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Has Human Evolution Run Its Course?

03 January 2013, 13:23
It is generally accepted by intelligent people that we humans evolved over millions of years through Natural Selection. The mechanism of Natural Selection is the survival of the fittest. Our ancestors had to evolve larger brains capable of working out hunting and warring strategies in order to survive. This is no longer necessary for survival. You simply need to look at the intellect of people doing most of the breeding on this planet to realise that, if anything, we are dumbing down the human race rather than evolving better brains.

Does this mean that the human race is no longer evolving? Well, it may not be necessary for us to develop bigger and better brains for survival, but we are now faced with even bigger challenges to our survival compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our ancestors did not live in large conglomerations in  cities like we do, so diseases did not spread as easily in those days. So naturally  , genes favouring protection against these diseases have spread rapidly in modern times. Even the greatest epidemics causing millions of deaths (like the 1918 influenza virus epidemic) left many survivors with immunity against the virulent virus. Many of these survivors carried a gene promoting immunity against the particular virus. Recently individuals in Africa have been found to have a 'natural' immunity against the HIV virus.

Henry Harpending and his team from the University of Utah studied the genomes of people who trace their ancestry from different geographic regions namely Europe, Africa, China and Japan. "What they found surprised them: lots of evidence for favourable  mutations! In fact the team identified more than 10000 selection events that seem to have taken place in the past 80  000 years of human history. Interestingly , the researchers found that most of these selection events traced to the recent past, with the largest number having arisen in the last 10 000 years. Judging by these results, human evolution seems to have sped up." (Evolution in the fast lane? Berkeley University).

These results are controversial. Interesting as they are, they cannot address the topic of the current trajectory of human evolution. They are certainly suggestive and maybe they show us that human evolution is still up and running, but maybe in a different direction.

One of the remarkable manifestations of evolution in humans occurred relatively recently among people living at extremely high altitudes: 'Tibetan highlanders have no trouble living at 13,000 feet year in and year out, and many Nepalese Sherpas (who are ethnically Tibetan) climb parts of Mount Everest without the supplementary oxygen most people require. How do they do it? New research makes it clear that Tibetan highlanders haven't just acclimated to their mountain home; they've evolved unique physiological mechanisms for dealing with low oxygen levels.'...Some genetic studies estimate that the Tibetans split from the Han Chinese population and began migrating to the highlands less than 3000 years ago — and that all this adaptation to living tens of thousands of feet above sea level has occurred in just a hundred or so generations. If that estimate is accurate, this would represent the fastest example of human evolution yet documented.


Sadly other species like the rhino and thousands of species that have disappeared from the face of the earth couldn't  possibly evolve strategies fast enough to counteract the destruction wrought by the human race. Ironically the fact that we evolved better brains, made it possible for us to develop the weapons and technology causing havoc to our environment that led to the extinction of  so many species.

Let us hope that our superior brains and weapons do not spell the end of the human race! 
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