I'm at the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings in Chicago this week. I'm only doing e-mail and blogging once a day. I've seen many old friends and some new ones, but so far not much news...
Yes, I know my class is going on right now. The students are in good hands, learning about hobbit brains. Meanwhile...
Just as Wisconsin was starting to get warmer, here I am in 14 degrees!
I'm in Big Sky, Montana the next couple of days. Here's a shot:
That's a nighttime shot with my Canon 20D, 50mm f/1.4 lens at 1600 ISO.
I'm giving a plenary talk at the IEEE Aerospace Conference tomorrow afternoon. It's a great opportunity in a great place, and I'm having a great time. Last night I heard Lisa Randall give one of the other plenary talks, and I have to say that the organizers have put together a really cool program.
I'm not really a skier, but I'm enjoying the mountains, and I'm planning on doing some snowshoeing together with a little photography.
I'm writing this post live from the Kaleidoscope program here at UW. My part of today's program is a workshop on sharing your work with the world, using blogs and other online tools.
For participants (or others), I thought I would provide a couple of links. I wrote about blogging and tenure here last year, a post that I followed up with a second part, but I haven't yet finished the series.
Larry Moran has been writing a series of posts about quality science journalism. These have included descriptions of some well-written journalistic accounts of evolutionary science, and other that are in his opinion not so well-written.
In this latter category -- what Moran considers to be poor examples of journalism -- he puts a recent article about my work, by writer Kathleen McAuliffe, which appeared in the March 2009 issue of Discover.
Naturally I disagree. After speaking with McAuliffe several times and showing her around my lab here in Madison, I believe she has done an excellent job of describing our research, as well as putting it in the context of recent studies of human variation and evolution.
I think that Moran's criticism can be split into three points:
1. The article opposes our work against the straw-man view that "human evolution stopped."
2. The article does not spend enough space describing the views of scientists who doubt that human evolution accelerated, or who doubt the amount of acceleration.
3. The article includes some speculative "just so stories" for the causes of selection on some genes.
Those three points are too many for a single blog post, so I will focus on the first.
Moran agrees with me and many others that human evolution has been continuing in recent times. He does not specify what he means by recent, but he does mention a few examples of genes, like lactase and sickle cell, that have been strongly selected within the last few thousand years. He also mentions a few examples -- like mitochondrial Eve, which date back into the Middle Pleistocene. I do not tend to call these recent, but in the context of the 6 million years of hominid evolution, they are also comparatively new.
Given this well-known evidence for recent human evolution, Moran questions the article's introductory sentence:
For decades the consensus view—among the public as well as the world’s preeminent biologists—has been that human evolution is over.
He also questions a direct quote from me that appears in the article:
“It beats me how leading biologists could look at the fossil record and conclude that human evolution came to a standstill 50,000 years ago,” Hawks says.
Beats me how John could possibly think that "leading biologists" have ignored the data.
If I were being snarky, I would simply point you to the long post that Moran wrote in 2007, which began this way:
We frequently hear claims that humans have stopped evolving. Most of these claims have to do with medical advances that are now allowing people to survive who might have died in earlier times. The idea is that natural selection is no longer working so we have stopped evolving.
I am left to wonder where we "frequently hear" this idea, if no "leading biologists" actually believe it. Or why we would give this idea any credence or attention?
McAuliffe's article helps to fill in this blank. For example, it includes a direct quotation from Stephen Jay Gould:
Since modern Homo sapiens emerged 50,000 years ago, “natural selection has almost become irrelevant” to us, the influential Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proclaimed. “There have been no biological changes. Everything we’ve called culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”
Moran can't be bothered to look up the source of that quote, and intimates that it may not be accurate. I do silly things like finding sources of quotes. The source is
Gould, SJ. 2000. "The Spice of Life: An Interview with Stephen Jay Gould" Leader to Leader. 15 (Winter):14-19. (online).
McAuliffe provides another quote along the same lines from Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. I don't imagine that most readers of Discover would like a long list of direct quotes in support of the first sentence of an article, but I can cite a number of others.
For example, in his book, Children of Prometheus, Christopher Wills gives us a quote from an obscure text:
To be sure, there may have been an improvement of the brain without an enlargement of cranial capacity [over the last 100,000 years] but there is no real evidence of this. Something must have happened to weaken the selective pressure drastically. We cannot escape the conclusion that man's evolution towards manness suddenly came to a halt.... The social structure of contemporary society no longer awards superiority with reproductive success.
