MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: Is there anyone doing studies on human evolution that is happening today?

Date: Fri Dec 6 13:24:37 2002
Posted By: Doug Reed, Faculty, Toxinology & Aerobiology, USAMRIID
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 1018303785.Ge

I doubt I can give you the answer you're looking for. I don't believe that 
there is anyone you could see that would be able to identify whether these 
changes are harmful or beneficial. There are some fictional books that 
deal with these kinds of ideas - in particular Darwin's Radio by Greg 
Bear. Remember that evolution is something that occurs very slowly over 
extremely long periods of time (in comparison to our life spans, for 
example). There is no way to predict what traits in a given individual 
alive right now would enhance their survival and increase their 
representation in the gene pool. There are some labs that could 
potentially reveal harmful aspects by analyzing your DNA and looking for 
genes that can lead to cancer or other problems. Accept their data with 
the understanding that nothing in science is absolute and evidence of 
cancer genes does not necessarily mean you will get cancer and a lack of 
cancer genes does not mean you won't get cancer.

There are numerous studies with evolutionary implications going on looking 
at human physiology, anatomy and genetics but again these apply to 
populations. One interesting finding from HIV studies was that one version 
of a particular gene confers resistance to HIV infection. A substantial 
number of Caucasians have this gene. When researchers asked why this gene 
was so prevalent in Caucasians, they found that the percentage of people 
with this gene virtually exploded during the middle ages. Further research 
found that this gene may also confer resistance to plague. So this is 
evidence of human evolution in action - those with the gene were more 
likely to survive and the number of people with that gene survived.

But you can also see the opposite. Looking at humans from the beginning to 
the end of the 20th Century leads to some interesting findings. In the 
United States alone lifespan has increased by 30 years, people have became 
taller, stronger, and heavier. But this was not the result of evolution - 
this is all due to changes in diet and innovations in food preparation, 
hygeine & medicine.

Highly recommended reading: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - 30 years 
old but the theories in it are still sound and they go a long ways towards 
explaining why evolution occurs and how even human behavior can be 
explained by our genes.

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