, Pinker calls himself a [cognitive scientist"] knows where he stands. "People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent," he says.
It's an understandable position given the political implications of being wrong. And in one important sense Pinker is absolutely spot on: it's very difficult, if not impossible, to observe human evolution in action. But saying it isn't happening is an increasingly difficult position to defend scientifically. Recent discoveries show that we must reject the idea that human evolution stopped dead 50,000 ...