That's from Ernst Mayr's 1963 book, Animal Species and Evolution. Of course, that's decades ago. Here's another, from Ashley Montagu, which accompanied the UNESCO Statements on Race, last in 1972:
It is only during the last 15,000 years of his history that some populations developed agriculture and some went on to develop an urban way of life.... In the course of man's evolution the selective pressures acted not toward the development of any particular ability, but toward the generalized ability of adaptability. Hence, there would have been no development of genetically based special abilities in one population differing from those developed in other groups. Since there was no particular premium placed upon the development of such abilities, there would have been no selection for them in any group.
Montagu is very important not because of his prominence as a biologist -- although he had studied with Karl Pearson as an undergraduate, his training was primarily in the Boas school of cultural anthropology. He is important because he worked so hard to establish in biology and the public the idea of genetic equality of human races. As McAuliffe's article points out, this is a major reason why biologists have resisted the idea of recent human evolution. It is a false idea -- as Dobzhansky pointed out, genetic identity is irrelevant to equality. But it is an entrenched idea within human biology research.
Possibly this quote from Luca Cavalli-Sforza (writing with Francesco Cavalli-Sforza and Sarah Thorne) in The Great Human Diasporas, p. 246, is also relevant:
The forces of evolution have been altered radically by the developments of the last ten thousand years. The number of people living on the planet has increased over a thousandfold since agriculture began. As a result, the effects of genetic drift are now much more modest, and we could almost say shelved.
Some types of natural selection have also been shelved.... For natural selection to work, some have to die where others survive, and some have to die more easily than others. Plummeting infant mortality has almost eliminated the effects of natural selection due to differences in mortality.
These examples (and there are many, many others) are sufficient for me to wonder how "leading biologists" can think that human evolution came to a standstill 50,000 years ago. I think that Moran is right -- they must have been ignoring the data.
Or perhaps those biologists really agreed with Larry, but claimed otherwise for some purpose. Maybe they were all exaggerating -- human evolution hadn't really stopped, but had slowed down substantially. Some of them may have been lumping together what they didn't really know about the last 10,000 years with their thoughts about the last 100 years, when mortality rates in Western nations really have decreased. But it's clear that most of them weren't considering the actual data of the last 50,000 years of human evolution.
Still, I think Larry is overstating the extent that today's biologists think that humans have been evolving. Maybe he thinks that others all share his reasonable opinion that sickle cell and lactase are strong evidence of recent human evolution. Nevertheless, I have spoken to many biologists who disagree. In particular some remain skeptical that lactase persistence could have given a survival advantage to ancient people. This view is not tenable today, but until a few years ago, many human biologists simply assumed that such variations dated to the very distant past -- much longer than 50,000 years ago.
Even Larry throws "blood groups" in with his examples of recent evolution, when the most prominent blood group polymorphism, ABO, is millions of years old. The frequencies of this gene have evolved recently, but when Larry asks, "Haven't they heard of ... blood groups?" he should understand that many human biologists think of this as an example of very ancient evolution, not recent change.
That's one reason why I accentuate the prehistoric record of human morphological changes. Skeletal evidence of reductions in brain size, reductions in dental dimensions, progressive loss of third molars, and changes in the cranial index have been known for well over a hundred years. So there's really no excuse for midcentury and later evolutionary biologists to deny that human evolution has been rapid in the last few thousand years.
Yet despite the abundant evidence that human biologists have opposed the idea of recent human evolution, I still think that McAuliffe's opening sentence does construct a "straw man" argument. Many prominent examples don't prove that there has been a decades-long consensus that human evolution stopped. And our research is not about human evolution merely continuing -- we think it actually accelerated. Evidence that some biologists thought that human evolution stopped is interesting. But the reality is that almost no one has thought that human evolution accelerated.
That's curious, because the same theory that implies that human evolution must not have stopped also predicts that it should have sped up. There's no new theory here -- heck, the extent of our theoretical model is a linear equation! Larger populations make it more likely for adaptive mutations to happen. The only reasons that evolution wouldn't accelerate in recent humans are if adaptive mutations are in principle impossible, or if they are so common that they happen in small populations anyway.
Like Larry, I think that biologists are mostly convinced not by theory -- however simple -- but by concrete examples. That's precisely what McAuliffe describes at the end of her article:
Given such uncertainties, researchers are more likely to be persuaded that a mutation has been recently selected if they understand its function and if its rise in prevalence meshes well with known human migratory routes. Genetic variants fitting that description include those coding for lighter skin coloring, resistance to diseases such as malaria, and metabolic changes related to the digestion of novel foods. There is broad consensus that these represent genuine examples of recent adaptations.
Her clear description of these nuances -- scientists applying different analytical methods, possibly using different standards of evidence -- is one of the reasons why this is an good piece of science journalism. It describes the reasons for skepticism about our work as well as the ways that non-biologists may misinterpret it -- a part of the article that adds up to almost 1000 words.
