Is evolution over? – it is now…

Friday December 11th: The BRLSI’s year-long Darwin and Beyond programme began last December with 2008′s Victor Suchar Christmas Lecture, Prof Brian Charlesworth FRS on the Causes of Evolution. Fittingly, it ended* with 2009′s Suchar Lecture, as eminent geneticist, journalist andf TV presenter Prof Steve Jones (pictured right) of University College London, posed the rather apt question Is Evolution Over?
The biggest audience the BRLSI has ever seen (filling the Elwin room plus overspills in the Murch, Duncan and Lonsdale rooms) heard Prof Jones say that human evolution is, indeed, over – at least in the form that Darwin understood it, and our recent ancestors practised it.
After a primer on natural selection (white skin was selected, fairly recently, as a way of getting even a half-sufficient amount of vitamin D from sunlight at non-tropical latitudes), he described how modern human behavioural patterns, from relatively brief periods of parenthood to the invention of medicine and the bicycle, have conspired to negate three driving forces of evolution: mutation, selection, and (perhaps surprisingly) the survival of variation due to inbreeding in small populations.
With older dominant males (the most prolific suppliers of mutated genes) no longer topping the paternity tables, medical science and improved living conditions reducing infant mortaility (here at least) from nearly 50% in Darwin’s time to less than 1% today, and people no longer obliged to find a partner in the same village (often with the same surname), newly-evolved characteristics are fewer, and even when advantageous don’t get ‘selected’ by the death of others, and are getting lost in homogenised wide-area gene pools instead of taking root in local ones.
Along the way there were plenty of the Professor’s trademark humorous observations (Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, rated Australians just above dogs in a table of racial ability), and striking facts (17% of men in Galway still carry the Y chromosome of King Niall of the Nine Hostages). It’s Prof Jones’ particular skill to make quite complex science seem accessible while he’s talking about it, and if some of the arguments didn’t, perhaps, seem quite so straightforward once he’d finished, it didn’t detract from what had undoubtedly been a stimulating and informative lecture. Most importantly, the audience loved it. It had been a fitting climax to an astonishingly successful year.
* Tonight wasn’t quite the end of Darwin and Beyond, as the series will have two reprises in 2010, both from the Philosophy Group. On Tuesday 5th January the group will show the film Darwinian Reverie (in French with English subtitles) introduced by its maker, Olivier Pagini, and on Tuesday May 4th Dr Tim Lewens of Cambridge University will speak on Darwin and Philosophy, in a lecture postponed from last September.