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Biotech Science

The Role of Human Culture In Natural Selection 337

gollum123 writes with this excerpt from the NY Times: "... for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution. The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology. The evidence of its activity is the more surprising because culture has long seemed to play just the opposite role. Biologists have seen it as a shield that protects people from the full force of other selective pressures, since clothes and shelter dull the bite of cold and farming helps build surpluses to ride out famine. Because of this buffering action, culture was thought to have blunted the rate of human evolution, or even brought it to a halt, in the distant past. Many biologists are now seeing the role of culture in a quite different light. Although it does shield people from other forces, culture itself seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, 'leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution.'"
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The Role of Human Culture In Natural Selection

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  • eugenics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:09PM (#31332728)

    just wait until it becomes culturally acceptable to intentionally modify our genes using technology.

    • Re:eugenics (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:28PM (#31333004) Journal
      I doubt that eugenics in the classic pre-WWII-and-the-nazis-giving-it-a-bad-name sense will be back any time in the foreseeable future(and fair enough, killing people is really ethically dicey); but I suspect that other methods will become acceptable pretty swiftly after we aquire the technology to make them practical.

      Consider, for example, the historical trajectory of IVF. When it first became available, there was significant controversy(to this day, the official Catholic position is that it is contrary to natural law). However, because it delivered the results that people (even the people who condemned it) wanted, public perception warmed considerably. You have to look pretty damn hard to find people actively condemning the practice today, even among the sorts of religious hardliners who are stridently anti-abortion and quietly anti-contraception. Among people moderate enough to be considered "serious" in public discourse, the only controversies come up when somebody does something really tacky(e.g. Octomom) or there is some sob story of an infertile couple who can't afford to have the child they always wanted.

      Consider also the example of Trisomy 21, Down's syndrome. The population level incidence is roughly 1 in 8000, and has remained fairly level. The individual incidence is strongly correlated with maternal age. In the western world, average maternal age has increased substantially. Downs incidence hasn't. Obvious(but unspoken) conclusion? Selective abortion.

      Once sperm sorting gets reasonably cheap, I assume we'll see the same general warming of attitudes that we did with IVF. Proper genetic engineering will probably go the same way, though it really isn't developed enough for human use yet. Of course, it will be customary to vociferously condemn those who do it for the "wrong" reasons(hair/eye color selection, that sort of thing); but there will be enough medically compelling applications(you'd have to be a real asshole to oppose using genetic engineering to ensure that a child isn't born with cystic fibrosis, say) to make the tech commonly available. Once it is commonly available, the uses that everyone will find fashionable to condemn will be widely available, and widely popular.
    • And then what? We'll all get ponies?!?

      Serious point though: if it ever becomes culturally acceptable to modify our genes in our -germ- cells and not just our somatic cells, then we will really have lost our humanity. I'm okay with someone modifying the genome in their muscle cells to cure their muscular dystrophy, I'm even okay with modifying your genome in your muscle cells to make them stronger, not just to fix a disease. But elective OR disease curing meddling with the genes in your testes or ovaries

      • as well as stepping on the rights of the next generation to determine things for themselves

        The next generation has never been able to determine such things for themselves - that would imply that they have in times past gotten to pick their parents.

        It also doesn't preclude them being able to modify their own genes, if such tech ever becomes widespread.

        And when they mate, they DO determine their offsprings genetic makeup, same as every preceding generation has. It's called "hereditary traits" for a rea

        • And when they mate, they DO determine their offsprings genetic makeup, same as every preceding generation has. It's called "hereditary traits" for a reason.

          From my perspective, there's something fundamentally different in directly determining one's children's genes and unintentionally determining their genes. It would be dehumanizing enough if people were running around intentionally mating to have children with specific characteristics, but few people do that because they generally have different goals in reproducing. It's fairly rare for people to -intentionally- select mates on the basis of genetics, and in the cases where they do that, I feel sorry for t

      • The concerns over practical risk are valid enough, meddling with complex systems is always tricky, and there is hardly any assurance that you'd get it right the first time(given the virtually limitless supply of people too poor to afford genetic engineering, or for that matter clean water, it won't really be a species level issue; but it could end up going quite badly for certain people and/or lineages).

        The rest, though, seems like emotive reactionary twaddle. Do I really have the "right to determine thi
      • by hoggoth ( 414195 )

        We won't have a choice. Monsanto or something like it will be selling gene selection services without regard for it's long term consequences. They will bribe enough of congress to make any objection ineffective.

  • Lactose tolerance, amylase, hairiness... all functions of environmental pressure FFS. Of course environmental conditions have an influence on this "culture" they talk about.
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      I've long speculated that should our modern society continue in the way it's going, humans will develop better resistance to things like whiplash, since traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children and one of the leading causes of death for people of breeding age.

