We as a species are one of the most caring animals on the planet. Like most primates we look after our young, teach them life skills and protect and care for them. But we don’t just stop there, we keep going right into a child’s adulthood, and caring for them even after then. We not only look after our young, our altruistic behaviour makes us look after other people, who we may not even know. This is demonstrated in our giving to charity, helping others in trouble and the fact that we have a society. If we didn’t respect each other, our society and civilisation would soon crumble. This altruistic behaviour is to be admired, for as a species it allows us to develop and grow into the species we are. It has given rise to medicine, it has generated industry and created welfare systems. Altruism and a caring attitude is absolutely necessary for our existence. But has our caring, medicine and humanitarian attitude caused our existence to change, and change the face of our evolution. Is our love changing the power of survival of the fittest on us?
Evolution, using the tool of natural selection with the template of survival of the fittest, has given rise to many wonderful and exotic animals, plants and fungi. It has also evolved ourselves. Evolution was the “hand” that sculpted the human race, and those that were not suitable for the job of surviving in the harsh world, then they were soon snuffed out, and their genes lost. Evolution is a powerful force that pushes a species into a more adapted and equipped species. But has our invention of homes, medicine and health care stopped the force of evolution.
The answer is no. The human race continues to evolve. But our evolution may now not be about the survival of the ‘fittest‘ anymore. Going back just over 100 years ago life expectancy was much lower, with 45 being a good innings for men. And in addition to that child mortality rates were much higher, with 140 births in every 1000 dying in 1990 in the UK. These figures are drastically different today with less that 6 deaths in every 1000 of births. But this has an impact on todays society and health.
Going back those few hundred years ago, life was much harder. Coal mining, hard labouring and physically demanding work was the common job. In addition medicine and health care was barely leaving the nest, and was not quite up to the modern flight of todays health systems. So in the pre 1900, life was much harder than it is today,a nd the general life expectancy wasn’t as good. But at the same time, tragically, the sick, weak and genetically ill would not live very long, and as a direct result their genes would not be spread back into the gene pool. This process of natural selection, where the ill, infirm and genetically ill are removed due to their inability to cope.
One simple example is this, asthma. If in the prehistoric world you had asthma, you would not live very long for many obvious and simple reasons. The first being you probably wouldn’t live past childhood, as an asthmatic fit would take your life, as there were no inhalators or any other medical aids. Further still, assuming an asthmatic survived just into adulthood, then they wouldn’t be able to outrun a predator, or effectively chase prey. This system of natural selection was still going on into the early 1900. SInce there was no medical care, or any form of true knowledge regarding health at that time, asthmatics, disabled, psychologically ill and all manners of illness would of snuffed those individuals who were physically not strong enough to survive.
Since then however, people with conditions, such as those mentioned above, have thankfully been kept alive and safe by modern civilisation and the wonders of modern science and medicine. This does mean though, that the force of natural selection via the survival of the fittest does not truly affect the human species, in this somewhat classical sense regarding physical fitness. Since people with a genetic tendency to asthma, mental illness and genes with genetic illnesses like Huntington’s disease are living longer, and are able to live a complete and fulfilling life, they are able to pass on their genes which create weaker lungs, psychological illness, or any other myriad of genetic or physically related illness. This means that the gene pool which was once being narrowed to genes which were strong and resilient to these affectations of the body(loosely speaking, and ignoring mutations), are being mixed with other genes which can lead to a tendency to develop these illness.
So it would seem that slowly, since our sexual selection doesn’t account for illnesses like asthma, we slowly breed into the gene pool genes which carry a trait which is not physically productive. So it would seem that as a species we are breeding children and future generations to carry genes which can cause all manner of genetic based illness, and also create children which may have a lower resilience to external illnesses like Flu or the common cold. This isn’t a an oversight either.
