Skip to main content

Evolution and Human History, Part I

Image result for Nicholas Wade


My recent reading has included A Troublesome Inheritance (2014) by Nicholas Wade.

Wade is an experienced science journalist -- he is a graduate of King's College, Cambridge, was deputy editor of Nature, and before going freelance he was both a reporter and an editor at The New York Times, where  he wrote frequently about scientific and environmental matters.

His book has the subtitle "Genes, Race, and Human History," which suffices to reveal how fraught is the subject matter. The point he wants to make is that biological evolution continues to change the human genome, and does so at time scales which are relevant to an understanding of history, not just dim pre-history. Evolution by natural selection isn't just about the fossil "Lucy" and her peers. It's about the fellow or gal in the mirror this morning.

Evolutionary psychologists, he says, commonly "teach  that the human mind is adapted to the conditions that prevailed at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago." But that is an arbitrary demarcation. There have been changes in innate human behavior (mark the word "innate" -- his word) -- subsequent to that. Only 3,000 years ago, for example, "Tibetans evolved a genetic variant that lets them live at high altitudes."

This does open up the discussion of race, not as a "social construct" but as a biological fact. Why? Because much longer ago than 3,000 three main sub-groupings of humans had become geographically divided: those of sub-Saharan Africa, of Eurasia from the Himalayas west, and of Asia from the Himalayas east. Those Tibetans notwithstanding, the highest mountains on the planet served as a powerful barrier to genetic mixing, as did the Sahara desert. So it seems a priori reasonable to suppose that to the extent evolution as been active since the geographical spread of the human race across these natural boundaries, that evolution has taken somewhat disparate paths.

The back of the book includes a blurb from Edward O. Wilson, praising Wade for celebrating "genetic diversity as a strength of humanity."

I'll say some more about this book and its thesis tomorrow.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

https://sites.google.com/site/francescoorsi1/

https://jhaponline.org/jhap/article/view/3

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …