Those Brits keep showing us up by unashamedly trumpeting good science on television and radio. The BBC has a whole collection of media on Darwin right now, most of it good.
Most. One thing I simply do not get is the infatuation with the idea that evolution has stopped for humans. I am baffled at how anyone can take such an idea seriously, yet there’s Steven Jones again making this peculiar claim.
Dan G. says
I wonder if we will ever evolve in a way that rids our population of the genes responsible for the contrarian nature of some of our individuals. I fear not. If we have retained it this long it may have some survival value.
Evolution has stopped for humans baffles me as well. My bf was reading an article just called that. It started a wild argument and his defense was ‘You’re just being close minded!’ WTF? I had science blogs for mine :P. Eventually we settled on an explanation that he was telling people who have no evolution knowledge what so ever that the reason why you don’t see radical changes bla bla bla.
I still find it bogus
dead yeti says
I really am proud of the BBC – i know that we have to pay a special tax for its exsistance, but i really think we get value for money, and the fact the programmes are not interrupted with adverts is a real bonus.
Guy G says
I think that the idea of evolution stopping for humans is probably due to two major factors:
1. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I never really studied evolution in particularly great depth at school. Whilst it was taught well, there was a necessary skimping on the detail. The majority of examples were to do with being better adapted to hunt prey, or avoid predators. We get our food from the supermarket, and no-one hunts us. Therefore, taking the prominent examples from education, we have effectively outgrown evolution.
2. Evolution has removed man’s place as special in the universe. Without going off on one about why people are religious, I think it’s fairly obvious that there is some kind of psychological need (in many if not all of us) for a sense of purpose. The idea that we have managed to outgrow religion is a nice one. We might’ve randomly evolved from primordial sludge, but we’ve now outgrown the process and beaten it. Our state of “special being” is restored.
These are the reasons I think that the idea that evolution has stopped for us is appealing and easy to accept. They are not reasons why I think that evolution *has* stopped for us. I don’t.
Clearly evolution has stopped for humans !!
Or how is it that not all the chicks are blond busty bombshells,and all the guys hugely hung hunks?
Surely that has to be an advantage for passing on your genes !
Stephen Wells says
I think the “evolution has stopped for humans” thing is an attempt to point out that we devote huge amounts of effort to the evasion of natural selection; the genetic makeup of the population, and of course its size, is thus vastly different from what it would be if we were still dodging leopards nightly and if infant mortality were still at 50%. Maybe “natural selection is weaker for humans” didn’t seem catchy enough?
The discussion this morning on radio 4 was pretty good.
Around 15yrs ago as an undergraduate i attended a lecture by Dr Jones on the subject of ‘has evolution stopped in humans?’.
My memory is that his 2 main arguments where:
Humans no longer breed in small populations i.e no bottle necks, reduction of ‘founder effect’ etc.
Many of the selection pressures have been ‘lifted’ due to social care/ medical advances.
I do not recall any bold statements to it having actually stopped (I’m not even sure what that would mean, to me evolution can only be stopped by extinction).
I am unfamilar with his more recent thoughts on the issue.
Guy G says
Guy @ #4 (i.e. me):
The idea that we have managed to outgrow religion is a nice one.
The idea that we have managed to outgrow evolution is a nice one.
Bit too much wishful thinking there…
Colonel Molerat says
Damn! I thought I had a chance at first posties, but just hadn’t pressed ‘refresh’ for the last ten minutes…
I heard Steve Jones the first time he said that. I still don’t quite get it… It seems to me that it is utterly impossible to stop evolution unless you can stop mutation.
Perhaps you can change what drives it (somehow removing natural selection, or adjusting the way we mutate), but something can’t just stop evolving, unless they stop mutating, surely?
Every night, I remind myself to try to evolve while I sleep; I’m hoping for wheels. Hasn’t worked yet…
Pfft. They see that certain selective pressures no longer apply, and think that means evolution has stopped. Duh. All it means is that the fitness landscape has changed. Evolution never stops.
Now, if you want to argue that the current fitness landscape will have some undesirable long-term consequences (e.g., you can have more offspring by being a worthless, uneducated welfare mother than by being productive), I’m inclined to agree. However, technological progress (e.g., gene modification, nanotech, uploading) will change the whole ballgame long before such trends have any important effect
Richard Harris says
The Darwin series is entertaining & informative.
