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

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

Philippa Gregory

My recent reading includes large helpings of Philippa Gregory's latest, THREE SISTERS, THREE QUEENS (2016), another of her fictionalized takes on love and betrayal among the royals of Renaissance Europe.

In this book, the focus is on the early Tudor dynasty, and especially on Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, founder thereof, and the older sister of the future Henry VIII. Margaret became Queen of Scotland with an arranged marriage to James IV. She reigned and ruled under the title of Dowager Queen after James' death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

So who, you ask, were the other two sisters of the novel's title? One is Margaret's blood sister, Mary Tudor, who was known as one of the great beauties of the age. Mary was the inspiration for the name her brother Henry gave to his older daughter. More important for Gregory's story, she wed the King of France (Louis XII) in 1514, and Anne Boleyn served as her maid of honor at that ceremony.

The third &…