Questioning evolution

July 4, 2011 at 8:25 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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At the recent, and rather good, Science World exhibition at the Magna Centre in Rotherham I had the pleasure of watching Professor Richard Dawkins deliver a talk on the importance of evolution in modern medicine. He was to touch on why the intertwined evolution of pathogen and host should be considered more closely in the medical practices of today. A topic that was in its own right interesting enough to draw a crowd – but that was only half the story behind the massive attendance that day.

For it was Dawkins himself that people wanted to see – a modern day, bona fide science superstar. Something that was brought into sharp focus when a reverential silence fell over the crowd as he took to the podium, lingering as we hung on each of Dawkins’ softly spoken words. His ideas were as always enlightening and exciting, and true to form whilst fielding questions he didn’t miss a beat – nothing wrong footed him, except for one question which was met with a perceptible pause.

“Do you think medical advances will in effect stop human evolution?” Asked the crowd member.

A question that could have neatly turned the discussion towards the future of human evolution, yet with Dawkins’ momentary pause and rather abridged answer he seemed to sidestep this. Followers of Dawkins will perhaps be unsurprised by this – he has been quoted as saying this is the topic that he is most often asked about, and “a question that any prudent evolutionist will evade.”

In The Evolutionary Future of Man he says: “The likelihood is that, in 100,000 years time, we shall either have reverted to wild barbarism, or else civilisation will have advanced beyond all recognition–into colonies in outer space, for instance. In either case, evolutionary extrapolations from present conditions are likely to be highly misleading.”

But the question is being raised ever more frequently as researchers and thinkers contemplate our future. Indeed there are many varied and wonderful predictions about what the evolutionary clock will dial up for our species in the future. Yet, in order to predict where we are going – we must understand where we have come from.

Many will subscribe to the idea of early humans – even pre-humans – conforming to the majestic hunter-gatherer form, yet on p24 Professor Brian J Ford suggests that it was, in fact, an existence as scavengers that shaped us as a species.

It is most certainly an interesting thought – notions of identity pervade human society in an incalculable number of ways, would they be changed if we thought that the heroic predator at our evolutionary heart was misplaced? The inherent machismo of our species would surely take a knock. Great sporting events that have developed out of homage to our perceived evolutionary origins (man as strong and fast – the classic hunter) would perhaps seem like overcompensation for a species with origins as bipedal vultures rather than all conquering predators.

There is also one more surprise in Ford’s theory – something that may surprise the dog lovers amongst you…

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