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Is Humanity Still Evolving? 374

sciencehabit writes "In a world where we've tamed our environment and largely protected ourselves from the vagaries of nature, we may think we're immune to the forces of natural selection. But a new study finds that the process that drives evolution was still shaping us as recently as the 19th century (abstract). 'The finding comes from an analysis of the birth, death, and marital records of 5923 people born between 1760 and 1849 in four farming or fishing villages in Finland. ... Natural selection was alive and well in all of the villages the researchers surveyed."
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Is Humanity Still Evolving?

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  • by abroadwin ( 1273704 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:03PM (#39851031)
    What do you think is happening any time someone gets killed by disease? Heck, even when someone is run over by a semi. Natural selection will shape us forever unless we conquer death itself.
  • Yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LordGr8one ( 1174233 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:05PM (#39851051) Homepage

    Yes, we're still evolving. The things being selected for may change, but we are evolving.

  • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:07PM (#39851087) Journal
    Survival is just one evolutionary pressure. As long as we will use inheritable criterion for choosing mating partners, evolution will continue.
  • by butchersong ( 1222796 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:16PM (#39851223)
    I would say the trend is opposite of that at least in the US and Europe. Take a look at the most successful people from a biological point of view these days. It tends to be the poorest educated and least equipped to care for themselves and these aren't the pretty plastic people. These are the people that exist essentially as a dependents of the welfare state.
  • by bolthole ( 122186 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:22PM (#39851297) Journal
    That being said, it was a LOUSY article, scientifically speaking.

    From the records they had, the researchers could not tell which traits were being selected for, but the variation in the number of offspringâ"from zero to 17â"indicates there was a large opportunity for selection to occur.

    paraphrase, "well, we cant actually prove anything, but we're really hopeful that it coulda-shoulda happened!! Partyyyy!"

    yeeesh. Go back to undergraduate studies.

  • by Mithent ( 2515236 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:23PM (#39851313)
    Yes... provided that they die prior to reproducing. In the Western world, few people die of disease before they reach reproductive age, what with modern medicine, so there's not a lot of selection pressure exerted there.

    Automobile accidents, on the other hand...
  • by Grayhand ( 2610049 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:29PM (#39851383)
    Natural selection doesn't mean what most think. Fertility rates among the more intelligent members of society have dropped like a rock while birth rates are still high among the lower third. It can be argued that intelligence is a poor survival trait. Social factors create a form of evolution even if environmental ones are largely removed. What is seen as attractive socially is influx so evolutionary pressures created by society is also in flux. We aren't environmentally adapting so much as socially adapting. If society collapses the downside is it may leave us poor candidates to survive our environment.
  • by Galestar ( 1473827 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @06:34PM (#39851449) Homepage
    3rd time this week's_Law_of_Headlines []

    Betteridge's Law of Headlines is an adage that states, "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'no'".
  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:08PM (#39851769)
    But in today's world, if you can't care for your children, then there are resources to help with that, pushing them to reproductive age, even if their parents and grandparents were "genetically inferior" and all died of heart attack at 20. These safety nets support the reversal of evolution - Idiocracy (the movie where the dumbest people reproduce at the greatest rate, making the planet dumber and dumber).
  • by poppopret ( 1740742 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:14PM (#39851823)

    Evolution doesn't have a value system that prefers education, a comfortable life, or the ability to exist without government help. Personifying the inherently unthinking force of evolution, we might say that evolution cares about exactly one thing: the number of creatures in the Nth generation with similar DNA. Adapting to the environment is key, and note that our current environment does include government services. Fit organisms take full advantage of the environment to maximize reproduction.

    Fitness can mean screwing up the birth control or deciding that God would disapprove. Fitness can mean a non-reproducing individual (gay, elderly, too ugly, whatever...) finding dates for siblings and cousins. Fitness can mean getting the kids taken away by the government (they'll survive) so that time can be focused on activities that might produce more.

    It's only in a difficult environment, like Finland a few centuries ago, that fitness means the traits that most of us respect: hard work, planning ahead, faithfulness, etc. We have changed the environment, and now it will change us.

  • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:19PM (#39851857)

    Too many people misunderstand evolution and natural selection. There are a lot of myths and sayings that just don't fit with science. As in "humans are more evolved than cockroaches" doesn't really mean anything; or in thinking that there must be a "purpose" to all physical, mental, or social characteristics. So the very subject of this summary is just more of the same thing. The "I don't know anything about the subject but I am willing to talk about it at cocktail parties" sort of science.

    Of course there is still natural selection! People still die while still being able to reproduce, thus evolution would still be occurring. Diseases have a high rate of change so humans are adapting to this. We still have wars that kill off a huge number of fertile people and which create environmental and social stress. People are moving to new environments all the time, more are in cities than before, more people are in professions where you sit all day long, nutrition is changing quite a lot, etc.

    Why would anyone who knows anything about evolution think that it stops with all the variability? A more sensible question would be to ask is the rate of change slowing down or not.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 30, 2012 @07:33PM (#39851999)
    The fact that natural selection isn't favoring traits you like doesn't mean natural selection isn't happening.
  • by tgibbs ( 83782 ) on Monday April 30, 2012 @09:48PM (#39853215)

    Are wasps evolving? They've stayed the same for the past 65 million years.

