Human culture as forceful agent of human evolution

December 3, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

Learn about the effects of human culture on human evolution in this article at Seed Magazine. Yes, it appears to be a two-way street; biological evolution affects human culture and human culture affects human biological evolution.  This article includes a detailed analysis of an oft-cited example: the spread of genes for lactose tolerance (the ability to digest milk products) in Europe (though not in Asia or Africa).

The take-home argument is that we didn’t stop evolving when mass culture blossomed.  “Culture is not an escape from conditioning environments. It is an environment of a different kind.” In fact, there is new evidence that culture is propelling human evolution at breakneck speed.  According to John Hawks, “Up to 10 percent of the human genome appears to be evolving at the maximum rate, more quickly than ever before in human history.”

Consider, also, this quote from Spencer Wells, director of National Geographic’s Genographic Project:

“The biggest change in our lifestyle as a species has happened in the past 10,000 years,” Wells says. “We spent most of the past million or so years of evolution living as hunter-gatherers, hunting game on the African savannas, or gathering shellfish on the coast, gradually moving out to Eurasia. Then, suddenly, in the past 10,000 years, we become a species that settles down. The diversity of food sources drops precipitously from over 100 in the hunter-gatherer diet to fewer than 10 in the average agricultural diet. And then, of course, you build up the population densities and disease takes off.”

Click here for a previous DI post on this topic (linking to a Scientific American article).

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Category: Cultural Evolution, Culture, Evolution, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, I think the current spurt of human evolution is not spurred by mass culture but, by the seemingly endless sub-cultures which we spin off as our species matures. Inside the sub-cultures, evolution is more rampant (much like finches in the Galapagos) and prevalent. Since these subcultures, unlike the Galapagos finches, are not isolated we find their evolutionary influences on the general population (and culture) immediately. It's a we-wei, push-pull kind of movement.

    The difficulty in our evolutionary development is the immature resistance by mass culture to the contribution and humanity of these various subcultures, hence the recent stupidities in California.

    Other difficulties arise when various subcultures gain certain evolutionary or other advantages, and mass culture resists being bypassed. It is in these situations we find the most drastic change, sometimes revolution. When a portion of the population has some evolutionary or other advantage, others expect to participate and frequently cannot. We were taught that mass change does not come about when a population is suppressed but when there are rising unmet expectations, it was called the "Davies 'J' Curve."

    It will be most interesting for our next several generations to see whether we bollix the possibilities of our rapid evolutionary development.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: One of the points of the linked article is that biological evolution is way behind the rapidly changing cultural environment. WAY behind.

    We seem to be beasts that a mismatched with our environment, and they seems to be a major source of our rampant societal dysfunction.

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