Larry disagrees that this is enough to provide balance to the article, and suggests that this section actually contradicts the idea that most biologists accept a "static" view of human evolution. After all, if there is "broad consensus" that a few prominent evolutionary changes happened recently, that must mean that human evolution hasn't stopped, right?
Well, all I can say is that if all human biologists had the same attitude toward natural selection as Larry Moran, I doubt that we would have needed to publish our ideas about acceleration. Because they would already have been widely accepted!
I have a little article in Slate today: "How Strong is a Chimpanzee?"
Last Friday, I noticed a lot of talking-head-type animal trainers claiming that chimpanzees were more than 5 times stronger than people. That just didn't seem right to me. Chimps are strong, and they have a number of anatomical features that give their muscles more mechanical advantage than ours for certain actions. But 5 times is an awful lot. It would imply some pretty massive changes in muscle histology or metabolism in the human lineage.
Well, it turned out that the story was a lot more interesting than a simple blog post. It goes back to one man's attempts in the 1920's to get chimpanzees to pull on a scale. John Bauman isn't widely remembered today, but he wrote a book of evolution and philosophy called, "Out of the Valley of the Forgotten, or From Trinil to New York." Bauman got two chimps to pull more weight than his students on the football team. Kroeber, Hooton, and other classic textbook writers picked up the story, but not always pick the subsequent work that showed chimpanzees' strength to be much less extreme.
The study of muscle tissue in chimpanzees and other hominoids continues, and today there are some interesting genetic results that point to fairly rapid evolution of muscle metabolism in the human lineage. More than any time since the 1960's, anthropologists are developing more knowledge about why human muscles differ from our closest relatives.
This isn't a long essay; just a pointer to a Nature feature by Erika Check Hayden where I make an appearance to represent the anthropological viewpoint on recent genetic changes:
[C]urrent human populations are much more genetically diverse than this hypothesis predicts, so Moyzis and Hawks have concluded that evolution must have ramped up over the past 40,000 years. They chalk some of this acceleration up to human population growth, which exposed the species to more new mutations and created more raw material for selection. But the other reason, Hawks thinks, is culture — because although the physiology of humans has not changed much in the past 40,000 years, their expansion and migration means that lifestyles, languages and technologies certainly have.
Although not everyone agrees with Hawks's claims, the best understood example of recent human evolution does seem to fit. Genetic mutations that allow adults to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk, have emerged independently in different populations in response to the same cultural innovation — cattle domestication. "I don't see culture as an alternative to genetics, I see culture as being the explanatory factor for these genetic changes," says Hawks. "There is no explanation for change without the gene–environment interaction."
Well, there's my Michigan training.
Others have sometimes had the view that culture should replace genetic change in recent human history. I think that's wrong. Culture constrains genetic changes. Some kinds of cultural evolution can fall into relatively stable patterns that allow longer-term genetic changes to happen -- like the sustained subsistence changes brought on by agriculture. Those are great targets for adaptive genetic changes, and they might even generate circumstances that enable further cultural changes. That's a true biocultural evolutionary feedback.
Other cultural systems continue to fluctuate more rapidly. But this is nothing new -- many environmental changes fluctuate on a time scale too rapid for genetic changes to catch up. Even so, sometimes genetic polymorphisms occur as equilibrium solutions to such rapidly fluctuating systems. In any event, we can address these questions quantitatively.
The article contains a mix of stuff about human behavioral evolution -- ranging from recurrently selected genes in hominids up to our stuff on very recent evolution. Oh, and there's this:
Preuss says that such precise dissections of human-specific traits are still quite rare. "If you go beyond the bland expression of 'advanced cognition' and try to talk about cognitive mechanisms and abilities, we don't really know that much," he says. This means that there is a glut of genomic data but a paucity of crucial information from other fields that would help to make sense of it. "We need to start connecting this genetic world to the traditional anthropological approaches," agrees Hawks, who sees genomics as an inspiration to start collecting and sharing data on an equivalent scale in his own discipline.
That's a point I've made several times here, and I'm glad to see it coming out in my interviews elsewhere. We know so much now about the human genome, but we know yet more about the archaeological, linguistic and biological record of the last 20,000 years. It's not so easy to get all these data together. But there's huge potential here.
