We Ain’t What we Used to Be

In another forum, one of the posters has created a rightwing persona under the nym, THE RIGHT STUFF. The poster uses the character much like Stephen Colbert does on his show. An over the top, gung ho believer in all that comes down from the pundits on high, there by pointing out the absurdity of their philosphy.

The following is an adaptation of the reply to one of the poster’s comments.

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I always enjoy the thoughtful postings of the THE RIGHT STUFF as they allow me some insight into the inner workings of the other side.

I fear however that in the case of evolution, TRS has gone a bit too far to the Dark Side. A perhaps unfortunate result of inadequate schooling in the nature of science.

One question though to think about…if we did evolve from the great apes, and evolution is making improvements upon prior genetic characteristics, why are we not as strong as our Darwinian ancestors? It seems to me that if we are evolving, we would want to keep the genes that give us that type of great ape strength.

The question posed is wrong from the start: H. Sapiens Sapiens did not “evolve from the great apes”, rather we have a common ancestor, a mammalian biped that was smaller than us or any of the great apes we know today. Our hominin ancestors were stronger than us but the fossil record seems to show that as brain size increased, the skeletal structure that would support ape-like muscles decreased. H. Sapiens Neandertalensis was much stronger than his contemporary, Cro-Magnon but Cro-Magnon survived and Neandertal did not – We are Cro-Magnon.

A species doesn’t get a vote in the way it evolves, so there is no “wanting” to keep the genes for any specific trait. “Survival of the fittest” does not mean the biggest and baddest hombres are the ones who will win the battle, instead it means that those traits within a species that provide the highest chance of the species surviving will be the ones selected for by their carriers being the ones most likely to make babies. Such traits can range from skin colour to lactose tolerance to immunity to specific diseases and on to thousands of possible variations, any of which could, when circumstances/environments change become a negative and new traits would then be selected for within the species. Over time, as environments change, the separation of groups of a species would see the rise of new species that look nothing like the ancestral group.

Even us humans can change and recent research indicates that humans are continuing to evolve.

They Don’t Make Homo Sapiens Like They Used To

For decades the consensus view—among the public as well as the world’s preeminent biologists—has been that human evolution is over. Since modern Homo sapiens emerged 50,000 years ago, “natural selection has almost become irrelevant” to us, the influential Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proclaimed. “There have been no biological changes. Everything we’ve called culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” This view has become so entrenched that it is practically doctrine

So to suggest that humans have undergone an evolutionary makeover from Stone Age times to the present is nothing short of blasphemous. Yet a team of researchers has done just that. They find an abundance of recent adaptive mutations etched in the human genome; even more shocking, these mutations seem to be piling up faster and ever faster, like an avalanche. Over the past 10,000 years, their data show, human evolution has occurred a hundred times more quickly than in any other period in our species’ history.

The new genetic adaptations, some 2,000 in total, are not limited to the well-recognized differences among ethnic groups in superficial traits such as skin and eye color. The mutations relate to the brain, the digestive system, life span, immunity to pathogens, sperm production, and bones—in short, virtually every aspect of our functioning.

Many of these DNA variants are unique to their continent of origin, with provocative implications. “It is likely that human races are evolving away from each other,” says University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who coauthored a major paper on recent human evolution. “We are getting less alike, not merging into a single mixed humanity.”

Harpending theorizes that the attitudes and customs that distinguish today’s humans from those of the past may be more than just cultural, as historians have widely assumed. “We aren’t the same as people even a thousand or two thousand years ago,” he says. “Almost every trait you look at is under strong genetic influence.”

Prof Harpending’s statement about humans becoming less alike has one flaw – the vastly increased flow of peoples from one part of the planet to other places that we are experiencing in today’s world. That might be expected from a guy who is focused on the past, for it is only the past 50 or 60 years that modern transportation has allowed rapid migration which brings widely disparate cultures into contact with each other. It is impossible to know just how much effect such toing and froing will have on Homo Sapiens Sapiens continuing evolution – it should be interesting.

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