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Evolved Again

By Annalee Newitz

APPARENTLY, IT IS big news that the human brain is still evolving. A couple of U.S. researchers announced recently that they had isolated two genes connected with brain size that appeared to have evolved only over the last two dozen millennia. In other words, our brains changed in the past hundred generations. Why this would be surprising to anyone even glancingly familiar with evolutionary theory is beyond me. As long as we keep engaging in sexual reproduction, we're going to be evolving. The process ain't teleological, people.

Greg Wray, a Duke University evolutionary genomics professor involved with the study, told the Associated Press, "There's a sense that we as humans have kind of peaked." But, he added, "it's almost impossible for evolution not to happen."

Nevertheless, people both in and out of the scientific community were bemused by this study. I'm tempted to say that that is because the intelligent-design dorks are making so many headlines that any new information about evolution—particularly that it's still happening in an observable fashion—pricks up our ears.

But I think what this study calls attention to is a kind of weird folk belief that somehow we've stopped evolving. Partly this is because the Darwinian tradition is focused on the past. This is what sets evolutionary theory apart from social and political theories of human change, which often examine how the species can change itself today in order to influence the future.

I bring up politics because I think they're ultimately to blame for our short-sighted view of evolution as a process that started 200 million years ago and ended roughly in the mid-19th-century when Darwin started freaking everybody out with his ideas about humans and apes. Few people are comfortable with the idea that they're just one step in a journey toward some other thing that will probably be much cooler and better than they are.

That's why intelligent design has become so popular. It's an idea that makes evolution all about who we are right now, because somebody has been guiding everything to this exact point. In other words: we are totally perfect, and nothing will ever be better. Nice try.

Thankfully, the current version of Homo sapiens is just that: a current version. We can take some pride in that. We're the very latest thing. We have features that previous versions didn't have, like extra height and complicated symbolic systems for communicating. Even better, we now have a basic understanding of how we evolved. Plus, this version of Homo sapiens can change itself with science faster than the previous versions could with sexual reproduction.

For example: We are about to have children born of three parents. Some medical researchers in the U.K. have announced that they'll be experimenting with creating human embryos who have genetic material from two mothers and a father. The idea is to cure certain diseases that are inherited through maternal genetic material called mitochondrial DNA that exists outside the cell nucleus (where most DNA is housed). This baby will have one woman's nuclear DNA, another woman's mitochondrial DNA and more nuclear DNA from the man. How's that for changing the course of evolution? A human with three genetic parents is definitely a novel version of Homo sapiens.

Of course, the people who believe only some godlike creature or "nature" should be in charge of upgrading the species also think this is a naughty idea. Josephine Quintavalle, a rep for public-interest group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, told the BBC, "It is undesirable to create children in this way. It will shock the world." Her response reminds me of the sort of thing an intelligent-design adherent would say. Essentially she's arguing that we shouldn't continue to evolve, even though that's impossible.

Personally, I prefer to believe that we're living in the prehistory of humankind. Nine thousand years from now, I want archeologists to unbury San Francisco from centuries of earthquake-dislodged muck and exclaim, "Wow, there was a city here!" I want my beautiful town to be like Uruk, one of the oldest cities ever discovered, whose culture and politics are as foreign to us now as San Francisco's will be to the latest version of Homo sapiens. If we and our backward ways are not going to become history, then I have no hope for the future.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who has been touched by the noodly appendage of the flying spaghetti monster.

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From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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