Geneticist: It's time we stopped human evolution

People trust Mother Nature to keep us healthy, forgetting that evolution is brutal and uncaring.

human evolution
Dave Einsel/Getty Images

Measles cases in the U.S. have hit a 25-year high, with 78 new infections in the past week alone. In a sign of the times, a cruise ship with hundreds of Scientologists on board was quarantined in St. Lucia after one passenger was diagnosed with the disease. It's the sort of news you can expect when parents stop vaccinating their children, which many did from the 1990s onward for fear that scientists were foisting remedies on them that were more dangerous than the diseases themselves.

As society has become ever more convenient, hygienic and wrapped in cling film, many hark back with dewy eyes to the natural and supposedly wholesome lifestyles of our ancestors in pre-industrial times. Besides the fear around vaccines, growing numbers of people put their faith in the organic movement, the anti-GM lobby and New Age philosophies. They have increasingly rejected the ability of science to improve our lives, placing an almost religious trust in the benevolence of Mother Nature instead.

Coupled with this is a very positive view of evolution. It is seen as a caring and compassionate force which has shaped us and the rest of the natural world. It almost seems that there is the growing belief that if natural evolution were left to its own devices, then everything would work out for the best.

But this idea of evolution as benign is extraordinarily wide of the mark. Evolution is a brutal and uncaring, even obscene opponent, which the medical world is constantly trying to outmanoeuvre and overcome. Perhaps because of the brilliance of Charles Darwin's theory, evolution has been getting an easy ride for far too long. It's time we started facing the truth about what it really means — before it eats any more of our children.

Evolution unmasked

Evolution stems from the inability of any organism to always hand down a perfect copy of its DNA to the next generation. For this we can thank factors such as the fallibility of the machinery in living organisms that copies DNA; and the basic instability of DNA when exposed to certain chemicals or types of radiation that have always existed in our environment. It means that nobody has ever inherited a perfect copy of their parents' DNA. Indeed, one of the reasons we have two parents is to ensure that, if one copy of our genes going wonky, we have a second back-up gene to cover.

When our DNA mutates, natural selection steps in — and this is where things get really ugly. Natural selection is the process through which the mutations in a species which are "best suited" to their environment thrive, while "less suitable" ones die off. It has dictated everything we see around us, from the length of giraffes' necks to the shape of sharks' fins.

In the past, our ancestors were subjected to full-strength, undiluted, CFC-free, pure-organic, additive-free natural selection. The biggest recipients were young children, for which evolution had the greatest appetite of all. Those with the least useful mutations could look forward to a horrific death by starvation, predators, cannibalism, disease, drought, flash floods, drowning and much more besides. During an average 30 to 40 year human life span, mothers would produce eight to 10 children only to see four to five of them die before reaching the age where they might pass their genes to the next generation.

This was evolution writ large: the inexorable cruel erosion of the vast majority of individuals, who had one set of genes, in favor of the tiny lucky minority who had the genetic ability to survive until they could perpetuate this cruel cycle. By running that little bit faster than their brother or sister, the genetic winners avoided getting ripped apart by a pack of hungry wolves. While they clung to life in times of famine or disease, they watched their siblings fade and die. If we believe the human diversity data, we are a species which was reduced to only around 600 individuals over 100,000 years ago. This is the reality of where we came from, of how "Mother Nature" shaped us as individuals.

Unfortunately, of course, humans are still evolving today. People are still dying from disease and starving from deprivations perpetrated by unequal societies and a lack of access to food and medicine. We remain at the mercy of natural selection, the least moral way for a species to develop. And for the majority of us who deplore cruelty and feel compassion for our fellow man, woman and child, I would argue it creates a moral obligation: to aggressively stop evolution of the human species as a matter of urgency.

The only way to do this is to embrace the results of scientific enquiry. Our greatest achievement as a species has been to break free from the sheer naked ferocity of evolution. It means we need GM food to avoid starvation. We need additives to ensure that the food we grow can be safely consumed before it spoils — an important consideration for an increasing population. And most importantly of all, we need vaccines to prevent disease. We must never again expose our children to the wholesome, fully organic, unblemished and obscene fury of Mother Nature unleashed. Love science, hate evolution. Coming to a car bumper sticker near you soon, I hope.

Alasdair Mackenzie, Reader, Molecular Genetics, University of Aberdeen

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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