      I also expect to see women able to have children later and later into life. Before, your odds of surviving that long and having a healthy enough diet and good enough medical care were so low that there was no point for your body

    • by Raffaello ( 230287 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:39PM (#31333178)

      Milk drinking is a direct result of culture - the domestication of cattle for meat and dairy. None of our human ancestors could ever drink milk from a wild Aurochs and survive - (think 2-3 meter horn span, one metric ton, and very touchy).

      • Chicken or the egg argument. Cattle have been domesticated in sub-saharan africa where lactose intolerance is predominant. Natives of that region instead drink cow blood.

        For that reason, I think our ancestors domesticated cattle, then happened to develop a gene to allow them to drink milk, then adapted milk drinking into their culture. Then again, we really don't know.
    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      Exactly my thoughts.

      Culture arose due to pre-existing minor genetic differences, not the other way around. TFA has it exactly backwards.

      Human culture may have purely localized and temporal affects on the concentration of some traits, but there is as yet no convincing evidence that such cultural concepts as beauty lead to more fit or more plentiful offspring. Observations on the street might suggest exactly the opposite is true.

      The 4 or 5 thousand years of large scale human cultural clustering is simply no

  • Culture is a meme (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hey ( 83763 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:13PM (#31332790) Journal

    First culture is a meme post.
    Culture is a parasite and the host is people.
    It just wants to propagate itself.

  • Chinese Test Takers? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    So does this mean that the Chinese should be more inclined to do well in tests?

    Circa 605 AD

  • []

    The write up is misleading on many levels, and reflects a very nineteenth century understanding of evolution. Fitness criteria are constantly changing, and success changes the fitness landscape. Of course culture will impact evolution. The idea that it could somehow protect from selection pressures is just silly. Culture may protect you from the cold, by giving you a fur coat. Or you could evolve a fur coat, but would you then claim that the fur coat protected you from selection pressures and 'slowed down' evolution? Evolution isn't going some place, it doesn't have a direction, so it is a bit misleading to talk about how fast it is going.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sique ( 173459 )

      Evolution isn't going some place, it doesn't have a direction, so it is a bit misleading to talk about how fast it is going.

      That's not entirely correct. You can for instance not give a direction for Brownian Motion. But you can give its speed (it is called temperature).

      Same for Evolution. While you can't predict the changes it will yield, you can measure the speed of change.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by spun ( 1352 )

        True, you can measure the speed of change. And the speed of change of the human genome has been increasing, not decreasing. The write up, however, presents a view of evolution as directed motion, not temperature. It presents a view where there are objective, external measures for fitness, where a species can be qualified as a success without reference to its environment. And it presents the rather odd view that our social environment and the natural environment are somehow different in regards to our genes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jamamala ( 983884 )
      Anything thing that removes a selection pressure is going to increase the rate of evolution, not decrease it. By removing that pressure, you have reduced the punishment for a bad mutation. Therefore, any new mutations are more likely to be passed down, increasing the observed rate of genetic change.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tomhudson ( 43916 )

      One of the reasons we were able to achieve such a large brain/body mass ratio is because we do NOT have a fur coat. >p> Humans have hair on the top of the head to protect against the heat of peak insolation, while the rest of the body is comparatively hairless, to allow for sweating.

      Let your body temp rise by 5 degrees C and see how well you think. When doing nothing, the brain only uses 6 calories an hour. Thinking raises that to 90 calories an hour. In other words, spending most of your day thin

      • by spun ( 1352 )

        Yep, great article in SciAm recently on this very topic. We had to evolve hairlessness and lots of sweat glands before we could evolve big brains.

    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      I see nothing wrong with a nineteenth century understanding of evolution. More modern versions have added little, much of which have lead nowhere.

      Further, you have it exactly wrong. TFA and the writeup both exhibit a very recent understanding of evolution, not a nineteenth century one. You need only examine the Evolution Wiki article [] to see this.

      Fifty years after the arrival of rapid, cheap, global transportation is exactly the worst time to put forth a theory such as TFA mentions.

      • by spun ( 1352 )

        Wrong, the modern synthesis corrects many errors in the original theory, and adds a great deal to our understanding of evolution.

        Maybe if you presented some concrete examples, I could understand what exactly you mean. But you don't, you just provide some generalities and vague speculation.

  • by joeyblades ( 785896 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:19PM (#31332884)
    Culture cannot play a role in natural selection, by definition. It does play a role in selection and evolution. That role is known as cultural selection.
    • by Raffaello ( 230287 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:52PM (#31333382)

      You misunderstand the definition of natural selection. The term exists in contradistinction to the term "artificial selection" which is to say, human controlled selective breeding of the kind that gives rise to domesticated animals. The llama is the result of artificial selection. Its wild ancestor, the guanaco, is the result of natural selection.

