Are we still evolving?

Have culture and technology stopped evolution in its tracks?

Every human alive today can trace their ancestry back to east Africa around 200,000 years ago – DNA from a single woman still exists in every one of our cells. At the time, the human population was tiny, and her descendants are the only ones still alive today. They spread across the continent 100,000 years ago before radiating out in waves across the world. Scientists know the mother of humanity as mitochondrial Eve.

We may have dispersed, but the genetic differences between us are surprisingly small. There is no major distinction between people living on different continents or people of different races. In fact, there are more genetic differences between subspecies of chimpanzee. This similarity makes people question whether we’ve stopped evolving completely.

Evolution relies on a few key ingredients. Every generation, an organism makes more individuals than are able to survive. There are differences between those individuals, known as phenotypic variation. The cause of those differences, genes or genotype, are heritable, meaning that they can pass from one generation to the next. Some traits are better suited to the current environment than others. Individuals with those traits are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing the genes for their traits on to the next generation.

New traits enter populations in three main ways, the most well-known of which is mutation. When we make sperm or eggs, cells in our reproductive organs copy their DNA. This process is error-prone, so every time it happens mistakes creep in. This creates tiny changes in the genetic code that pass to the next generation. For the most part the differences don’t do anything useful – or harmful. The mutations are often silent (they do nothing) or neutral (they do something, but it doesn’t make a difference). In fact, many mutations aren’t even in genes; they’re in the DNA that sits between them. However, sometimes mutations change the way a gene works.

New traits can also enter populations via gene flow. This happens when groups of people separate and then come back together, sharing new genetic information. Finally, traits change because of sex. Babies inherit genetic material from both parents, putting new combinations of genes together.

Over the past 100,000 years these three mechanisms have changed the traits that make us human, but we are still young in evolutionary terms. We take a long time to reproduce, and there’s a limit to the amount of variation that can accumulate in a few hundred thousand years. Your genetic information only differs from mine by around 0.1 per cent, and most of those differences are single letter changes. Despite outward appearances, the whole human population still shares close family ties.

Our genes are always changing, but genetics is just one piece of the evolutionary puzzle. Our environment has a huge role to play in how our species evolves. For new traits to pass from generation to generation they need to change our chances of survival. This is where Darwin’s natural selection comes in. If a genetic change makes an individual more likely to reproduce they have a better chance of passing on their genes. We know this as ‘survival of the fittest’, but it’s not always about being the biggest, strongest or fastest. It’s about having traits that let you make the best use of your current environment. As the environment changes, so do the kind of mutations that might be useful.

This is where human evolution gets complicated. We can change our environment with culture, science and technology, messing with natural selection. If you look deep into history, our human-like ancestors were at the mercy of their environment. Lucy, a famous fossil of a species known as Australopithecus afarensis, lived 3.2 million years ago. She had ape-like characteristics, including a large jaw, long arms and a covering of fur, but she walked on two legs. She lived in the trees like other apes, but the environment was changing, trees were disappearing, and Lucy was spending more time on the ground. Eggs found near her remains suggest she might have been foraging.

Between Lucy and mitochondrial Eve, climate change eventually forced our ancestors out of the forests and onto the plains. They had to run under blazing sunshine to survive, and body hair became a burden. Bare skin and the ability to lose heat by sweating became an advantage. Pressure from the environment pushed the genes of our ancestors to change.

Over time, early humans evolved bigger brains, smaller jaws and complex social structures. We harnessed fire and invented tools, and as we became more intelligent we made more and more changes to our environment. This changed everything.

The advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago caused a seismic shift in human history. Suddenly, we could produce our own food on demand, right next to our homes. DNA from ancient humans has revealed that changing our own environment changed at least 12 regions of our genetic code.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School examined the remains of 230 people who lived between 8,500 and 2,300 years ago. They found differences in genes involved in height, metabolism and skin pigmentation. Around 4,000 years ago, a mutation appeared that allowed adults to keep digesting milk. Light skin became more common, which the researchers believe may have been a response to less vitamin D in a plant-based farmer’s diet. The immune system also changed, which may have helped people to live closer together.

We share behaviours that we learn during our lifetimes, passing information from generation to generation like genes. Learning and culture change our environment, changing the pressures that drive selection. This kind of genetic and cultural co-evolution isn’t unique to humans. Whales and dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and there is evidence that they also evolve in response to learning.

Killer whales can tackle many different types of prey, but certain groups prefer different meals. In the North Atlantic, for example, some like salmon, some prefer mammals, and others eat sharks. These cultural preferences pass from mother to baby, and because the groups don’t tend to mix, they stay the same across generations. Scientists found differences in the genetics of whales that eat fish versus those that eat mammals. We changed our genes by learning to farm, and they’ve changed theirs by choosing which prey to eat.

This cultural learning helps us to keep adapting, but humans have taken it further than any other animal. We made clothes and complex shelters. We domesticated plants and animals to provide a steady source of food. We built boats, cars and planes to explore the world. We invented medicine to treat injuries and disease. We made it possible to choose when – and if – to have children. We can even survive in space. We have secured our environment, reducing the pressures that push other species to change over time. Reducing those pressures freed up even more time for new ideas and new technologies. Science has made it possible to change our environment more than ever before, but does that mean that we’ve stopped evolving?

It’s hard to see evolution in action in human populations today because we have such a long lifespan, and even when natural selection isn’t happening, our genes continue to mutate, a phenomenon known as genetic drift. However, there is one serious selective pressure that we still don’t have under control: disease. If you look into its past you can see how modern humans have changed in recent years.

The plague ripped through Europe around 750 years ago, killing vast numbers of people. When our species faces diseases we can’t yet treat, natural selection takes over. Scientists think that’s why modern populations in Northern Europe have a higher frequency of a mutation in a gene called CCR5. This gene codes for a molecule used by the immune system, and it provides protection against the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis. It also protects against the HIV virus. People with the protective trait were more likely to survive, and their descendants are still alive today.

As a species we have outsourced huge parts of our survival to technology. We control our environment to maintain a steady state, reducing the pressure that forces genes to change, but to keep this going we need our environment to stay the same, and we haven’t worked it all out yet.

What happens when the climate changes, or when antibiotics no longer work as they should? We have buffered ourselves against natural selection for the moment, but we haven’t out-evolved evolution.

Evolutionary leftovers

The three auricular muscles around the ears help cats and dogs to point their ears in the direction of noises. Some people can wiggle them, but they aren’t much use to us.

This pheromone-sensing organ helps many animals to communicate using chemical signals. Most adults seem to have one, but whether it still actually works is unknown.

Four extra molars may have been useful to our ancestors, who had larger mouths and tougher diets, but we don’t really need them any more. Some people don’t have any.

The palmaris longus muscles help primates to swing from trees, but we no longer need them. Most people still have short tendons, but in some people they are missing.

Developing human embryos form a tail in the womb, but it quickly disappears again, leaving behind a short ‘tailbone’ called the coccyx.

Although we don’t need an appendix to survive, it may not be completely useless. It’s still thought to play a role in maintaining healthy gut bacteria.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 114, written by Laura Mears

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