We’re still changing: Human Darwinian evolution advances

Despite advancements in medicine and technology, as well as an increased prevalence of monogamy, research reveals humans are continuing to evolve just like other species.

We're still changing: Human Darwinian evolution advancesScientists in an international collaboration, which includes the University of Sheffield, analyzed church records of about 6,000 Finnish people born between 1760-1849 to determine whether the demographic, cultural, and technological changes of the agricultural revolution affected natural and sexual selection in our species.

Project leader Virpi Lummaa, of the department of animal and plant sciences, says: “We have shown advances have not challenged the fact that our species is still evolving, just like all the other species ‘in the wild’.

“It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans.”

Lummaa adds: “We have shown significant selection has been taking place in very recent populations, and likely still occurs, so humans continue to be affected by both natural and sexual selection. Although the specific pressures, the factors making some individuals able to survive better, or have better success at finding partners and produce more kids, have changed across time and differ in different populations.”

As for most animal species, the authors found that men and women are not equal concerning Darwinian selection. Their findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Principal investigator Alexandre Courtiol, of the Wissenschftskolleg zu Berlin, adds: “Characteristics increasing the mating success of men are likely to evolve faster than those increasing the mating success of women. This is because mating with more partners was shown to increase reproductive success more in men than in women.

“Surprisingly, however, selection affected wealthy and poor people in the society to the same extent.”

The experts needed detailed information on large numbers of study subjects to be able to study selection over the entire life cycle of individuals: survival to adulthood, mate access, mating success, and fertility per mate.

Genealogy is very popular in Finland and the country has some of the best available data for such research thanks to detailed church records of births, deaths, marriages, and wealth status, which were kept for tax purposes. Movement in the country was also very limited until the 20th century.

“Studying evolution requires large sample sizes with individual-based data covering the entire lifespan of each born person,” says Lummaa.

“We need unbiased datasets that report the life events for everyone born. Because natural and sexual selection acts differently on different classes of individuals and across the life cycle, we needed to study selection with respect to these characteristics in order to understand how our species evolves.”

The project was funded by the European Research Council and Findland’s Kone Foundation and was carried out with Wissenschftskolleg zu Berlin and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, University of Turku in Finland, University of Helsinki in Finland, and the Population Research Institute in Finland.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


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2 thoughts on “We’re still changing: Human Darwinian evolution advances”

  1. The statement “research reveals humans are continuing to evolve just like other species” is true ONLY if you define evolution as “change over time”.

    The research in no way come even close to “revealing” that our great……. great grandfather was a self replicating molecule which is the more common understanding of the word. (Darwinian/Macro evolution)

    The poor and changing defintion of “evolution” is really poor science.

    Dr John Sanford (Geneticists and inventor of the GeneGun) said .
    “The bottom line is that the primary axiom [of Darwinian/Macro evolution] is categorically false, you can’t create information with misspellings, not even if you use natural selection.”

  2. Ian Welch

    It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”Charles Darwin

    There is no substitute for Trial & Error when dealing with your own well-being.

    I was introduced to a very interesting train of thought last night on TED. The speaker was Tim Harford.

    In his presentation, he explains how Unilever designed the perfect nozzle to manufacture laundry detergent. Quite simply in manufacturing detergent you take a liquid form and spray it on a surface to dry. Once dry you package and sell it. The difficulty in the process is getting the nozzle to spray the liquid just right, in the perfect size for drying. Unilever initially hired the most brilliant engineers in the world to design the nozzle and no one could get it right. Eventually they simply began to try hundreds of different designs, and gradually tweak the nozzles that showed promise. Ultimately this approach resulted in the perfect nozzle for manufacturing. No one could explain why it worked so well, it just did.

    The point is, no expert could design it. Sometimes it doesn’t take the smartest person in the room to get it right. In nature, it is the gradual adaptation through painstakingly slow mutations that result in the most successful results.

    We are constantly bombarded with the expert opinions, the large corporations telling us exactly what will fix our problems. With health it is generally the largest marketing budget that “shouts down from the mountain”; we are right, we have the solution.

    If history can teach us anything; we need to pay attention to works well for us and we do this through the Trial & Error process.

    Darwin when writing the Origin of Species would have agreed that almost all improvements are a result of Trial & Error. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    If you have diabetes, then you need to experiment with a different approach. You need to look for solutions that offer a minute improvement. And then improve on the improvement. If you are overweight you need to examine the cause. Breakdown the data and tweak with the input to get different results.

    We need to continue to evolve as a species. True change in nature occurs over very long periods of time but we can exploit that knowledge. We can speed up the discovery phase and experiment with our own well-being. Why wait for thousands of years to conclude that the food we are eating is killing us off one by one. The beauty of eating healthy is the change occurs very rapidly. We improve our health and thus improve our lives. We live longer and pass on our habits to the next generation. Albeit these are not genetic changes; yet… it does give us the opportunity to change our destiny within our own lifetime.

    “In a complicated society, we give up to the God-complex, listening to the authorities who have all the answers, instead of facing the task of fixing the problem. Tim Harford tells us that when a problem persists, the method to fix it is simple: trial and error. Experimenting helped me find my perfect running gait. Maybe we can use this method to improve bigger systems, on the scale of societies. Communities can be different and each type needs the leadership and experience of its citizens. If only we can use our humility to admit that we don’t have the answers and our strength to face our problems, fail, and try again. And the confidence to challenge the authorities who tell us they have the answers. By acclimating, we can continue to exist. By reasoning and experimentation, we will thrive.” Tim Harford



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