Is technology steering human evolution?

31 March 2014

Question

"will we get thicker bones and tooth enamel to deal with longer lifespan? Will we have longer and more muscular index fingers to cope with touch screens and computer mouses?"

Answer

Hannah - So, are our modern lifestyles directing the way us humans evolve? Over to Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution at Cambridge University. Robert - Evolutionary changes usually occurs through small genetic shifts which are then selected for and spread through a population. For humans to evolve significantly in a new direction will take immense selective pressures. selection like this, fingers coping with touchscreens is unlikely to be really very strong and certainly, unlikely to be strong enough to spread through such a large population of the human.

Hannah - Still concerned about the speed of natural selection and my digits, I dial up John Armour, Professor of Human Genetics at Nottingham University.

John - Spreading genes by natural selection is incredibly slow. It's a generation by generation process, but it's effective. Humans, because we have ideas and communication, we can spread ideas and technologies and tricks if you like much, much faster than we can spread genes. Of course, we can spread ideas to people we're not related to, where genes by natural selection can only be pass on to descendants. So, I think the answer is that engineering at the market will fix a new touchscreen tablet is easier for human beings as opposed to human beings evolving to adapt to the touchscreen pad.

Hannah - And on Facebook, Gerald McMullen comments that technology changes too fast and natural selection too slowly to make any advantage apparent. Back to Robert Foley for this word of caution.

Robert - Having said that, there are possible ways in which things will change as we use computers more and more. It may not affect our muscular physiology or skeletal biology of humans, but it could well affect the way our brains are wired, particularly as these are often developed interactively with the environment in which we grow and develop.

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