Evolution revised

As human evolution speeds up, we must look at the cultural implications on our genetic development.
December 05, 2012

Conventionally, evolution is presented as a linear process. Descent through modification happens on a population-based level, meaning that driving forces on our genetic makeup and behavior are stable influences over hundreds of thousands of years. In the last century, scientists have developed a “modern synthesis” that attributes natural selection as a selective force on evolution through carried genetic mutations that help survival. It seems, though, that this theory could use a few amendments.

Today, these genetic mutations have increased exponentially. Researchers have discovered a massive number of new genetic variants in the human DNA code. Although natural selection is still seen as a prominent influence on human adaptation, DNA mutation has increased human genetic potential in a huge way. This is seen through the accelerating evolution of humans in the last 40,000 years.

To what do we attribute this newly diverse genetic potential? A burst in human population growth is a main factor. Human history is seen through periods of low reproductive rates followed by  population booms that now totals more than seven billion people. Consider that only 200,000 years ago, a mere 10,000 people populated the planet.

Since most of these genetic mutations have developed over the last 200 generations, it makes sense that the stabilizing process of natural selection has yet to catch up. And maybe it no longer needs to.

Natural selection is not what it used to be. Meant to lead individuals with favorable traits on to reproductive success, natural selection is a gradual progression. It shows the concept of “survival of the fittest,” placing emphasis on early human strength and speed to ensure survival. Natural selection also illustrates how humans have adapted to their environment.

Seven billion people later, this “survival of the fittest” idea is somewhat moot in its traditional sense. Brute strength isn’t needed for survival. Instead, humanity places importance on intelligence, creativity and the tools we’ve created to accompany our survival. In essence, we’ve created our own terms of genetic adaptations.

Take into account, for example, the milk you eat with your cereal. Lactose tolerance wasn’t originally meant for people; it was meant for baby mammals. Our continued intake of it has turned our genetic tables, purely because we enjoy drinking it.

Genetic variance is also seen through the establishment and massive migration to cities. People who have lived in urban areas for long periods of time will more likely be adapted to resist diseases and infections. While these places initially present danger to inhabitants because people can spread illnesses to each other, this also gives their descendants certain immunities to illnesses.

From an environmental perspective, we have more influence on our environment today than it has on us. Agriculture, mining, global warming and urbanization have permanently changed the ecosystems we live in.

In short, our culture and society has completely changed the face of evolution as we traditionally know it. Darwin’s theories are, of course, still applicable but must be built on for a truer understanding of our long-term life development. We can’t bog ourselves down in the dominant theories of evolution any longer; our species is changing faster than we thought possible.

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