As for Steve Jones & his idea that evolution has stopped for humans. I just wonder – is it because, in his thinking, the idea of progress in evolution is being measured against our current situation, whereas the forces apparently shaping us now, (in the West, that is), do not appear to be likely to promote what we think of as evolutionary progress.
For instance, the rich (& presumably the ‘better’ or ‘fitter’) had more surviving kids in Darwin’s day. Now, the people who have the highest birth rate, without high mortality, are single mothers & … uh oh … best not go there. So, to some people, human evolution has stopped, or even gone into reverse.
(I do of course realize that S J knows that evolutionary forces are blind, & ‘progress in evolution’ is a human construct applied after the event.)
The environment humans live in is changing more rapidly than during most primate evolution. The evolutionary pressures are changing. But, of course the species is evolving, it is unavoidable.
Well, if my ex’s are to be believed, I did indeed stop evolving years ago. I don’t know if any of them have published, but they all seemed very sure of their position.
I think a lot of people believe humans are “special” in some way, either in cognitive ability, or that we are the most “highly-evolved” species, or that God loves us ever so.
I think that goes into the whole idea that we have somehow insulated ourselves from evolution. Never mind that selection still occurs (there are people who will never get laid, and for good reasons). Never mind that genetic drift is an important part of evolution. Never mind that we are potentially allowing certain traits to propagate into the general population that might’ve been selected out in tougher times, which might prove positively-selectable in the future. (That last one is speculation, of course.)
I think it’s just one more instance of the “Humans are special” delusion.
I for one have evolved extra charm and phallus size….
Sorry, but its true.
When I was about 10 and evolution was explained to me for the first time, it took me about five more minutes to reach the conclusion that is the premise of Idiocracy: we’re going backwards!
Does this mean that in every day, in every way, I’m not getting better and better?
The Darwin season is very good, particularly Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time series, which does feature Steve Jones, and Darwin’s biographer, John More.
Funny about that. You take a species, remove the most common selection pressures, introduce a ton more, and expect the species not to evolve in response? I suspect that driving will have a strong effect on us, as did the easy availability of strong alcohol. And I think we’ve already seen evolution in response to AIDS.
What we need is a really good environmental stressor, to give natural selection a good kick in the ass. Going from gravity to no-gravity, for example, ought to do it.
I predict that after populations of humans have existed and reproduced in orbital habitats for a few dozen generations, in a micro-gravity environment, they will end up with a beachball shaped body, with spindly arms and legs and a protruding, muscular, articulating, tube-like anus. They will subsist mainly on a diet of cabbage, peas, pork-and-beans and beer, and propel themselves about their environment via controlled flatulence. Oh, yeah… and their sense of smell will atrophy. Uhhhh… and they won’t get many visitors.
If we ignore both the creatioist micro/macro evolution nonsense and the general publics ‘progressive ladder’ view of evoltion, and just stick with evolution as a change in the frequency of alleles.
Then removing (or reducing) a selection pressure will allow an allele previously selected against to become more frequent.
So evolution can’t have stopped, although it ‘maybe’ ( big on the maybe) that we are no longer getting ‘better’ (whatever the hell that means) to our environment as a result.
I’d rather drop the subjective stuff, simple question are the frequencies of allels changing?
If yes then the human population is evolving.
Ok, I didn’t read the whole article, but I am going to nit pick on my little pet peeve.
The name of the book was “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life ” which was shortened to “On the Origin of Species” not “On the Origin of THE species”
I think the idea that evolution has “stopped” for humans comes from the belief that natural selection no longer applies to us. That is, we no longer have to wait for “beaks” to adapt in order to eat nuts, or grow long necks to reach tall branches, etc. we invent tools. Any selection pressures we now experience do not appear to be so much from “nature” but of our own making. Clearly, humans are not (currently) immune from the “descent with modification” half of the evolution equation, but the “natural selection” seems to be at least very different for us than what we see in “the wild”.
But what will happen when we do start getting a real handle on genetic engineering? Will that be a new “engine” of evolution or put an end to it by enforcing a “standard” genome?
oops missed out the worded –adapted– guess from where.
