Life in the Fast-lane: Human Evolution Accelerating
December 12, 2007 3:18 PM
Professor Henry Harpending lead the research that revealed that humans are evolving at a rate hundreds to even thousands of times quicker than in their early history. He teaches Anthropology at the University of Utah.
Homely Homo sapiens are evolving hundreds to thousands of times faster than in their early history
Many who discredit evolution due to lack of evidence or theistic reasons may be powerfully startled by how much evolution is smacking humanity in the face. Humans are evolving at frenetic, previously unobserved pace according to a new paper titled "
Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution
", which was published Monday in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.
The paper, which was based on research spearheaded by University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, examined 3.9 million gene segments of 270 individuals, 90 of European descent, 90 of African descent, 45 of Han Chinese descent and 45 of Japanese descent. The conclusion was that humans evolved rapidly, and apart from each other.
Evidence indicates that this rapid evolution has not stopped either.
the human genome
had evolved at the current pace during the period of 6 million years since the human lineage separated from the Chimpanzee lineage, as is currently believed, than there should have been 160 times the current number of genetic variations in human DNA. Further by comparing dental and skeletal variations of the last 10,000 years of human history, the team came to the conclusion that man underwent a relatively slow paced change over the first couple of million years, but is now entering into an era of unprecedented evolution, which would explain why the current rate is so much higher than the previous rate.
The study cites large separated populations as a tremendous factor for the increase in evolution. For example, a U.S. state has millions of citizens. If a significant portion of these people stay inside the state, Harpending predicts that we should see tremendous genetic variation occur between these people and the people in the adjacent state -- as much change as you would see in the entire smaller population human population a million years ago.
The study indicates people today exhibit as much genetic variation from
5,000 years ago as they do to
, or Neanderthals.
Team leader Professor Harpending sees the research as pushing a revolutionary fundamental change to the general public perception and understanding of evolution. Says Harpending, "I was raised with the belief that modern humans showed up 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and haven't changed. The opposite seems to be true. Our species is not static."
Harpending says that while no one is going to see change occur in their lifetime, over thousands of years major changes have and will continue to occur in human being's physiology and in genes related to social factors and intelligence. Such changes will have a profound effect on how humans behave in society and how they interact with the world around them.
The study also points to how geographic location has influenced humans, like many animals to adapt and evolve via natural selection. For example human skin lightened among population groups in farther northern or southern lying regions in order absorb more Vitamin D in cold areas with less sunlight. While factors like this may cause humans to evolve together in a sense to deal with certain common obstacles, the research also notes that the actually genetic adaptation, while superficially similar can be very different due to geographic and social population isolation.
A good example of this phenomena is that a bat, a bee and a bird, can all fly (all have wings and lightweight bodies) but the actually chemical and fine-level physical mechanics are very different. Similarly, the study discusses how the adaptation of lightened skin color is implemented by different genetic changes in the Asian and in the European populations, despite the superficially similar result.
The research of the oft-published Harpending and his colleagues are stirring up the genetic community and should bring some really exciting change to how we view evolution, society, and a broad array of other fields.
Harpending warns not to get too hung up on the societal implementations of the research. He emphasizes that unlike fellow genetic researcher Watson, the researcher of DNA-helix fame whose controversial comments on race and intelligence landed him in a boatload of hot water, he believes that he sees no genetic evidence that any specific population group is evolving to be
"better" than the others
In an interview
, he says, "Some of the mutations let us do better. We can eat simple carbohydrates, which hunter-gatherers never did. But we may also be accumulating damaging stuff. Evolution is a double-edged sword. What evolution cares about is that I have more offspring. If you can do it by charming and manipulating, and I'm a hardworking farmer that's going to feed the kids ten years down the road, then you're going to win. Hit-and-run, irresponsible males are reproducing more. That isn't good for anyone except those males, but that's evolution."
Harpending's no-nonsense unbiased approach to genetics research is fortunate and essential as the topic is prone to fan some tremendous critical fires. As he and his team continue to release insightful and groundbreaking research, hopefully society will take the research in the proper context and use it for the betterment of mankind applying it to useful fields
such as biotech
"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki
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