Wowee, did you hear that in 100,000 years, we’re all going to have eyes the size of $6 gobstobbers?
I know, I know, as fast as these sensational pictures shot around the internet, the scientific intelligentsia of the world rained on our human evolution parade by pointing out that the pictures are mere conjectures, and fairly outrageous ones at that.
The news broke with a worldwide leader in cutting-edge scientific discourse: a webpage called “What’s Hot” on the “money saving magazine from MyVoucherCodes.co.uk.”
A contributor named Nickolay Lamm apparently teamed with Alan Kwan of Washington University, who used his PhD in Computational Genomics to predict the future of the human species.
Since then, everyone’s been pretending they know what the hell Computational Genomics is. And even worse, they’re showing once again that most of us have only the barest grasp of how evolution actually works.
For a long time I’ve secretly known that I’m a Creationist-ist. That is to say, I harbor shameful, untoward prejudice against people who deny the science of evolution. Because trust me, that debate is over—unless you’re one of the 46% of Americans who, according to a 2012 poll, ignore the fossil record and claim the earth was created in one week a couple thousand years ago.
I’m not sure why it’s such a touchy subject for me. Maybe it’s like hearing that someone hates your favorite food (“What? How could you not like blueberry sorbet?!”). Maybe my work as a journalist has made me too much of a slave to the facts. Maybe it’s my long-term discomfort with organized religion, especially when it tries to boss the public school science curriculum around.
This whole huge-eyeball thing reminded me of a conversation I had a few years back with a guy who claimed that in a few hundred years, we’d all have these really long, skinny, agile thumbs from generations of constant texting.
Because spending so much time texting will change the human hand eventually, right?
Kwan and Lamm seem a little unsure on the details of just what they’ve produced. Is it a predictor of evolution, or of advanced genetic engineering?
First, Kwan says the picture is a conjecture based on “zygotic genome engineering technology.”
But then, Kwan goes on to write as if he thinks these changes will occur through evolution, in a sort of space-age adaptive phase:
“Evolution in space is only beginning to be explored today,” Kwan writes. But his “guess” is that thousands of years of life in space colonies will “select for” features like large eyes (because space colonies are dark), darker skin (to protect against UV radiation outside Earth’s atmosphere) and “thicker eyelids or a more pronounced superciliary arch” (to help us maintain good vision in low or zero gravity).
Then he predicts that a “reintroduced plica semilunaris” would make us blink sideways instead of up and down, to shield us from “cosmic ray effects.”
Not unlike my friend who thought cell phones will give us new thumbs, Kwan also theorizes that the human head will grow larger over the generations because our “understanding of the universe” will increase. Because of the “rule of viable human biology,” we’re not talking bulbous alien heads with tiny faces. But in just 20,000 years, apparently we can expect to have slightly larger foreheads than we do today.
So what’s going on in this scenario? Bio-engineered space babies? Or Survival of the Fittest, extra-terrestrial edition?
Even if Kwan isn’t confused, I think most of his readers are. They think evolution is sort of like the marinade of life: put an organism in a certain situation for long enough, and its descendants will adapt to that situation. Wear communication lenses right on your eyeballs for enough generations, and eventually we’ll grow bigger eyes.
Like my mom asked about her Spanish Water Dog puppies, who naturally have a shorter tail than their Portuguese Water Dog brethren: if you cut a certain dog breed’s tail short for many generations, will puppies of that breed be born with shorter tails over time?
As far as we know, natural evolutionary changes (i.e., not changes of human-led selective breeding) begin with a totally random mutation of DNA. A few members of any given species might have a tiny variation in their genes that gives them an edge over others. If their success means that they can produce more offspring than an animal without that mutation does, and they pass that mutation on to their offspring, then over millions of years, that means a species gradually inherits new characteristics, as offspring with the helpful mutation begin to outnumber those without it.
So the question of whether or not any genetic characteristic contributes to a species’ evolution is pretty simple: does it give the individual a reproductive advantage?
If Kwan’s googly-eyed population were to emerge through natural selection, that would mean people who happen to have large eyes would have an advantage over people who had normal-sized eyes. Specifically, people with large eyes, on average, would tend to make more babies than people with normal eyes (maybe Big Eyes is more attractive to the opposite sex; maybe his eyes improve vision and help him avoid fatal accidents that plague normal-eyed people before they can manage to reproduce).
Eventually, there would be more people in the gene pool with the big-eyes gene than people without. And our species as a whole would have changed.
Not all evolution takes millions of years. Evolution is happening all the time, right under our infected sinuses – you’re seeing it written on the bottle of antibiotics your doctor prescribes for your stuffy nose: take the entire dose, even if you feel better before the pills are gone.
That’s because bacteria are tricky little suckers. If you don’t finish the pills, you might leave a couple of the bacteria alive, and guess what—they’re just the bacteria that you don’t want. That’s right: when they survive to reproduce, instead of the bacteria killed off easily by the antibiotic, hey presto! A whole new generation of germs that’s less susceptible to the medicine. Ever since we discovered Penicillin, we’ve been racing bacteria at breakneck speed. Ever hear of MRSA? It’s evolution in action.
Another example of quick evolution has been in the news recently. Did you hear about the roaches who used to like sweets, and now…not so much?
A study of roaches in the US and Puerto Rico discovered that our trustiest roach baits aren’t working very well anymore. Like us, roaches love them some glucose, and for years, sweet poison bait hidden in cheap glucose killed roaches off like clockwork, because the bugs couldn’t resist that sweet flavor.
But not anymore.
An entomologist at North Carolina State University discovered that a previously uncommon genetic mutation in roaches, altering the insects’ neural pathway for tasting so that glucose tastes bitter, had become much more common in several sampled roach populations.
That’s because over the years, the roaches who loved glucose died off from the poison baits, while those who avoided the glucose baits, because of the genetic mutation that made glucose taste bitter to them, survived to breed more glucose-shunning roaches.
It’s not a matter of baby roaches imitating their parents, or roaches just learning over the years, as a species, to avoid glucose baits. The species is changing because its environment now favors one previously rare gene over the other, and that gene is reproduced in a greater and greater number of roach babies.
Who knows – one day perhaps we’ll have to bait the roaches with something bitter—provided we can’t just figure out how to get along.
Just like I need to get along with the creationists.
There are a thousand ways to approach discussions of evolution and we’re learning new things all the time (like, holy shit, apparently your ancestors’ experiences affect the expression of genes in your brain that govern emotions and behavior). And if you’re an Actual Scientist, feel free to take me to school if I’ve got it all wrong.
But next time some weird notion of the future of the human race goes viral, maybe we can take a deep breath and sprinkle a little science on it.