    Have they? Is their resistance to disease unchanged? Is their behavior unchanged? Is the efficiency of their enzymes the same? How do you know?

  • Sadly, agreed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LostMyBeaver ( 1226054 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 @01:11AM (#39854329)
    People still think that "Survival of the fittest" or "Only the strong will survive" is the entire premise of natural selection. These are obviously over simplifications which completely fail to describe natural selection but has been adopted by many that in theory should have been selected out long ago to boost their egos. I am not referring to anyone that has posted thus far as opposed to making a simple observation, so please don't see this as bait.

    If I were to provide my 2 cents on this topic (which it appears I will), I would postulate that to a certain extent, we are going through a transitional period. While the specimens of humanity that are clearly most suited for environmental adaptation have focused on meeting the market demand to prolong life and attempt to eliminate natural death, people classically selected out through illness, disease and general stupidity on their own behalf are being protected from these dangers and surviving. It is believed that the human race will reproduce more rapidly in areas of higher mortality rates. This is to guarantee the survival of the race. People who were classically at the highest risk of death from disease would also reproduce at the greatest rate in order to perpetuate the race. So, families who have a long history of dieing off from any number of any number of environmentally induced issues will produce a gaggle of children with the hopes that one or two will survive. But since we have eliminated most of the environmental threats to these people, they are living through all these former perils. However since their instinct of survival of the race convinces them to reproduce more rapidly without proper consideration to the lower mortality rate, a great deal more of what formally was considered fodder, are surviving, hence the previous poster's comments to Walmart people.

    Women who are pregnant read magazines that educate them as to how to protect their wombs. The articles they read state things like "Doing this increases the chance of first trimester spontaneous abortion by 300%". I can't possibly imagine how a comment like that can be made, there are an infinite number of variables that are involved in gestation, to suggest any single event can increase the risks of spontaneous abortion in the first trimester is just plain rubbish. What is worse, are we talking about 1 in a million to 3 in a million? Are we talking 1 in 10 to 3 in 10? It doesn't say, just says by 300%. Yet, women will instantly stop doing whatever it says they shouldn't do to avoid that.

    Nature is no longer selecting out "Walmart people" since we have averted most of the dangers they have faced in the past. In fact, we have even reached a point where people such as my sister (a typical Walmart patron) now survive and bring additional offspring into the world where she attempts to protected them from everything to an extremity. For example, her children were not allowed to play with wooden toys like Lincoln Logs since they might get a splinter from them. She is entirely incapable of rational and intelligent thought, but thanks to medicine and excessive warning labels, her line will perpetuate. Don't get me wrong, I love my sister, but I am a realist in this regard.

    We have protected these people to extreme levels and they are still reproducing at a rate that would protect their line against extinction. The "adapted" member of the species on the other hand reproduce at a more conservative rate since their instincts tell them that they'll experience a level closer to 95 out of 100 offspring surviving in their sub-species.

    As a result, what is actually happening is that the "Walmart people" are actually in a major transition period of evolution. They are reproducing at a rate based on the fact that until less than 50 years ago, their chances of survival were much worse. It will require a few more generations before their over-reproduction becomes directly detrimental to their chances of survival and they will either be selected out or they will decrease their rate of repro
  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 @05:10AM (#39855061) Homepage

    Evolution doesn't have a value system that prefers education, a comfortable life, or the ability to exist without government help. Personifying the inherently unthinking force of evolution, we might say that evolution cares about exactly one thing: the number of creatures in the Nth generation with similar DNA.

    Exactly, this [] is the evolutionary winner of this generation. Only the passing of the genes matter, doesn't even matter if it's a rape victim unless she gets an abortion or the child is killed. The genes will live on to try reproducing again while those who didn't reproduce won't.

  • Re:Sadly, agreed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kelbear ( 870538 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 @01:21PM (#39859065)

    The difference between artificial and natural is purely semantic in this situation. The process of selection is simply what it is. But I'm more or less on the same page with your post.

    If individual weakness are being protected against by social constructs, you might be able to subjectively identify the evolution of a social organism that has developed defenses against minor problems like weaknesses in particular individuals like Steven Hawking, while leveraging their strengths throughout it's body. The more successful this social organism it is, the more capable it is of beating off competition and developing further.

    Perhaps those "Walmart" people aren't particularly useful overall, but they do serve some kind of purpose, even if it is just to hand a burger and fries over the counter. Even a hive needs lowly worker bees. Hmm. I wonder how bees evolved into hives? Perhaps evolving into hive societies was selected for at some point, and may be selected for again today.

    Africa sure isn't doing that well despite having so many offspring. China is doing pretty well so far, let's see if they can hold up. It's not just about the quantity of births, it's a multifaceted competition that will evolve over time. Perhaps China will find that democracy is a more successful long-term strategy and "evolve" in that direction after enduring the stresses of time. Perhaps America will give up on capitalism and move towards socialism instead if they find themselves lost in China's shadow. The process of constant change continues on both a microscopic and macroscopic scale.

I THINK MAN INVENTED THE CAR by instinct. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.