I was going to post part 6 of my series on Evolution today but felt like I needed to address three articles that came to my attention over the past two weeks which illustrate some of the issues I find with how evolution is presented today.
The first is an article I read in the February 8, 2013 edition of the Houston Chronicle titled Mammals’ common ancestor uncovered which was a reprint of a February 7, 2013 article in the New York Times originally titled Rat-Size Ancestor Said to Link Man and Beast by John Noble Wilford. You can find the complete article here. I enjoyed the article but it neither uncovers mammal’s common ancestor or links man and beasts. And that is my issue with this type of article. Reading the headlines one would expect that some fossil had been discovered that linked all existing mammals. What a careful reading of the article shows is that the scientists involved had hypothesized what a common ancestor would look like if we found it. Of course the obligatory artists drawing of the supposed ancestor completes the picture. The problem is whether or not this common ancestor existed nothing is proved by the research cited. It is only someone’s best guess. To the casual reader however they are left with an impression that some new mammal has been found. Only reading the entire article and the caption of the drawing which stated in part that it shows a hypothetical placental mammal ancestor give us what really happened or did not happen.
Next are two articles in the March 2013 issue of Discover magazine. The first Evolution Full Tilt by Steven Kotler with the teaser 0f:”Driven by technological advances, humans are changing faster than ever. Coming soon: our next stage, Homo evolutus”. In this five page article supposedly showing how rapidly humans are evolving once again you must read carefully to see what exactly the author means by evolving. In this case it is that we are on average taller and larger than our ancestors of the recent past. Not exactly breaking news as people have better diets, easier lives and modern medical care all of which allows us to grow to our potential and all species have enormous flexibility built into their DNA. Mr. Kotler does mention this about midway through the article. Have we really evolved? Not really. People are the same now as in the past. Yes we are taller on average but there have always been people taller than average. Are people bigger, yes unfortunately we are but this is more due to a sedentary life than any evolution? And our continued evolution? Well, that is the freighting part. Not some natural process but genetic engineering and personal preference. Essentially eugenics without the freighting name. People will select their baby’s sex, eye color and other traits. But the real evolving is when we start manipulating our DNA to “improve the species. This along with using high tech to augment our bodies is supposed to be the next step in human evolution. Which leaves open the question of who decides individuals, the government, scientists or maybe some committee? What is to stop us from designing a worker class to do all the manual labor? I would never underestimate the evil man is capable of in the pursuit of doing good.
The final article also in the March 2013 issue of Discover is Interbreeding With Neanderthals by Carl Zimmer also with this teaser: “Telltale evidence of ancient liaisons with Neanderthals and other extinct human relatives can be found in the DNA of billions of people”. What I found interesting in this article is not that Neanderthals and Modern Man interbred, this has be proposed for a while but that this interbreeding resulted in fertile offspring. For years evolution has put Neanderthals in and offshoot dead end in human development. However if all this mixing of DNA was going on with the survival of not only Neanderthal DNA but also other hominid offshoots then what we had were not various hominid species but one diverse species. Which calls into question if Homo erectus may have also been just a slightly different version of Homo sapiens? Fortunately for evolution we do not have any Homo erectus DNA to study and resolve the issue. Of course what constitutes a species is also up for grabs. It seems that there are as many ways to define a species as there are scientists studying the subject. I guess subject is a good word for it seems highly subjected. But the one definition as to what constitutes a species is that members can breed and produce fertile offspring. That seems to be what happened long ago with Neanderthals and “modern humans”. I plan to go into greater detail on this in my post on hominid evolution.
Until then, have a blessed day,