Evolution: And the Geek Shall Inherit?

So once in a while a really interesting conversation develops on Facebook. It could be about anything, but my getting involved means it’s likely to be skeptical in nature, commentary on society, or genre fiction related.

In this case, a friend on Facebook, hereafter noted as ‘Person 1’, posted this as his status update:

If H. sapiens was meant to be an herbivore, you would have lost the teeth required to effectively tear flesh, now STFU and eat a damn burger already.

Sincerely,

-Evolution

The rest of the conversation, minus a couple of joking comments and typed laughter, and occasionally edited for punctuation (and once or twice for spelling), went something like this:

Person 2: We are meant to be omnivores. Scavengers! Thus the vast amount of acids our body creates for digestion of flesh and meat, thus the requirement of teeth and K9’s! Re-read the Origin of the Species, bro! 🙂

Person 1: Maybe you need to re-read my status because that’s what I just said… Bro.

Person 3: So does that mean all the ‘duckface’ profile pics we see is actually evolution?

Person 1: Unfortunately duck face is a result of allowing all to survive instead of just the fittest. Evolution in H. sapiens has basically stalled out.

Me: I disagree with the human race being stalled. We’ve heavily modified our environment in pretty much every way possible. As a result, we’re now selecting for different traits. Allowing everyone to survive instead of just the fittest (and what’s our new definition of fittest?) will also allow our genes to throw more possibilities out there to see if anything sticks to the genetic wall.

Person 1: Disagree all you like. 🙂 Disagreeing doesn’t really change anything though. We no longer select for any traits, we do everything we can to allow every possible trait to survive. It once was that during times without food, people who did not have the right genes wouldn’t have enough fat stored in their bodies to keep going so they died out. As a result, H sapiens is very good at storing food… Fast forward say 10-15,000y or so, now you have those same genes in an environment where food is plentiful. Now the majority of society is overweight (partially because of genes, partially environment) rather than those people dying off and people with ‘thin’ genes surviving and ending up with another genetic shift, we strive to allow people with ‘fat’ genes to also survive, keeping the shift from happening.

Colourblindness is another example. 15,000y ago, I would very likely have been eaten by an animal by now because I would not have seen them if they were camouflaged. BUT, since we have no natural predators anymore, because we’ve so heavily modified our environment as you pointed out, my genetic deficiency is allowed to continue and propagate even though it is deleterious to me and the overall species.

There is no evolution of H sapiens because there is no natural selection. We fight nature every step of the way to make sure that everything survives, and if everything survives nothing can be selected for naturally. It’s not possible to have evolution without natural selection and since we’ve more or less negated natural selection, we have no real evolution. The definition of fittest has not really ever changed either, I would still define it as the best suited traits for a given environment However, we can change our environment meaning the fittest don’t seem to matter so much since we can modify our environment to the point where even the least fit survive.

Until we get better at genetic engineering/synthetic biology, there is not a whole lot we can do to kickstart the evolutionary process (other than eugenics and that’s a pretty touchy subject). Therefore, (at least for now) the evolution of Homo sapiens is stalled.

Me: Still disagree.

You do make a couple of good points, though. I’m near sighted. Would never have made a good hunter in the environment our somewhat wilder ancestors developed and grew in. Probably would have died young because I threw the spear too soon. Or, I would have been the guy who figured out some improvements on our tribe’s trapping methods. If I’d lived, at almost 42, I’m now past average life expectancy and probably an elder of the tribe.

But we absolutely do select for specific traits. What those traits are may depend on what segment of society (or which part of the world) you’re talking about. I actually wonder if we’ve got a few sets of parallel evolutionary experiments going on. Men don’t select for the sturdy woman who’s likely to bear him the greatest number of living offspring and women don’t select for the man who can beat off the cave bear with a club so those offspring continue to live. Nature selects for the best fit, but once it selected for enough intelligence for us to make our own selections, it became natural for us to manipulate the process. Having gained that intelligence, we’ve used it to build a technological society and that society has helped shape us. It’s a circle.

We can no longer survive the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, not least because we don’t digest our food quiet the same way. We’ve adapted to most things being cooked. Raw meat doesn’t work, scavenged or otherwise. AND we’re no longer raised to the intense existence of having to find our own food every single day. We’ve gained in height and intelligence and knowledge, but at the expense of shorter life spans and physical capabilities that would put most professional athletes to shame, at least while our bodies lasted.

We are still human, but what it means to be human is not the same thing it was 10,000 years ago.

Are we overdue for a major evolutionary change? Probably not. It doesn’t work that fast and our environment has changed gradually enough until recently to let us change with it.

Are we about to have a major evolutionary change? I don’t know. Do you believe in the Singularity?

Person 1: Ha, ha, ha! I can’t really speak for others but a woman with a ‘sturdy’ set of hips still makes me want to have more babies than a woman without them. And women are still 100% attracted to alpha males! (Anyone who tells you different is a greasy liar.)

Me: I’d argue that the general definition of alpha male has changed and that even while women (in general) may be attracted to the strong, athletic type, intelligence and reasoning both have an effect on final selection of a mate/partner, for both partners. Our society may worship the physical, but it does so from a distance. On a day to day basis, it’s more likely to value the ability to use the genetic resources one has to keep things going at the level we’ve become accustomed to or improve on it.

Me: And the Geek shall inherit the Earth.

And as things so often happen on Facebook, the conversation doesn’t stay near the top of the stream long enough, but I thought the general ideas interesting enough that I wanted to hold onto them a little longer. There are many questions and few definitive answers.

I think a lot of definitions have changed. What we find attractive goes far beyond the physical and the potential of strong, capable offspring, sliding deep into the territories of intellectual and social values. There are people you just instinctively know you’re not compatible with because of their views in certain areas and there are people who feel the same way about you.

Evolution applies, but the human race has grown into a pretty complicated thing. We each shape ourselves and society even as society works to shape us. Evolution never stops. Where will we be in 100 years? Good question. It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

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