Op-Ed: Are Humans Evolving? The question is back, with new answers

Posted May 28, 2019 by Paul Wallis
The "Are humans evolving" question is one of those academic flower arrangements. Everybody takes a position, and not much real thinking happens. The relatively new science of genetics is throwing a lot of very large spanners into those positions.
Yamaha Motors has revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show 2015 a robot designed to ride any racing motorbik...
Yamaha Motors has revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show 2015 a robot designed to ride any racing motorbike at high speeds.
© Yamaha Motors
Gizmodo took upon itself the thankless task of introducing the subject, and it’s well worth exploring. Some lucky soul at Gizmodo was given a few hundred words to work with, and made an effort. The subject, of course, goes a lot deeper than that.
Standard evolutionary theories
The standard theories of human evolution cover everything from eugenics to creationism to post-human hybridisation with machines and even uploading human beings into an eternal Internet. The facts are likely to be very different. In practice, human evolution is almost entirely adaptive. Even walking on two legs is still a work in progress. Two legs provided more mobility, but also had to deal with the existing anatomical structure, and that process is still under way.
Human evolution in the form of Homo Sapiens is the result of a long, confused, series of digressions in many different directions. The fact that Homo Sapiens is still around at all could be considered to be a minor miracle. According to some theories, at one stage there were only a few human beings left following a series of cataclysmic events. This means that the evolutionary base was actually pretty low, for modern humans. The humanity you see now is what these survivors produced.
All humans are said to be descended from one specific female and one specific male, who happened to live thousands of years apart from each other. Human evolution, therefore, can be said to be a mix of luck, refining processes, and defining incidents.
The fact is that the human environment has now changed so much that evolution is very much a blank slate with a lot of new factors:
The ability to modify genetic structures, using the very controversial and inheritable CRISPR gene modification technique is a game changer of itself. Inheritable genes could mean that modifications generate additional evolutionary forces of themselves, for example.
Gene modification brings with it the risk of deliberately modified humans, the epitome of eugenics, breeding "supermen", whether anyone likes it or not. There is a very good chance that nobody but the supermen will like it, another great basis for humanity’s long war with itself.
Just to make life a little bit more interesting, the necessity to modify human beings to deal with major environmental problems may also arise. That is likely to be one of the most bitterly fought debates in human history, and the outcome is far from certain.
The very different modern physical environment, including much closer and much bigger, more crowded human populations, is also likely to have an impact in crowded conditions where populations are extremely highly stressed. The adaptive evolution of a more stress-resistant type of human is a working possibility, although many would say it is also the result of human lousy planning on a colossal scale.
There is also a wild card in this picture – Humans are a generalist species. They are not particularly specialised. This is the least partly due to humans being omnivorous, highly mobile, and able to live in many different types of environment. Most other creatures are pretty much environment-specific and adapted accordingly.
The question Are Humans Evolving has always been in some ways totally absurd; now it doesn't even have the luxury of being rhetorical. Human evolution is visible, constant, and above all, unpredictable. Every generation includes inherited and hybridised heritages.
Artificial evolution
Let's leave out the easy argument of not playing God for a minute – The underlying question is exactly what we do we intend to do about evolution? In theory, it is possible to use genetics to wipe out diseases, improve health, improved lifespan and quality of life.
In practice, the demand for artificial evolution may also include a demand for survival in response to real dangers. What if it is necessary to use genetic technology to provide something like heat resistance, toxicity resistance, better water metabolism, or some other environmental adaption?
Artificial evolution may have to happen, despite any number of reservations and ethical doubts. Humanity may not have the luxury of choosing. The tired old theories and constipated ideological platforms of the past have no chance of survival.
It will no longer be good enough for some tedious academic hack to promote the idea of evolution with the outcome being more tedious academic hacks. Genes don't have races; they have DNA configurations.
Some of the most hideous diseases in the world are genetically based, so artificial evolution does make sense in many ways in relation to health, which just also happens to be a basic survival principle.
The "theory of evolution" isn't so much a theory these days, as a recognition of the fact of evolution. With that recognition has come another recognition – The realisation that evolution is unbelievably complex, tricky, and extremely demanding as a science. The next time somebody asks you "Are humans evolving", the simplest answer will be "They've never done anything else."