The Creationist-ist, or; Our Bug-Eyed Descendants

Your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandkids.
Your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandkids.

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.

And God said, Let there be no separation of church and state.
And God said, Let there be no separation of church and state.

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?

Not quite.

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.

Don't worry, this won't be your great-grandchildren's look.
Don’t worry, this won’t be your great-grandchildren’s look.

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?

Nope.

In this case, short tails through selective breeding, not surgery.
In this case, short tails through selective breeding, not surgery.

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).

Is this America's Next Top Model contestant ahead of the evolutionary curve?
Is this America’s Next Top Model contestant ahead of the evolutionary curve?

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 their 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.

 

 

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17 Comments

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  1. Well, at least our future human beings will be a little “cuter” (in the big-puppy-dog-eyes sense).

    While I believe in evolution, I have faith in God. (To me, being all about science is a little depressing–believing in God means there’s hope in the world.) Besides, the whole seven days thing is symbolic. 😉 To me, my religion and science are separate. But at the same time, science adds a lot to my faith. I think God wants us to learn more about our world, and to be more open minded about it. Haha. I’m sure you’re wincing at all my religious discussion now. So I’ll move on. 😛

    That aside, you made a great point about the roaches. You’ve helped me with my never ending work, writing for pest control. (Oh, yes! The wonders of entering a new career.) Really, how would roaches survive for so long without evolution? Why else are they so hard to get rid of? Why else would I be writing so many stinkin’ pages about how to get rid of them?

    Anyway . . . End of comment. Once again, great post!

    • By no means do I think evolutionary science and religious faith mutually exclusive. I see no proof of a creating God, but I also see no proof that there’s NO creating God. I am perfectly willing to contemplate that evolution happens at the pleasure and providence of God, if there is a God. I agree that a symbolic view is a great way to read the biblical creation story (or any creation story). Have you heard of the book “Finding Darwin’s God” by Kenneth Miller? I think you’d really like it.

      That’s funny about the pest control; I know all about finding inspiration for copy wherever you can.

  2. I love having a daughter smarter (maybe not wiser) than I am. Interesting stuff!

  3. Very well-written post.

    Just to get your goat, allow me to make the following observation.

    You use the phrase “the science of evolution”. I would concur that the observable (and testable) reality that “creatures” (if you’ll allow me the expression) have “evolved” (as in, changed over time to adapt to their environment) is a well-founded scientific principle.

    To then project, however, from this meager data that the entire universe (and perhaps many universes beyond what we can even observe) “evolved” from nothingness to the absolutely precise order we rely on to function (and do science) – purely unguided by anything but a vague untestable, unprovable randomness is not science. It is science fiction.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Oh for God’s sake will somebody PLEASE go get my goat back?

      I spent awhile trying to figure this comment out. I guess it’s worth mentioning that the data on the theory of evolution is by no means “meager” or “vague.” But I’m more interested in figuring out whether you’re saying that you concede Earth’s creatures came to their present forms through evolution, but that there’s no such thing as evolution in a cosmic sense, as far as what gives rise to the form and function of the universe.

      This blog post isn’t setting out to say anything about the universe[s] as a whole. Just the prevailing theory of life on Earth. So your projection there is a little confusing. But when I think about it, I’d say I’m perfectly content to say that some unprovable, random process did generate the universe as we know it – and that I certainly don’t know enough to debate its origins.

      But yeah, the science of evolution is totally rad. Thanks for reading.

      • To be more specific, the data on “micro-evolution” (life forms adapting in certain measurable and observable ways) is scientifically significant, as you say. (And yes, I would even say “rad”.)

        The theory of “macro-evolution” (that such adaptation accounts for ‘the origin of the species’ through uninstigated, random emergence) is not scientific, but purely speculatively (belonging to the realm of metaphysics rather than science.)

        I hope to find your goat. Perhaps it has evolved into another life form.

      • In the scientific definitions, micro-evolution explains small, relatively short-term changes within species (the anti-glucose roaches would be an example). Macro-evolution refers to changes on a larger level – i.e., speciation, when one species evolves into another (i.e., hippos and horses have a common evolutionary ancestor but are very separate creatures now). Outside of religious circles, there’s no debate as to whether micro-evolution is true while macro-evolution is fantasy or fiction. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a pretty hot debate among evolutionary scientists about whether macro-evolution can be defined as the cumulative, large-scale effect of micro-evolution, or if there are other factors at work in macro-evolution that mean it’s not merely the sum of micro-evolution.