Hayden EC. 2009. Darwin 200: The other strand. Nature 457:776-779. doi:10.1038/457776a
Our work on recent selection was featured in Discover magazine this month. I'll link to that later. In the meantime, I've been getting some thoughtful letters from readers of the article. I thought I would post some of these letters with answers, because they really illustrate a cross-section of interest in the work. Here's the first:
I am just a private citizen, but I have thought about something for some time. Let's take 1,000 sets of identical twins and divide them into two groups. The groups will be put far apart and never come in contact with each for 1000 years. The two areas the two groups go to are identical and the number of them stays at 1,000.
After the 1000 years they are brought back together. I will wager $10,000 the two groups will have evolved differently, even though they lived in identical climates. Is anyone willing to take me up on the bet?
I am guessing if we took one set of identical twins who could live for 1000 years, separate them for the 1000 years in identical climates, the same thing would happen.
My thinking is that climate is part of the evolution process, but the more complicated life gets means the body has to adjust to the changes. If one group's environment doesn't change, then they only have to adjust to the environment once. If the other group starts to invent things and are constantly improving on things, then they have to keep evolving to the constant changes. I say living in one area that keeps changing for 1,000 years will change the person.
There's a bit more to this letter, which I may include later. In the meantime, here's what I wrote in response:
Thank you for your letter. In fact you are entirely correct; if you separate two sets of identical people for 1000 years, the two populations will evolve differently. This will be much more so if you separate 100 people instead of 1000, as the chance element of evolution is the largest factor in these small populations.
Now, on the other hand, if you separate two groups of 100,000 or 1,000,000 people for 1000 years, we will see very little genetic change at all in either group. Except to the extent that their genes are subject to selection.
But as you mention, the genes of these large populations may evolve differently even if their phenotypes are subject to the same environment. For example, Europeans and north Asians have both evolved lighter skin color in the last 20,000 years. But in these two populations we see very different genetic changes. Europeans have a high frequency of new genetic changes in genes like SLC24A5, OCA2, and Mc1r; Asians also have a change in Mc1r but lack the others; instead they have changes in other genes like DCT.
Again and again in recent human evolution, we see that chance element influencing the variation that selection has to work with. In maybe the most famous example, different populations have come to suffer from falciparum malaria in the last 5000 years. In these populations, we see diverse mutations that help to resist the malaria parasite. The sickle cell trait became common in West Africa and north India; West Africa also got hemoglobin C and G6PD deficiency. Hemoglobin E arose in southeast Asia; alpha- and beta-thalassemia appeared in the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere; ovalocytosis in New Guinea. These different genetic adaptations have different values and different costs. If humans had always lived in a single population exposed to malaria, some of these adaptations may not have proliferated. But the long distances and slow movement between these populations means that new adaptations can grow in numbers faster than they spread to different parts of the globe.
I certainly wouldn't take up his wager. But who knows, there may be a profit opportunity here -- there are a lot of folks studying human genetics who don't think evolution in recent humans is possible!
I will be giving two public lectures out of town later this week.
The biggest is this Thursday evening, February 12, when I will be giving the Darwin Day lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. This is a really great venue, and I'm really looking forward to it! So I'm bringing out all the good stuff:
Neandertals, Darwin and the Sicilian Mafia: What do they have in common?
If you're in the SE Wisconsin area, the lecture is Thursday 2/12, at 7:00 pm, in the Young Auditorium at UWW.
Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, I'll be giving a lecture in the Human Genetics department at the University of Chicago. This talk will cover some of my current research on recent selection in humans, as well as the connections between our evolutionary history and documented written history. The title is:
Spatial dynamics of positive selection, language dispersals, and human history
If you're familiar with UC, you're ahead of me in finding the place. The talk will be Wednesday 2/11, at 4:00 pm in CLSC 101.
I will be giving a short presentation in the afternoon session, around 1:30 or so, covering my work on the evolution of hearing and language in humans. With the participation of my great graduate students, we're also planning to have some hominid casts for the exploration stations in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, there are other very interesting events. The morning presentations by evo-devo expert Sean Carroll, zoologist Patricia McConnell, and Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography should be really good. And there's a panel in the afternoon covering science in the media, featuring James Crow, Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio, Jeremy Jackson and Molly Jahn.
The Wisconsin State Journal has published a nice article about the events:
To Tony Goldberg, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the concept of evolution is far from a dusty theory. It’s a real process that informs just about everything he does in his laboratory.
Goldberg studies the ecology and evolution of disease and disease-causing organisms and he sees evolution every time he studies a virus or a bacteria that has changed to resist our latest efforts to control it.
"People would be surprised," Goldberg said, "at how deeply evolutionary biology affects our everyday lives."
This is the start of a busy week for me, as I will be giving a lecture in Chicago next Wednesday and at UW-Whitewater next Thursday evening. I'm looking forward to both those events as well, and will post later with some more information if you're in either area.