EVOLUTION, Scientific American, 9/2014

Do you ever wonder what our politicians read? I do. I know they don’t read my ParisTampaBlog. Do any of them read the same publications that I read? Probably not, although in order to keep up they must have people reading for them, at least the New York Times and perhaps the Washington Post, the LA Times, and a few others, certainly the home town papers.

And I would add that they probably all read the new and often brilliantly written and presented online tabloids, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, these rags occupying much the same place in our mail boxes as the Globe, National Enquirer, and Star at the supermarket checkout counters.

How would our country change if, for example, the politicians in Washington, and in particular the some 20 Republican and the 1 Democratic presidential candidate all without exception read the Times every day, at least the principal news items and the opinion pieces, and if also they read perhaps the weekly Economist and the monthly Scientific American?

These are the three publications that I read, with digital subscriptions to all of them, never missing the Times or the Economist, and trying to keep up with the monthly SA.

What if the politicians were reading the same publications that I was reading? Would we begin to respect perhaps even understand one another? At the moment there’s hardly a presidential candidate that I respect, let alone understand, and our reading probably very different publications probably reflects and contributes to this situation. Maybe if I ever watched cable news on Fox or MSNBC it would help. But I don’t.

What got me going on this subject was an issue of SA of September of last year, called simply, Evolution. Do any of you remember it? It’s one of those items on your list that you intend to read but you put aside. Anyway I’ve picked it up and now I’m reading it. Here’s the cover:


Why do I mention it? Well it’s because of the subject, which subject of course is taboo in Washington and taboo especially among the Republican presidential candidates. Taboo for the reason that too many of their constituents’ minds, and probably a few of their own, are closed to the subject.

Too bad. Because evolution is true and has a lot to say to us about how to live, and in this particular issue of SA about our future, and what it will be like, whoever is the presidential candidate, whoever is elected. For evolution is not just about the past, but it’s even more about the future, more because the future is the future and therefore still unknown.

Among many articles the SA issue of September is asking a few important questions and giving us a few answers that could with great benefit be read by everyone of us, certainly by the candidates for president. I wonder if Hillary has read them? I don’t wonder about the Republican candidates, except maybe Jeb Bush. And if already declared candidates Ted, Rand, or Marco have read the Evolution issue I’m sure they’ll never admit it.

Again, this is something that we all should read, have in common, and to that end here’s a quick summary of a bit of my own reading of some of the ideas presented regarding the future of human evolution. Because we are still evolving.

Scientific American asked a number of scientists for their views on the evolution of our species, —Where is Human Evolution taking us, —What will become of humanity hundreds, thousands, millions of years from now?

And here from the September 2014 issue are some of their answers and predictions about what the future holds for us.

from paleoanthropologist Carol V. Ward of the University of Missouri:

—“Evolution is not a process that allows us to predict what will happen in the future. We can see what happened in the past only. To do that, we would need to know what was causing some individuals to leave more surviving descendants than others, and to be sure that that selection pressure would be maintained for hundreds or thousands of generations, and know what the genetic and phenotypic basis for the variance underlying these differences was. We don’t and really can’t know any of those things, so all I can say is that we should come back in a million years and see what happened!”

from paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City:

—“In a population as large as ours, there is no way we will acquire any meaningful biological novelties. We will find ways of compensating for what we perceive as deficiencies, but unless some disaster horrendously fragments our population, there is no way we are going anywhere in terms of biological evolution. All the action is now on the cultural/technological front.”

from geneticist Steve Jones of University College London

––“Selection is more or less at an end in developed countries. If you look globally things are different because for demographic reasons there will be an enormous increase in the proportion of Africans which will change the world’s genetic balance for skin color and other genes; but within the developed world so far this has had little effect.”

from neuroscientist Joe. Z. Tsien of Georgia Regents University

––“Could it be that 5,000 years from now, we will be able to download our minds onto computers, travel to distant worlds and live forever in the network?”

and from Ray Kurzweil, Sarah Tishkoff, S Jay Olshansky, and Yohannes Haile-Selassie:


And finally I give in very brief form a few ideas from two SA articles, responses to the questions, as it were, from Peter Ward, The Future of Man — How Will Evolution Change Humans, and by John Hawks, No, Humans have not stopped Evolving. Click on one or both to read the full articles.

From Peter Ward’s The Future of Man:

  • People commonly assume that our species has evolved very little since prehistoric times. Yet new studies using genetic information from populations around the globe suggest that the pace of human evolution increased with the advent of agriculture and cities.
  • If we are still evolving, what might our species look like in a millennium should we survive whatever environ­mental and social surprises are in store for us? Specu­la­tion ranges from the hopeful to the dystopian.

From John Hawks, No Humans have not stopped Evolving:

  • Some scientists and science communicators have claimed that humans are no longer subject to natural selection and that human evolution has effectively ceased.
  • In fact, humans have evolved rapidly and remarkably in the past 30,000 years. Straight, black hair, blue eyes and lactose tolerance are all examples of relatively recent traits.
  • Such rapid evolution has been possible for several reasons, including the switch from hunting and gathering to agrarian-based societies, which permitted human populations to grow much larger than before. The more people reproduce within a population, the higher the chance of new advantageous mutations.
  • Humans will undoubtedly continue to evolve into the future. Although it may seem that we are headed toward a cosmopolitan blend of human genes, future generations will likely be striking mosaics of our entire evolutionary past.

Peter Ward has been active in paleontology, biology and astrobiology for more than 30 years. He led the University of Washington node of the nasa Astrobiology Institute, a team of more than 40 scientists and students, from 2001 to 2006. Ward is especially known as an expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on the earth.

Peter and his 11-year-old son recently built a reconstruction of the late Cretaceous world on a large model-train layout, replete with dinosaurs to scale, and can now attest that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by speeding locomotives.

John Hawks is an anthropologist and an expert on human evolution at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

And if we don’t know much about where we’re going in the future, we do know quite a bit about where we’ve been in the past.


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