Is there an edit function here?
Taking a moment for the Singularitarian viewpoint.
I won’t harp on the “human evolution” stuff. Old hat.
We are on the brink of making choices and changes far beyond the scope of biological evolution. Impatience will meet ability and we will choose our own adaptations rather than play with the genetics we started off with.
Thank you for that. Concise and incisive. I used to be able to come up with stuff like that on my own.
Tony P says
Human evolution is still going on in human beings. A good example is probably lifespans. Ever notice we’re seeing a larger number of people reach 100?
Funny. But remember it is not sufficient to just be best adapted to your enviroment, it has to result in getting laid more often.
Julian Gall says
There are obviously many factors that determine how many decendents an individual human will have. They are different now from what they were in centuries gone by. However, unless those factors are genetically determined (as opposed to socially, financially, etc.), I can see why he says evolution has stopped.
e.g. Catholics tend to have more children because of restrictions on birth control. But because Catholicism isn’t genetically determined, Catholics are not increasing as a percentage of the population. If they were, we’d all be Catholic by now.
It comes from the premise that we no longer adapt to the environment but attempt to model the environment to suit us. Novel evasion of new problem appears to be a form of adaptation but is forfeit due to our ability to communicate which spreads the ‘adaptation’. Though we as a species may favour intelligence you do not have to be intelligent to benefit from new ideas and thoughts. Anyone who possess’ a natural advantage may find that others can come up with a similar artificial method of coping with the same problem (e.g. vaccine for disease) which can then be applied to everybody.
David L says
Not to memtion of course the fact that the demographics of human populations around the world suggest the melanic form of Homo Sapiens is likely to become much more common over the next thirty years, just like the melanic form of the Peppered Moth during the Industrial Revolution.
Matt M says
Your dismissal of the idea that human evolution has stopped may have been a tad hasty. While I too would argue that the extreme situation of a complete remove of the human genome from evolutionary forces is far from the case, Dr Anne Campbell hits on a more subtle point regarding the way in which humans may be evolving:
When one considers the numerous ways in which humans have been able to cheat death through technological advances in medicine, physiology, and biology, it becomes clear that there does exist a level of remove from the natural forces of evolutionary theory. Instead of simple fecundity determining reproductive success, the forces which guide our evolution are much more complex. Consider the individual who may be a prime human specimen from our current perspective, endowed with the myriad of traits we search for in a mate. In the developed world at least, this individual, freed from the impulses of his reptilian brain, has the conscious decision of whether or not he/she shall reproduce. Better traits do not necessarily correspond with greater reproductive success. Conversely, consider the infertile couple who seeks the aid of modern medicine and in vitro fertilization to conceive a child. Again this demonstrates the complexity of the forces acting on our evolution. The couple, on their own, would normally be condemned to a childless fate. Yet, by tapping into the resources developed by the human collective, the couple’s genes will survive them in their children.
Matt Heath says
Don’t feel bad; the pseudo-science bollocks in most of the British newspapers (and on documentaries like Panorama) more than makes up for it.
When I was in high school, I came to the conclusion that the human species was no longer evolving; “Medical science has beaten evolution” is how I would put it (that the human species had evolved was never in doubt).
Years later, I realized that not even in first world nations can modern medical science save everyone. We still have variation among the species and we still have a survival-to-reproduction rate of less than one hundred percent, so evolution intrinsically follows.
Exactly how we will evolve in the future is a prediction I am not inclined to make, even if I were qualified to make it.
Here’s what Steved Jones actually says about human evolution:
On the idea that human evolution might have stopped:
“I really just know about snails, and the beauty of evolution is that it gives biology a structure, so the rules that apply to snails or to fruit flies to some extent apply to ourselves. Obviously there’s much more that applies to us. But if you ask the simple Darwinian question about natural selection, inherited differences in the ability to pass on genes (which is only part of the evolutionary argument) it’s pretty clear to me that at least for the time being and at least in the developed world, natural selection has stopped or at least slowed down.”
Perhaps it appears that evolution has “stopped” because we are in the “equilibrium” period of Gould’s punctuated equilibrium hypothesis. Right now our genome is diversifying somewhat independant of any selection pressure, so as a poulation there is little overall change (though with lots of individual diversity). But let the global catastrophe come (whtever it may be) and we may just get a very rapid “burst” of selection to the “next stage” of evolution when just a few of those variations survive.
