Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Post From The Past; Let's Mutate!

Don't worry; I'm still writing new posts, it's just that my meticulousness and my many non-blogging endeavors prevent me from going very fast. Long ago (in early 2006), I planned on posting this some time.
` The time is now! Only, it isn't my original work; it's a piece by Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope from Oct 11, 1991. It still fits my cause of clearing up people's misperceptions about science...

Dear Cecil:

Are human beings still evolving? Or are we devolving? Are our genes, when passed on to our kids, copied faithfully like a digital recording? Or is the process more like a photocopy of a photocopy, deteriorating more and more with each generation? I hope it's not the latter, because if the results are anything like those from the self-serve copy place down the street, we're in big trouble. -- David Westwood, Santa Monica, California

Cecil replies:

David, it's obvious you not only slept through Intro to Biology, you were a little groggy during a couple key college bull sessions, too. We covered this topic a little after 2 AM the second month of freshman year. The prevailing view was that humans weren't evolving, because what with the welfare state and the miracle of modern medicine and all, natural selection (i.e., survival of the fittest) had ceased to operate.

Nonsense, I argued (correctly, of course, because even then I could see I was never wrong)--natural selection by definition is always at work. If nobody dies before reaching reproductive age, well, that merely meant that everybody got naturally selected.
` You don't get it, said my opponents. If there aren't any differences in mortality among genotypes (isn't it great the way I sling these words around like you know what I'm talking about?), that means the gene pool is static and we aren't evolving.
` Sure we are, sez I. The fundamental question isn't whether people die young, it's whether they fail to reproduce, or reproduce less abundantly than others. On this basis we can say that the genes for the following physical types or traits are slowly disappearing from the population:

(1) People so lacking in sex appeal that nobody could stand to get close enough for long enough to beget children with them. We may thus anticipate that in the distant future people will be extremely good looking and sociable, but nobody will know how to operate the computers.

(2) Yuppieness, since yuppies typically have fewer children later than other population groups. The people of the future, in all likelihood, will drink Bud, eat jalapenos, and believe that Cleopatra was ... well, let's not get into it. But you won't have your parking space stolen by some sphincter in a Beamer, either.

(3) Certain other well known spiritual and physical callings, shall we say. You know who you are.
` OK, so maybe Cecil is kidding around a little. We can't assume any of the alleged traits above have a genetic basis. What's more, widespread interbreeding among population groups has a leveling effect.
` You generally only see noticeable changes when a group is reproductively isolated and key genes get passed around by inbreeding, as with sickle-cell anemia in blacks and Tay-Sachs disease in Jews.
` But you get the idea: as long as some folks reproduce more than others for reasons related however tenuously to their genes, the gene pool isn't completely static.
` As for whether our genes are accurately reproduced, you silly goose, the genes always accurately reproduce.
` Except sometimes.
` On the latter occasions one of several things results: one, monsters-- that is, grossly malformed babies resulting from a genetic mistake. Years ago most monsters died, but now many can be saved. This has made possible the National Football League.
` Two, useful mutations increasing one's chances of reproductive success. Think of the first little mutant to discover he could comb his hair in a ducktail. Or, to bring up a more sober possibility, the first to become resistant to AIDS.
` Three, maladaptive but not immediately fatal mutations, such as those causing certain diseases.

So yes, we're still evolving. But not very quickly. Most students of the subject say we haven't changed much in the past 30-50,000 years, except that we're now willing to eat head cheese. As for that sci-fi stuff about evolving giant brains ... well, modesty prevents me from saying much about it. But it sure does make it a bitch to buy hats. --CECIL ADAMS

` I could add; evolution is also difficult for humans because our gene pool is so small to begin with - much smaller than that of our closest relatives!
` Of course, I don't expect that sexually unattractive people will go extinct because they're probably created due to many different processes, many of them environmental.
` Now... if some humans were to move to Mars, they might become isolated out there and become better adapted for living on a planet with such weak gravity that we couldn't walk, and whatever other environmental differences they would be exposed to.
` Maybe their lungs would become more efficient to help save precious oxygen? Perhaps they would have lesser heat requirements? Maybe their eyes would adapt better to seeing on the red planet?
` Who knows?


