Professor Steve Jones, a genetics expert at the University College of London, has a theory that says humans – or at least humans in the more affluent countries – have stopped evolving. And why does he say this? Well, simplistically, it’s because today’s combination of science, technology and lifestyles insulates us from the very forces – like environment and nature – that precipitated and shaped our evolution as a species.
How does ‘survival of the fittest’ work when you don’t really have to be ‘fit’ to survive, when science and the development of technology have led to advances in health, medicine, nutrition and agriculture that have led to lower mortality rates, more sedentary lifestyles, better nutrition and higher life expectancies? When we are hardly ‘challenged’, in the Darwinian sense, anymore? Could one credibly argue that the push for survival is consequently weaker today? That today’s civilization (at least in most places) allows the ‘unfit’ (speaking again from a Darwinian standpoint) to survive and thrive?
There is another interesting aspect to Prof. Jones’ argument. According to him, as we have fewer older fathers, the chances of a mutation (a cell division that goes wrong and so creates a sperm different from his father’s) decrease – since younger men have undergone fewer cell divisions. And as we have fewer mutations, the chances of a beneficial mutation that could benefit the species are also reduced. This, coupled with a weakening of the natural selection process, implies that not only are the chances of an advantageous mutation lowered, but the chances of a disadvantageous mutation surviving, and more importantly, being propagated, remain high.
Logically, one could counter this train of thought by pointing out that for most of history – including less than 100 years ago – parenthood came very early, and most people did not live to cross 50. Going by Jones’ theory, therefore, evolution should have died out much earlier in our history, since there would have been very few mutations in an average man’s life. Also, considering the millions of years it took us to evolve, isn’t one being presumptuous in basing one’s judgments on 50 years of relative prosperity in a small section of our planet?
But his larger argument throws up some very interesting questions. For instance, is evolution a one-way street? In other words, do species only ‘progress’, or can they regress as well? In which case, if Homo Sapiens has stopped evolving, does that mean we have hit a steady-state evolutionary plateau, or does that mean that we could also head down the slope? Do we see another branching off of the species? Was HG Wells eerily prescient?
So, in a sense, what I am asking is this: do we, someday, go back to being primates? Sounds ridiculous? Well, The Intelligent Designer knows we in India are two small steps away from being full-blown Neanderthals. So perhaps it’s not all that ridiculous.