We have domesticated animals, to go with our personal domestication. In this process we see animals which are themselves becoming more sickly due to our breeding strategies and our personal selective pressures, like fur colour, texture or muscle quality. We as a people when breeding animals, like cows or sheep, don’t care for the health or longevity of an animal, purely its aesthetics, like wool or milk production. But as a result we are breeding into their species genes which cause heart defects, bone problems, circulatory issues and a whole textbook of other hereditary issues, not to mention weakened immune systems. We see this most commonly in the domestic dog.
Many dogs are so over bred now, looking for the perfect snout or ears, that many now suffer particularly nasty illnesses. One instance of this is with breathing issues in Pugs, Boxer dogs and other stout nosed dogs. Wolves, their closest ancestor, do not have this problem. This is the same for hip displasia, ocular issues, skin conditions and bone issues, the most common being arthritis. None of these are found in abundance in the life of wild wolves. The reason is that those with the illnesses soon die before being able to breed. However with dogs, they breed to our command, and live long enough to breed thanks to veterinary science. This same thing is happening to humans. Since the 1900 the causes of death by cancer have tripled in the UK alone. Asthma and issues regarding respiration have increased as well.
Now this isn’t all linked to genetics, and natural selection being thrown out of the window. Some is linked to the lives we lead, with people driving instead of walking. More pollution. However, considering the smog of the 1800’s in London, our air is a bit greener than then. But a large portion of illnesses are related to genetic issues, which can only be passed on by the parents giving those genes which are more susceptible, or are responsible for those illnesses. But is our breeding changing our evolution in a different way, instead of the physical world of heart and respiratory conditions, but in the evolution of our minds. Again i think yes. I think we are selecting as a species more intelligent people. We as a people are getting smarter, and much better at innovating and designing. So it seems that physical pressures of natural selection, are shifting to psychological pressures of natural selection.
So what is happening is that what was once necessary in natural selection for humans, our ability to run fast from predators or for prey, is now being converted in to our psychological needs, to develop machines to do the running for us. Our evolutionary pressures are changing, and as a result our evolution is falling on another track, to develop us more psychologically, but also more socially and domestically. Animals have evolved in the wild to cope with predators, and to hunt prey (even if berries). But under domestication, dogs and cats have been able to live longer lives, but are living more relaxed lives, and their evolution is being dictated by us, for our needs of an animal which can hunt, herd or just be a lap dog. This as a result can lead to defective genes. Just is the same with humans. We are breeding ourselves to be more a relaxed people, who are more intellectual, forward thinking and socially inclined. This means the strains of the natural world are shirked off, as medicine is able to do that for us. The physical world is cared for by our governments, our homes, or councils and our health service. We can be more focused on the mind.
I also want to note now, since i am getting close to the end of this post, that at no point do I want people to now shun the ill or infirm. This is not what this post is about. I do not care about eugenics, or breeding a race of fit and intelligent people. If you haven’t worked out from previous posts I’m a humanitarian, and all people deserve the right to life, and all should be treated equal. What this post is about is showing that evolution doesn’t have to be just a physical thing, it is a mental thing as well. And that evolution has selected our bodies, but we are now selecting (which is still evolutionary sexual selection) minds that are capable of fuelling a modern world. So we no longer are prey to the pangs of the world, like drought disease and famine, as man has mastered these things, to stop those physical afflictions happening.
The future of humanity may be potentially a body which is susceptible to illness, but evolution will kick into check those illnesses which do have a huge power on us. This is shown in Africa where certain people are immune to AIDS. Evolution has found an answer for a severe issue. So Nature is still working for us, even if it looks like we are creating a race of sicker people. Medicine, natural selection and survival of the fittest will reign supreme in our existence. So we can get on to work with our lives, safe in the knowledge that medicine will help the short term suffering of asthma, and natural selection will work out the cure. Survival of the fittest, in the sense of the strongest and most “fit,” may not be a driving force. But the fittest mentally, and the fittest regarding health, will be selected for. And as Darwin said, life has been, and is being, evolved.
P.S. The difficulty in trying to find a good photo for this post wasn’t easy.