Matt Heath says
umm… I’m happy to be corrected by any of the biologists here, but I’m pretty sure this is very wrong. Extended lifespan is down to medicine and public health, not biological evolution. If I had to guess I’d say evolutionary would be against extreme longevity; if your descendants need to take care of you or pay for your old-folks home they aren’t putting those same resources into reproducing.
We all know that we’re not going to see much evidence of human evolution within one or two generations, or since the industrial revolution, or whenever. The issue is certainly a much longer term one. We’re not going to know on a short scale what is a survival trait.
The other question is what is meant by “natural” in natural selection. OK, so we’re not being chased around by sabre-tooths anymore, and many of the selection pressures are of our own making, but if they’re consistent at all, they will still provide natural selection. I don’t think that selective breeding or genetic manipulation constitutes “natural”, but pretty much everything else does.
I have to agree with #7 that natural selection and evolution end with the extinction of the species. Why is there even an argument on that?
Cuttlefish, OM says
There really is no mystery
In how these people think;
When all recorded history
Is evolution’s *blink*;
If, from a movie, say we will
Remove a single frame–
The picture there is standing still
And must remain the same.
Our children look… about like us
They don’t seem “more evolved”–
And so, case closed, no muss, no fuss;
The problem is resolved.
Of course, they’re wrong, as I and you
Both know; the truth is this–
That Man has a myopic view,
And ignorance is bliss.
Julian Gall @ 29:
Catholicism is genetically determined, to some extent; Catholic parents will tend to attempt to bring their children up as Catholics. A sufficient quantity of them will have minds of their own, however, and will manage successfully to escape their indoctrination.
Catholicism is genetically determined…
Not any more so than say speaking English or Chinese is. Ability to acquire language appears genetic, not the specific language. We may be genetically predisposed to believe in the supernatural, but the specifics are entirely learned.
Dr P says
I agree with #6 – because of medicine and an aversion to letting evolution continue unhindered there is now an artificial selection. Though it’s mainly socio-economic in nature, this does tend to encompass particular genetic pools.
Some may see this as stopping evolution because they don’t understand the difference between evolution and selection. I’ve been at fault of using the terms or ideas interchangeably, though I (think I) understand the ideas themselves, and I assume (somewhat errantly perhaps) that others will sometimes do the same.
We may be genetically predisposed to believe in the supernatural,…
Meaning that we are predisposed to trust and believe that which we are told as children. That has clear survival advantages; to just accept what you are told without question. When Mom says to run away from that lion, the one that questioned got eaten, the one that obeyed did not. Religion is just a (relatively) modern side-effect of that trait.
Marcus Ranum says
we are the most “highly-evolved” species, or that God loves us ever so.
Yes; it’s all part of god’s plan: we were put here on earth to bootstrap the ultimate machine-intelligence. At which time we will be discarded.
I love how creobots just “know” that god’s plan ended with the evolution of white southern baptist retards.
Over the last hundred years the human environment has changed drastically (improved sanitation and medical techniques, improved personal transportation and food supply through industrial farming run on cheap oil) allowing a population explosion as well as a larger than normal amount of gene flow. This has created a huge pool of mixed genotypes ready for when selection pressure revs back up in the next big die-off, eg. oil-shortage induced famine and resulting disease epidemics, the next world war (probably over oil or water), climate change-induced drought and crop failure. We’ll see who survives hunger longest; who’s the most resistant to disease; who’s smart enough to get out of town before the armies, while others hide in their cellars.
All of those things are examples of evolution happening, not stopping. Natural selection is just working with different issues for us now.
Does every single person in the “western” world have exactly the same number of offspring, and do these offspring also have exactly the same number of offspring themselves?
Are heritable characteristics completely irrelevent to the question above?
If no and no, then evolution goes on.
As for adaption to our environment. Our environment now includes high technology, complex social networks, and modern medicine. Some traits that once benefited us in the past are now neutral in this current environment. By definition they are no longer advantageous, so any lack of selection in favor of them has no relevance on the question of whether or not we are getting “better.”