      Take the well known example of lactose tolerance. Nobody ever conducted a lactose tolerance breeding eugenics program - our ancestors didn't coral whole villages and kill those who were lactose intolerant and force those who were lactose tolerant to breed with each other (this is how artificial selection works). Lactose tolerance in European and African populations where it is prevalent, arose through natural seleciton. Those that were able to digest milk as adults (i.e., the lactose tolerant ones) left more offspring in areas where milk was widely available. This is an example of natural selection, not artificial selection.

      It is also a direct result of cuture. The only reason milk was and is available is because of the domestication of cattle, which is a cultural activity. So here is an example where natural selection, (the increase in lactose tolerance among adults), was influenced by culture, (the domestication of dairy cattle).

  • My kids inherited my 'gaming' gene.
  • by m.shenhav ( 948505 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:23PM (#31332926)
    Notice the phrasing "gene-culture coevolution" is consistent with Dual-Inheritance theory which considers cultural (behavioural) transmission as an evolutionary process on its own. This can also be extended with Epigenetic mechanisms and Symbolic transmission modes. Technology evolves too and seems like a sensible extension. Its not so far fetched when you consider that Reproduction (or amplification in the continuous case), Variation and Selection are sufficient conditions for evolution. Keep in mind cultural evolution is Lamarckian though... and different in many other ways too.
    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      Variation and Selection are sufficient conditions for evolution.

      Not without Isolation.

      And Isolation is quickly disintegrating.

  • Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance...
    The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it...
    To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem
    to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening
    of a man or of a race. (Uncle Friedrich)

  • social evolution (Score:3, Informative)

    by johnrpenner ( 40054 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @02:40PM (#31333200) Homepage

    the nobel prize winner, john eccles - brain neurologist considers the known/experienceable world to actually be comprised of three 'worlds' -- i) that of matter, ii) that of states of consciousness, and iii) objective knowledge -- 'the sum total of human culture': []

    there is not only an evolution of the physical human form, but also an evolution in the states of consciousness mankind has achieved in order to attain to the states of consciousness which prevail in order to, for example make scientific and logical judgements -- evolution of consciousness, and its consequences must be taken be taken into account, because all that you see as the effects of HUIMANS -- cities, bridges, buildings -- is all due to a change in the consditions of consciousness that humans have developed.

    in fact, the social organization may be more important than the material organization. there are enough physical resources and technological expertise on this planet to feed every woman, child and man on this planet -- given that we are adequately socially organized -- this is not yet the case, so war and poverty are not necessarily a lack-of-resources issue -- but a social one.

    2cents from toronto island

  • What else explains why all little Chinese girls are born knowing how to play classical Piano?

    (I kid, I kid)

    Seriously though, this does seem rather obvious. People who cannot keep up with societies expectations do not have as much luck breeding. Duh.

  • by moteyalpha ( 1228680 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @03:04PM (#31333566) Homepage Journal
    In Russia the culture evolves you. Karma whoring is the oldest profession.
  • And we still can't run an advanced economy without bubbles?

  • by Low Ranked Craig ( 1327799 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @03:19PM (#31333826)
    most women would have DDD breasts and men would have penises that hang to the knee...
  • by JamJam ( 785046 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @03:22PM (#31333886)
    It's not just humans impacts on themselves. Humans have become 'superpredators' speeding up the evolution of the species they hunt and harvest at rates far above what is found in nature. Hunting techniques such as bagging the biggest trophy animal to commercial fisheries where mesh openings in nets capture the largest while allowing the smallest to escape has impacted the natural selection process. Removing the strongest and biggest species from the gene pool has resulted in offspring characteristics such as reduced body size and lower reproductive age.

    More info from this article []
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @04:09PM (#31334636)
    Primates evolved trichomatic eyes to find fruit better. Most mammals are dichromatic. Now humans eat more meat, cooked food, more starch from grains and more dairy from cattle. Each diet change affected the genes []. One could argue the next stage- hyper nutrition and processed food- selecting against humans with metabolic disease like diabetes, obesity, and bad hearts. This was very interesting article.
  • by GodfatherofSoul ( 174979 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2010 @05:17PM (#31335804)
    Been awhile since I tried slogging through Natural Selection, but the impression I got was the choicest survivability attributes may be fleeting things. On top of that, the sexual selection attributes might even conflict with survivability. So, you could be the moose with the prettiest antlers that get all the girls/cows, but you'd get locked up in brush and starve to death. Same thing with humans. The hottest girl you've ever seen might be too dumb to tie her shoe laces. How's that help further the species, besides making you extremely pleased during your breeding years? So, just because we've evolved some attributes or culture doesn't say a damned thing about how good it is for humanity either right now or in the long run. Chance seems to play a very large part in the game.

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