Human Population Growth is Accelerating Species Change. “We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals.” John Hawks, University of Wisconsin anthropologist.
In a fascinating discovery that counters a common theory that human evolution has slowed to a crawl or even stopped in modern humans, a study examining data from an international genomics project describes the past 40,000 years as a time of supercharged evolutionary change, driven by exponential population growth and cultural shifts.
Thanks to stunning advances in sequencing and deciphering DNA in recent years, scientists had begun uncovering, one by one, genes that boost evolutionary fitness. These variants, which emerged after the Stone Age, seemed to help populations better combat infectious organisms, survive frigid temperatures, or otherwise adapt to local conditions.
The findings may lead to a very broad rethinking of human evolution, especially in the view that modern culture has essentially relaxed the need for physical genetic changes in humans to improve survival.
A team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks estimated that positive selection just in the past 5,000 years alone — dating back to the Stone Age — has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period of human evolution. Many of the new genetic adjustments are occurring around changes in the human diet brought on by the advent of agriculture, and resistance to epidemic diseases that became major killers after the growth of human civilizations.
“In evolutionary terms, cultures that grow slowly are at a disadvantage, but the massive growth of human populations has led to far more genetic mutations,” says Hawks. “And every mutation that is advantageous to people has a chance of being selected and driven toward fixation. What we are catching is an exceptional time.”
While the correlation between population size and natural selection is nothing new — it was a core premise of Charles Darwin, Hawks says — the ability to bring quantifiable evidence to the table is a new and exciting outgrowth of the Human Genome Project.
In the hunt for recent genetic variation in the genome map the project has cataloged the individual differences in DNA called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). The project has mapped roughly 4 million of the estimated 10 million SNPs in the human genome.
John Hawks’ studies include trying to make sense of genetic fragments from different populations, and anthropological bone and tooth specimens, to show how humans have evolved during the past 30,000 years. And he attempts to integrate that knowledge with data from archeology and the historical record. Hawks’ research focuses on a phenomenon called linkage disequilibrium (LD). These are places on the genome where genetic variations are occurring more often than can be accounted for by chance, usually because these changes are affording some kind of selection advantage.
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