I just noticed that in the new issue of the New Yorker Michael Specter has written an article on the viruses in our genome. I wrote about this research in the New York Times a year ago. I haven’t had a chance to read the article through yet, but I was mortified to come across this line…
Until recently, the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short.
What happened to the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checking staff? Scientists can make important observations of virus evolution in their labs in a matter of weeks. HIV evolved from a chimpanzee disease to a human one over the past few decades. Perhaps Specter meant something more specific than “evolution,” like the evolution of human beings and their viruses over the past few million years. But that’s a charitable interpretation.
Anyway–let me know what you think of the piece.
Update: Wed. 11/28 4:20–Having read the piece, I must say it’s very good. It gets into a lot of cool experiments and the even cooler implications about how viruses may have shaped us. Some of the wording could have been made more precise, like the sentence I cited above, but having struggled to convey this sort of material myself, I shouldn’t be casting too many stones. I am also a bit confused by the ending, in which a scientists claim that HIV is driving the evolution of resistance mutations in humans and that resistant humans will acquire viruses in their genomes that will mark the creation of an entirely new species. I can’t tell if he’s saying that a reproductive barrier will emerge between the resistant humans and other humans, or if the resistance genes are supposed to simply take over the world population through selection. No matter which he means, speciation doesn’t work that way.