Yale Daily News, 19 September 2011
Humans are still evolving, profs say
By Robert Peck
Yale alumni gathered to discuss evolution after a screening of the BBC documentary “Horizon: Are We Still Evolving?” with professor Stephen Stearns. Photo by Selen Uman.
Those who think that the human race has reached its pinnacle should think again: research shows that human beings are evolving faster than ever before.
Led by professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Stephen Stearns, about 75 students and members of the Yale community gathered Friday for a lecture panel and discussion on the ever-changing nature of human biology. The panelists revealed that despite modern medical advances, humans may still be evolving more than the public realizes. Indeed, the panelists said that new technology could be accelerating human evolution rather than limiting it.
The discussion, held at the Whitney Humanities Center, was part of the Traphagen Alumni Speaker Series, which aims to give undergraduates direct access to former Yalies in a range of fields and their professional expertise.
“When I used to teach [“Introductory Anthropology”], my last lecture was always ‘What does the future hold for us as a species?’” said professor Richard G. Bribiescas, director of undergraduate studies of anthropology and one of four panelists at the discussion. “At the end of the lecture, I always thought, ‘Well, there’s got to be more.’”
The event began with a screening of the BBC’s documentary “Horizon: Are We Still Evolving?” The film questions the increasingly popular idea that, with the advent of modern technology and medicine, Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory might no longer apply to humans.
But panelist Sarah Tishkoff GRD ’91 MED ’96, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said modern society has not stopped humans evolving, but merely changed the way they do it. One of Tishkoff’s arguments for this lies in lactose tolerance. Humans were not originally capable of digesting dairy products after the weaning phase, she said. But with the advent of farming, people who could stomach milk were naturally better off than those who could not, leading to the now-widespread ability to digest dairy products.
“Changes in our culture and tech development can play a role … in being selected for,” Tishkoff said.
Stearns, who appeared in the documentary, also argued that humans are still evolving. He said that, just as in nature, certain groups are still more likely to reproduce than others in the modern day. But this likelihood is now dependent on fertility rather than survival, he said.
“Let’s suppose we have really superb health care and no [one] died,” Stearns said. “This wouldn’t change the fact that some people would have no children, some would have one, some would have two. And so on.”
After the discussion’s conclusion, Annick McIntosh GRD ’14 said she found the discussion to be effective for a general audience.
“[The event] was very well done for public interest,” she said. “The discussion was geared well towards thought-provoking questions.”
But other attendees thought the discussion seemed to skirt delicately around the controversial issues at hand. Shayna Liberman GRD ’14 said she would have liked to see more discussion of genetic engineering, adding that this field is heavily influential not just to the race’s ongoing evolution, but to many modern technologies as well.
The Traphagen Alumni Speaker Series, which funded the discussion, offers funding to students, professors, and undergraduate organizations seeking to bring alumni to campus.