Noni Mausa says
Dr Anne Campbell hits on a more subtle point regarding the way in which humans may be evolving:
The major differences in fecundity and mortality between individuals have been minimised a very great deal.
I will agree that this seems to be the case in the north America, but most of the world’s population is under much more severe selection pressures, including diseases, low nutrition levels, political and other social pressures. Screening situations include fleeing through mountains and deserts or over oceans, focusing on acquiring necessary language and other skills to survive or escape, and maintaining sanity through episodes of captivity and/or torture.
Then the most clever or lucky of these people emigrate to Canada. — grin —
Longtime Lurker says
Surprised nobody’s written it yet:
Steve Jones’ body of work has deteriorated since his tenure in the Sex Pistols.
Staw man alert!
Steve Jones is not saying that the process of evolution has entirely come to a halt, but rather that the situations which normally would lead to genetic changes and selection are very limited by our current way of life. We are less likely to be picked off by predators and are getting better and better at finding means external to having better immune systems of combating disease. Also, more importantly, because older men don’t tend to choose to have children (and have the choice of course) this is no longer a prominent source of mutations in humans.
Steve Jones has actually admitted that there are quite clear exceptions to his claim such as the AIDs epidemic in Africa selecting those whose immune systems are the most vulnerable. He is clearly talking about more developed countries where better healthcare and availability of contraception is causing the relevant changes.
Gregory Kusnick says
Evolution is not just about who has the most offspring. Natural selection is inherently statistical. At bottom, it’s about genes causing behavior that promotes the spread of copies of those genes. If a billionaire genius uses his fortune to endow scholarships for exceptionally bright students, some of whom grow up to become billionaire geniuses who endow scholarships, and the net result of several generations of that is to increase the frequency of genius genes in the gene pool, then that’s natural selection, regardless of how many children each of those geniuses has individually. My suspicion is that as our reproductive options become more flexible (contraception, adoption, IVF, surrogacy, designer babies, etc.), this sort of indirect “green beard” selection will become the dominant mode of human (genetic) evolution. Genes will flourish (or not) primarily on the basis of their intellectual or social effects, and not because of their effects on mortality and/or fecundity.
It’s not that evolution has ceased per se, but that the human population has become so large that the time it would take for a new allele to become fixed in the population is almost geological in scale. Of course natural selection is still at work to some degree, but evolution (as I’m sure most of the posters here are aware) is not an individual event, but a population event.
Rey Fox says
Human evolution only appears to have stopped because evolution proceeds too slowly for us to notice.
I don’t think so. Unless those geniuses actually produce offspring that have a higher probability of also being geniuses, then you are not increasing the frequency of occurrence. All you are doing is aiding the survival of the “natural” rate of occurence of genius. That is, just finding geniuses in the population and ensuring their survival alone does not increase the frequency of occurence. If those geniuses do not reproduce then they are not actually in the “gene pool”
Natural selection, but not mutation and gene flow. But given that most people think NS == Evolution, it’s understandable.
Michael Hawkins says
The arguments put forth my Steve Jones are pitifully easy to tear apart.
The *rate* of substitution of neutral mutations is independent of population size (although time to fixation of individual mutants is longer), for positively selected mutations the rate is higher in large populations.
Stephen Couchman says
Of course human evolution hasn’t stopped. What’s most exciting is that we’re beginning to steer it with intention, even into divergence. Keep sequencing those genomes and advancing bioengineering, guys — Daddy wants a new pair of legs.
I haven’t had a chance to check if someone else has already posted this but:
If you doubt that evolution has stopped for humans, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??
My brother once went to the dentist to have his wisdom teeth removed. As it happened, he had an extra set of wisdom teeth – so he is now known as Cro-Magnon man at the dental practice.
How can you say “Better traits do not necessarily correspond with greater reproductive success”? (Dr Campbell, quoted in #32 above.) That sounds a lot like the evolution = progress fallacy.
From an evolutionary point of view, isn’t reproductive success the primary definition of what is a better trait?
I read this opinion from Steve Jones in December COSMOS mag – and it does make sense on a superficial level. But surely it’s the rate of change that has slowed, not the ceasing of the process?
Also, azqaz @ 22: my peeve is the shortening to Origin of Species.. removing the ‘ON THE’
Happy New Monkey, everyone!