Kingcover said...

Well as someone who has never been to the Red Planet (I know I know, big shock, right? RIGHT?) I do absolutely believe that humans or indeed any animal species could adapt to any environmental situation. Sure it takes many hundreds and thousands of years but if it leads to humans being able and capable to mess up another planet then I'm all for it. Hey there are many more planets that will be safe from being buggered up :-P

Hmmm now I'm wondering what sex with an alien would be like? .... Or have I already done that!

KB said...

Ewww, head cheese!

S E E Quine said...

` LOL, Gareth! I should hope that by the time we find another planet to live on that we'll have made enough of an example out of this one to know better!
` Oh, and I think you'd know if you'd met an alien. They look like giant red fish-like insects. Trust me.

` KB - I learned something I didn't know: The 'souse' I occasionally sliced at the deli where I used to work was in fact... ordinary head cheese!
` I bet if they'd called it fromage de tĂȘte, it would have sold better!

Utah Savage said...

While I was reading this smart, funny post, I had a thought. Ah, yeah, it all comes back to me and I must run home before I lose it again. It's the dream I had about the NFL Baby Farm. I'll be back and will have taken a bit of you home with me, creepy huh?

Little Feat drew us together. It's almost romantic. Listen to "There's a Fat Man In The Bathtub"--you'll like it.

Utah Savage said...

Are you thinking about a story. Not looking for science fiction. Fairly plausible, could be magic realism, like Gabrial Garcia Marquez, who wrote one of my favorite books, "A Hundred Years of Solitude."

Have you checked your email?

Madam Z said...

I am still reeling from having read your comment on my blog. You poor dear! How horrifying! I think it is nothing short of miraculous that you even survived that torturous abuse, but you seem to have actually recovered from it, as well. At least as much as anyone COULD recover. I would be more than happy to murder your father for you. It would not be a quick, easy death, though. Then I'll start in on that miserable SOB doctor.

I hereby resolve to stop complaining about ANYTHING that happened to me as a child. OR as an adult. You have my utmost sympathy for what you have been through, and my utmost admiration for being able to survive it as well as you have.

Utah Savage said...

My novel might be a version of your life. Turn the honest you expressed at madame Z' and start tuning it into the truth for ever and ever. All of us with wretched, abusive families must tell our stories. All really great literature comes from such a place. Dostoyevskey comes to mind.

All I'm asking for is a submission for a short story collection, but it's a place to start. Stick to the facts mam and then change the ending, to make it turn out a bit more satisfying for you--could be empowering for the wounded spirit. Just saying.

Galtron said...

Great! We're all a bunch of inbred, bald monkeys! Oh well... as long as we're not deevolving. If that's possible.

KB said...

I hope you're writing a post young lady...it's been a week

S E E Quine said...

` NFL Baby Farm? Lol!! Good thing you made a note to write it down somewhere ASAP!
` I had a similarly strange dream the other night, but unfortunately forgot to write it down.
` That song is pretty good! Just happens to be the only other song I allowed myself to get distracted by.
` Got the email! I've always wanted to change the ending.... but can I do it?

` Madame Z!

I hereby resolve to stop complaining about ANYTHING that happened to me as a child. OR as an adult. You have my utmost sympathy for what you have been through, and my utmost admiration for being able to survive it as well as you have.

` Ha ha ha! I wouldn't go that far... then again, easy for me to say now that I can feel okay. (Still do wish I could feel all of myself, though....)
` And as for Jerry, you can just dip the bastard in bronze, with a mold that makes sure his teeth don't get covered.
` Where did I leave that comment again? Can't seem to find it (though I did have the sense to save it on a blog post draft).

` Galtron, while it is indeed impossible to de-evolve, it is still possible to further evolve into a newer, dumber species....

` KB: I know!! Arrgh! All I've done all day is sit here and feel like crap. It's ten thirty at night and I've only just gotten online!