harder, better, faster, stronger?

Humans are still evolving and a new study shows exactly what changed in our genomes over the last 10,000 years.

human evolution exhibition
Human evolution exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History

Contrary to popular sentiment and science fiction clichés, human evolution hasn’t stopped. If anything, we’re actually evolving faster than ever according to research published in 2007. Moving into new environments and an explosion in our populations drastically increased the rate at which our genomes are changing and being selected. Compared to our prehistoric ancestors, we have new responses to disease, climate and diet. Time hasn’t stopped after modern humans appeared and the evolutionary process is still running its course just as it will with any creature for as long as our planet can support living things. Nature isn’t done with us yet.

Of course we’re not going to develop superpowers like the mutants in X-Men since we’re all mutants already and telekinesis, as well as powers over elemental forces of nature, are nowhere within grasp. Instead, we got something much more useful from the process of natural selection. Species that can live almost anywhere on the planet and who’s diets span much of whatever local food chain they encounter, tend to be survivors. When climate change or disaster that would ordinarily mean extinction for more specialized organisms strike, we’re more likely to be flexible and technologically savvy enough to stay alive and keep on propagating. And yes, our ability to create advanced technology is another byproduct of evolution.

These findings also throw a wrench into the canard that humans are a deliberate end result of evolution that was planned and steered by a deity. If we’re really the culmination of a nearly 4 billion year process, why isn’t evolutionary change stopping but actually picking up pace? Are we an experiment out of control? And isn’t it a little odd that a school of thought that says it teaches humans the proper humility before forces greater than ourselves aggrandizes the human form as the pinnacle of eons of work? Who’s more arrogant? The person who says that humans are just animals which got a rare opportunity to do something with their existence, or one who excoriates him or her for lacking the humility and good sense to realize that we’re a divinely inspired and inexplicably amazing project of a supernatural entity that created the entire universe?

See: Hawks, J. et al. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (52), 20753–20758 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707650104

# science // evolution / human evolution / mutation / theory of evolution

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