Thankfully, the Story of Human Evolution Has Not Ended Yet ; `the Vast Majority of Newborns Face the Same Appalling Child Mortality Rates as Our Ancestors'
Connor, Steve, The Independent (London, England)
HUMAN EVOLUTION has taken a holiday, but what we don't know is whether it is a summer vacation or just a long weekend. So says the geneticist Steve Jones, who argues that we in the developed world are now so cosseted from the outside environment that we are no longer subjected to the vagaries of natural selection and the Darwinian struggle for survival. Thanks to modern medicine, central heating and the invention of the bicycle, our physical and mental development has been frozen in time. Take a look in the mirror, suggests Jones, because this is about as good as it gets.
The idea will strike a chord with many people. It is, after all, an attractive thought that we Westerners living in the technological comfort of the late 20th century are at the pinnacle of evolution. This is not, of course, what Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, is saying. But the reason why his commentsarouse such interest is that they pander to our vanity as much as they excite our consternation that evolution may have come to an end.
The very word "evolution" implies - wrongly - some progressive development. Evolution, however, is neither progressive nor regressive - it just happens. The change it brings about is blind and not the result of some designer constantly trying to achieve a higher goal. The fact that evolution can make organisms, including humans, better adapted is merely the result of the unintended selection of some offspring over others.
Inevitably any suggestion that we have entered an evolutionary dead end raises the prospect that we must now have achieved a rather special status from which there is no exit. We know that over a period of about two million years, when the first members of the human family split away from our ape-like ancestors, the volume of the human brain grew explosively in relation to body size. Anything that suggests that our cranial capacity has now reached its upper limit is bound to create collective consternation.
The essence of Jones's argument, which he first gave in a lecture more than five years ago, is that only a tiny fraction of babies - about 2 per cent - now die before reaching adolescence. Death in childhood is normally one of the strongest agents of natural selection; if an individual fails to reach sexual maturity and pass on his or her genes, then he or she is, in evolutionary terms, a genetic cul-de-sac. As a result of modern medicine, this powerful force for evolutionary change has been emasculated.
A problem with Jones's argument is that it applies only to a minority of babies born in the world today. The vast majority of newborns still have to run the gauntlet of the same appalling child mortality rates that confronted our ancestors. Jones carefully confines his argument to the fortunate babies of the developed world, but he would be the first to acknowledge that when it comes to evolution you cannot divide the gene pool into convenient segments; we all belong to the one family of humankind.
This is best illustrated by something raised by Jones when he first lectured on the issue in the early Nineties. He said that in 500 years' time he will be black. He meant that at some time in the next millennium, the professor of genetics at University College London, like just about everyone else in …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Thankfully, the Story of Human Evolution Has Not Ended Yet ; `the Vast Majority of Newborns Face the Same Appalling Child Mortality Rates as Our Ancestors'. Contributors: Connor, Steve - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 14, 1999. Page number: 4. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.