I heard about this on one of the many science based podcasts, (if i misuse a term or am completely wrong please feel free to tell me)
There are separate instances of adaptations to high elevations in both South America and the Himalayas here is the link to National Geographic
Well maybe they mean that speciation by geographical isolation is now difficult for human?
I don’t know, tell me.
Glenn Davey says
I’m still learning about evolution, as are we all. Could someone clear this up and confirm if I’m on the right track?
Evolution of any major developments takes more than just a few generations, but millions and millions of years. Therefore, selection pressures must be consistent for extensive blocks of time to effect any real changes, and even then would the changes be throughout the entire human population of Earth? Or particular regions only?
If there are reduced selection pressures, ie not as much preventing the death of people with inherited diseases, and vaccines for viruses, preventing development of resistance to those ailments – then is it not true that we won’t evolve as much any more? But rather, remain in much the same for a long long time?
On the “increasing life-span” argument, I believe this has to do with better health care and nutrition than in the past.
There may be micro-evolution in the form of resistance to drugs, or some viruses, but nothing that will have us developing bigger, more efficient bodies. As has already been noted, unfortunate-looking and unintelligent people have no trouble pro-creating, so we won’t see humans evolving into a better-looking, more intelligent species. At least not anytime soon. By the same token, I doubt we’ll go backwards.
Karen James says
Weigh in on Jones’ thesis here.
Michael Hawkins, thankyou for your link. To start with I thought perhaps it was being overly pedantic. After all, Steve Jones was commenting in interviews with the media so the fact that he said ‘evolution’ rather than ‘natural selection’ is not such a big issue as if he was writing in a journal.
However, I was impressed by the following rebuttal:
“The mutation rate of younger fathers is still, by far, substantial enough to maintain the continuing of human evolution. There is no shortage of mutations in each and every person at birth. Jones probably was born with around 100 mutations. You, too.
There are plenty of science guys here, so can anyone confirm this for me? Thanks!
Tualha: All it means is that the fitness landscape has changed
I also thought that was an admirably pithy statement, however I see a problem with it. What if the fitness landscape continues to change, and varies rapidly enough that social and technological responses are effective in increasing fitness, but the slow rate of change of inherited traits means they are not. Wouldn’t that effectively seperate selection and genetic inheritance? Both are required for evolution.
Tualha: technological progress (e.g., gene modification, nanotech, uploading) will change the whole ballgame long before such trends have any important effect
Exactly – within the timescale we would expect noticeable changes to occur through selection pressures acting on genetic traits, it seems likely we’ll have either wiped ourselves out or taken control of the process. Artificial selection works much more quickly than natural, surely?
Dr Alan C. Clifford says
Re: Melvyn Bragg’s IN OUR TIME (BBC Radio 4, 8 January 2009).
I am astonished that Steve Jones could admit so blandly and without qualification that Marx and Hitler were Darwinians. How could such a kind man as Charles Darwin father the twin cruelties of Communism and Fascism without raising doubts about the validity of his scientific theorising?
Before the BBC continues to direct listeners to worship at Darwin’s shrine, I respectfully remind you that many objections, scientific as well as religious, remain against the theory of evolution – yes, theory not proven fact. For further information, see relevant studies by A. J. Monty White, What About Origins? (1978), M. Bowden, Science vs. Evolution (1991) & The Rise of the Evolution Fraud (1982), Richard Milton, The Facts of Life (1992) and John Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists? (2000). Remarkably, the 1956 Everyman edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species was published with an anti-evolutionary introduction by Professor W. R. Thompson! Dr Graham Everest of the University of East Anglia stated that the theory of evolution “lacks hard evidence, experiment and, most crucially, rigour in argument” (Eastern Daily Press, 9 July 1998).
Dr Alan C. Clifford
Pastor, Norwich Reformed Church
Stephen Wells says
@69: firstly, you must have misheard Jones’ statement. He said that Darwin has been eagerly seized on by all kinds of people as a name to conjure with. Darwin did not father Communism, Fascism or any other ideology. He fathered many children and a beautiful theory. Listen more carefully in future.
Secondly, only an idiot would believe that political consequences have anything to do with the validity of a scientific theory. Marx was pretty sure the earth went round the sun and that 2+2=4. So what?