08 August 2007

Why Steve Jones has his fingers crossed

“Of course what’s happened is there’s been an enormous amount of evolution in the general sense since the earliest modern humans, but it hasn’t been biological evolution; it’s been social and cultural evolution. We’re the creature that’s evolved not in our genes but in our mind, and I think that’s what makes us genuinely unique. We do of course share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, everybody knows that, but we’re not 98.8% chimp, we’re 100% human.”

– Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, University College London, in a ‘Truth Will Out’ (an Open University & BBC project) interview.

Like most evolutionary biologists and geneticists, Professor Steve Jones is an avid follower of Charles Darwin. In 1999, Prof Jones had written a book called ‘Almost Like A Whale’ (released in the US, a little too literally perhaps, as ‘Darwin’s Ghost’), where he had explained various Darwinian concepts on evolution. Naturally, ‘natural selection’ had taken center-stage in his book… as, I guess, Darwin would have expected.

In ‘Almost Like A Whale’, Prof Jones had actually taken chunks of text and examples from Darwin’s own seminal work, ‘The Origin of Species’ (perhaps that explains the US desire for naturally selecting their title), mixing them up with his own writing and modern-day examples of evolution and technology. In doing so, Prof Jones had accepted a lot of criticism from his detractors, but for a layman like me, who hadn’t read Darwin’s original work, ‘Almost Like A Whale’ made the theory of evolution more interesting.

However, what’s important about Prof Steve Jones is his strong stand against the ‘creationists’ of Christian faith (he had once given a no-nonsense presentation on ‘why creationism is wrong and evolution is right’ at The Royal Society of Edinburgh) and his belief that human evolution, from the perspective of genetic improvement through natural selection in the developed world, may have come to an end… or is, at least, slowing down. Is this good or bad? What does it mean?

Here’s what Prof Jones says in the same ‘Truth Will Out’ interview I quoted from earlier:

“All animals to some extent construct their environment, in that they choose to live where they feel comfortable. However, we can do it much better than anything else because we can alter the environment so we’re comfortable in all kinds of places. By virtue of that we’ve managed, at least in the developed world, to put to one side the challenges which most animals have to face. Many of us now live to the end of our biological lives, as long as we possibly could live, and that’s really very rare. I do think though there’s a severe danger of optimism. We are living absolutely on a knife edge – we can be comfortable for a long time, but it’s a very risky thing to be.

I mean, everybody’s heard about the AIDS epidemic and it’s probably more severe than most people realise, it’s really a large part of the human species is now going through the testing fire of natural selection, a Darwinian crucible. People are becoming infected with this illness, some of them have genes which render them able to deal with it, some can’t, those with the appropriate genes will pass them on, and that’s very much evolution by natural selection. Now, in the West we’re persuading ourselves that that’s not going to happen to us. I’m afraid I’m less optimistic, it may not be the AIDS virus because we understand that, but it may be something else. So when I say that evolution has stopped, I have my fingers crossed. It’s stopped for now.”

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