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Professor Steve Jones is an idiot. - Elf M. Sternberg
Professor Steve Jones is an idiot.
I already told mundens about this, but it annoys me enough I'm lifting it out of comments.

Professor Steve Jones is an idiot. Either that, or he's being tragically misquoted. According to the Independent, Professor Jones asserts "Human evolution is grinding to a halt. This is as good as it gets." Jones goes on to assert that small, isolated populations might still show evolutionary pressures, but not H. sapiens as a whole.


First off, evolution cannot "stop" because it is not a machine or a process. It is a consequence of ecosystems. Trying to proclaim that it exists for H. sapiens in one region, but not in another, especially when gene pool remixing is happening at rate never before seen in our species, is to be misinformed. The author of the original shows both a teleological misunderstanding of evolutionary biology and a real failure to grasp our own biological history. I mean, what's this nonsense in the article about "few men over the age of 35 are reproducing, and age is a valuable source of mutations?" Does this guy have any idea at all that for most of our evolutionary period, most of us didn't even live to see 40? That polygamous tribal systems concentrated an awful lot of genetic in single male individuals?

But the key, important part is described in the phrase "as good as it gets." Get this through the thick skull of everyone who says anything remotely like that: evolution does not care if your progeny are smarter, stronger, faster, or live longer. All evolution does is weed out those in the next generation who do the poorest at exploiting the current environment. Brains, muscle and speed cost metabolism. Longevity severely impacts selectivity. If being stupider and living shorter makes us better exploiters of an environment (and believe me, a lot of dumb sheep are evidence that it is), then the smart and long-lived will be the ones weeded out. Evolution selects executors of adaptation; it is the gene pool that maximizes adaptation through selection. In neither case is adaptation "fitness." If adaptation values what we do not, we're out of luck.

Jones tries to talk himself out of this problem by proclaiming that since we're all interbreeding now the gene pool will tend to regress to the mean. But Jones ignores two important factors: first, gene emergence through accidental duplication and cooption is still going to happen, at the normal rate it always has. And second, despite evolution working primrality on genes, evolution does not care about genes either: its only consequence is the selection of successful adaptations.

Besides, evolution is not teleological. It doesn't have a "plan," an "intent," or a "care" for who we are or what we might become. It's a mechanical consequence of biology, as relentless, as unfeeling as a meat grinder. There is no "god" of evolution, and biologists do not flock to mildewed walls to touch a stain vaguely shaped like Charles Darwin in the hopes of suddenly evolving Pokemon-style.

It's also not miraculous. It's not a "real time" event. It takes far longer than the human mind is adapted to consider well. He, and I, and you, and everyone around us will be long gone by the time whatever conscious beings are around notice that their gene pool has drifted so far in one direction or another that they could never successfully interbreed with anyone from this generation. They may have drifted so far they might no more want to than you or I would want to mate with a chimpanzee.

The writer is an idiot. And fortunately, he's being treated as such by the biology blogosphere.

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7 comments or Leave a comment
urox From: urox Date: October 14th, 2008 04:30 am (UTC) (Link)
Interestingly, I don't think we are evolving, but for drastically different reasons. We're protecting stupid people from offing themselves and we're creating drugs to fight today's bacteria that should be making our collective immune systems stronger rather than us fighting it with something created outside our own body. We're allowing things which would otherwise be selectively removed.
From: qtplatypus Date: October 14th, 2008 04:48 am (UTC) (Link)
That in and of itself doesn't stop us from evolving. That just changes the selection pressures.
From: (Anonymous) Date: October 14th, 2008 04:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Truth. Evolution is not something that can be stopped, only the selection pressures change. It's not like a path going somewhere.
gromm From: gromm Date: October 14th, 2008 10:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess that's true. In which case we're evolving into beings so utterly dependent on the environment we're creating for ourselves that the only way we will survive in the future is by continuing to sustain that environment. But hey, that's been going on for some aeons anyway - otherwise we'd be a lot hairier since moving from the tropics to the colder bits of the world.

It's just that now we're evolving to becoming more dependant on laser eye surgery and nutritional supplements than ever before.
From: qtplatypus Date: October 14th, 2008 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)


It has been suggested that the DRD4 7R gene (this mutation makes ADHD and autistic spectrum conditions more frequent) is currently being selected for.
shunra From: shunra Date: October 14th, 2008 05:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Sounds like another declaration of the end of history.

Premature, but they rather have to be, if anyone is around to hear/read such declarations.
briar_fox From: briar_fox Date: October 14th, 2008 09:28 am (UTC) (Link)
...and biologists do not flock to mildewed walls to touch a stain vaguely shaped like Charles Darwin in the hopes of suddenly evolving Pokemon-style.

Pfft. I beg to differ.
7 comments or Leave a comment