        While it’s impossible to prove something that hasn’t happened yet, i.e., from our chairs we’re not able to look 5 million years into the future and watch future speciation at work, the theory of macro-evolution is not purely speculative. We can observe it in myriad particular cases in the fossil record, and the science of modern genetics is also opening up new vistas here, as we can observe through DNA how closely living species are related (for example, modern genetics revealing that humans are closer cousins, in an evolutionary sense, to chimpanzees than they are to gorillas by comparing our genomes. Or in another way of putting it, chimps, humans and gorillas all do have a common primate ancestor, but chimps and humans share a primate ancestor that gorillas don’t, because gorillas became a separate branch on the family tree before the human/chimp ancestor evolved on a nearby branch). Since observations of different particular cases in the fossil record and in genetics are consistent with the macro-evolution hypothesis, science has no reason thus far to discard it.

        This doesn’t mean that the scientific community hasn’t updated its notions of macro-evolution from time to time. For example, we used to think of evolution as a simple “tree” pattern with new species branching off further and further from an ancient comment ancestor. But now we can see the tree metaphor doesn’t work so well, because speciation doesn’t just happen through evolutionary changes unique to a given species: it can happen when species hybridize or when genes cross boundaries, as when parasitic or symbiotic organisms evolve in tandem with their hosts (in my mind, one example of this could be the theory that mitochondria, now a vital cellular piece of the body’s energy-producing system, were once a totally separate micro-organism that evolved to become part of the bodies it inhabited. Today, we can track matrilineal inheritance by looking at an organism’s mitochondrial DNA, which is separate from its own DNA, and is passed down only through the mother). Therefore, sometimes the process of evolution is not a discrete genetic step from here to there, but more of a recombination or melding of existing genes. So scientists do stand ready to revise their hypotheses should the evidence suggest it.

        I love this stuff!

      • You clearly have a passion for the subject. Far be it from me to begrudge you of it.

      • Usually my heart is in literature/the arts, but somehow biology got under my skin too.

  4. If I may, selection of species is achieved when the environment favors one rare gene over the other. Mutation is passed on successfully only when required by the nature. Unless nature plays an evil role bringing our current age of well being to a bitter end; we are bound to be what we are now. Evolution looks like it’s ended, at least physically, bringing us where we are now.

    Though never seen before, this type of genetic mutation within us will show its relevance in this new age (of global mixing). A few crooked genes like that of Obesity? cancer? or just a new skin colour….will pass on through next generations like it never had a chance before.

    Mental evolution is the only change that can happen, and is the only one that matters, since we are not going to change now. The foolhardy 46% will make their claims….and no point in trying to prove them wrong…..because they are always right. as in the case of who is Whose father or Whose son….they are always right..they have the right to be right.
    Maybe stubborn people will just start falling dead of their stupidity.

    • I wouldn’t want to say that physical evolution is over for humans. We could never be sure of that. But I do think it’s likely that our evolutionary changes from here on out will be centered more in our brains than our physical appearances, just because we seem so adept at shaping our environments to us rather than adapting to our environments.

      Fortunately I don’t think stupidity (or religiosity, not necessarily synonymous with stupidity) are fatal.

  5. Well, stubborn people certainly don’t fall dead of their stubbornness. But stupidity can occasionally be fatal, in the evolution process..as poetically/humorously seen in the case of the famous flightless bird Dodo.
    As for humans..we are continuously evolving socially, uncurtailing the tabooed and creating a more open society. We are certainly on some uncharted terrritory. And if a giant meteor didn’t sweep the whole race of dinosours, must have been something else. There is no point in not being too careful where you are in a foreign land.

    • Alaina Mabaso July 3, 2013 — 7:38 am

      The death of the Dodo wasn’t evolution any more than the two-pound Chihuahua is evolution: both animals found themselves under the influence of human beings. In the case of the Chihuahua, humans selectively bred it for years until it reached a tiny size, because humans liked the tiny size. In the case of the Dodo, people were hungry and greedy and the Dodos were easy to hunt, and human hunters killed them all off before anyone stopped to think about it. So whose fault is that? Certainly not the Dodo’s.

      As for human society, I am not at all convinced we’re on uncharted ground socially, except for maybe in the case of digital media. I tend to believe that there’s nothing new under the sun as far as human behavior, and we’ve been acting in out in pretty much the same ways for the last several thousand years.

  6. I rest my case .. , but stupidity can still be fatal. And that Bible believers should evolve to accept evolution ……
    And that some myths of Hinduism even explains evolution…not the factual facts but most of what Darwin had to say could be checked in. Due to religious acceptance they apparently don’t seem to doubt the fossil records, Amen.

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