Recent Accelerated Adaptive Evolution in Humans

For those of you interested in recent adaptive evolution in some insignificant bipedal primate, John Hawks and pals have published a paper in PNAS describing something you’ll find interesting. Of course, if you’re interested in such things, you already know that. Here are some links related to Hawks et al. paper:

If I read the paper, I may offer my own opinions. Maybe. And that’s if I read the paper any time soon. But I figured I’d post something on it because it’s getting so much hype. I thought Hawks didn’t like hype.


  1. #1 TR Gregory
    December 14, 2007

    Thanks for the plug, though I am confused as to how Larry and I are considered “non-specialists” when our comments related to basic evolutionary points.

  2. #2 RPM
    December 14, 2007

    I was worried that would be misinterpreted. Specialists = population geneticist. I only linked to life scientists, but the specialists have focused training in population genetics (especially human popgen).

  3. #3 TR Gregory
    December 14, 2007

    Fair enough. However, the implications — and the statements from the authors — go well beyond the limited sphere of pop gen and cross into the expertise of others, including evolutionary biologists generally (me) and anthropologists (Greg Laden). Anyway, it’s a minor point. Indeed, I am waiting for specialists (in the narrower human pop gen sense) to provide peer-reviewed responses to this one as I expect it will prove controversial.

  4. #4 RPM
    December 14, 2007

    Indeed, I am waiting for specialists (in the narrower human pop gen sense) to provide peer-reviewed responses to this one as I expect it will prove controversial.

    As am I.

  5. #5 John Hawks
    December 14, 2007

    Thanks for the comment and the links!

    I’m worried that most people seem to think the most controversial thing we have done is to read R. A. Fisher! For some reason, theory is out of style in genetics today.

    I’ve been reminded many times of the old joke, “What do you call a population geneticist?”


  6. #6 RPM
    December 14, 2007

    John, it doesn’t seem like people are taking issue with the theory that predicts a recent burst in adaptive evolution. But rather they have problems with the data analysis you guys performed. The debate seems to be over power and false positives/negatives.

  7. #7 TR Gregory
    December 14, 2007

    My problem isn’t with the theory in the least — it makes good sense. My problem isn’t with the data, as the paper still isn’t available (though I see a pre-print is floating around). My problem, so far, is entirely with the hype the press are reporting, most of it direct quotations.

  8. #8 John Hawks
    December 14, 2007

    Hi, RPM — I agree, the best comments we’ve gotten from specialist blogs relate to ascertainment and false positives/negatives. I expect that when you read the paper, you’ll probably be thinking along those lines too.

    There are only about three asking these methodological questions about the analysis, though. Most seem to be reacting viscerally to the idea that evolution could “accelerate” by as much as we claim. That’s a deficiency of theory and/or knowledge about human history, which we’re trying as hard as we can to make a dent in.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 14, 2007

    My admiration is very limited in this case. I was being polite. I think the paper may be OK, but flawed. But the post-paper extra-peer-review rantings, especially of Henry’s, are absurd. They are making royal fools of themselves.

    To tell you the truth, I’m too spitting mad to write about it, or I’d kick their asses. Eventually, I will.

  10. #10 RPM
    December 14, 2007

    Greg, I’m not clear what you’re talking about.

  11. #11 Colugo
    December 16, 2007

    The Economist:

    “The finding that may cause most controversy, however, is that in the Asian groups there has been strong selection for one variant of a gene that, in a different form, is responsible for Gaucher’s disease. A few years ago two of the paper’s other authors, Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, suggested that the Gaucher’s form of the gene might be connected with the higher than average intelligence notable among Ashkenazi Jews. The unstated inference is that something similar might be true in Asians, too.

    … The paper Dr Moyzis and his colleagues have just published is a ranging shot, but the amount of recent human evolution it has exposed is surprising. Others will no doubt follow, and the genetic meaning of the term “race”, if it has one, will be exposed for all to see.”

    The Times

    “For much of the past 10,000 years, most human populations have been highly separated from one another. It is thus to be expected that they will have evolved in slightly different ways in response to their regional environments. While 99.9 per cent of human DNA is shared by all, the bits that vary sometimes tend to differ between races.

    …(I)t can be misinterpreted to serve a racist agenda, and the authors’ comments have not helped to ensure against this. Harpending’s dubious Viking proposition implies that certain ethnic groups are genetically more violent than others, an unsubstantiated idea that could feed prejudice.

    [Harpending's] contention that the trend towards greater difference is recent and continuing is also apt to mislead. … Greater movement and cultural transfer between continents will probably make humans more similar to one another, not more different.”