Humans: The Ultimate in Evolution or a Branch on the Tree?

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/science/mountain-populations-offer-clues-to-human-evolution.html?_r=0

In this recent article from the New York Times, Carl Zimmer explores the discoveries of biologists: races who have lived in mountainous areas for millenniums have actually adapted to maximize the amount of oxygen their bodies can absorb. This article discusses experiments in several different areas of the world, including the mountains of Tibet and Ethiopia. The studies exposed that the people of the two areas had two different distinct gene mutations that were specific to the region, but they both increased the capacity to absorb oxygen. In this way, the experiments showed that species adapt in different ways to perform the same result.

Beyond the interesting news story, this article silently poses a startling question: are humans the ultimate in evolution? After all, if humans are still adapting to their environments, evolution is still occurring even among different human races. And if humans are still evolving, we must not be the the final, anthropocentric “March of Progress” success. And that poses the even more frightening question: if modern humans aren’t the progress history has been marching for, what is?

This article also poses something interesting about rhetoric: if the logical progression of thought after reading this article is to question the vanity of how we study evolution, why is this not brought up anywhere in the article? Even the article title refers to these mountain experiments as “clues to human evolution”, choosing to use a word that inherently implies a secret, suggesting just the slightest inkling that maybe how we teach evolution isn’t quite right and here are the people to prove it. Could it be possible that this was a topic that Zimmer wouldn’t want to broach with the intended audience, casual readers of the Times? Or could it also possibly be assumed that this is not new information at all, and the audience would have already thought of evolution in this light?

These questions present a need for an analysis of the intended audience and the occasion for this article. Considering that this article is intended to be read by casual readers, not anyone with particular scientific training, it is very possible that more scientific information was left out under the assumption that the audience would not need such extensive details to understand the article.

How might this article have been different had it been published in a scientific journal? How might the intended audience and the venue the article is published in affect the way the content of the article? 

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15 Responses to Humans: The Ultimate in Evolution or a Branch on the Tree?

  1. tksekf says:

    I believe humans are not the ultimate in evolution, and this article from the New York Times is an obvious proof of it: humans continue to change, transform and evolve. However, I think this should not be a source of fear. Why live in fear that we are not the most superior being on Earth? We do not yet know everything about the Universe we live in, if there are or aren’t other superior beings in other parts of the Universe. Is being the ultimate in evolution that important?

    • findwhatwind says:

      I personally agree with you, I don’t believe that being the ultimate in evolution is that important. However, I believe that pieces such as The March of Progress, the most famous and recognizable piece of artwork depicting evolution (seen here http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/04/The_March_of_Progress.jpg ) show a very linear path with a very clear end point: modern humans. I find it interesting that this article clearly raises the question of what comes after modern humans, without ever explicitly expressing this idea. It is in this seeming avoidance of where I believe this article is very clearly leading that I begin to question Zimmer’s motives and wonder if this exclusion is due to society’s notion that humanity is superior and shall always be so.

    • secondcitytocapitalcity says:

      In response to tksekf, I agree that humans are not the last step in evolution. However, I also think that there is a difference between the evolution that Darwin and other scientists study, and humans understanding the world around us. For example, I do not think that knowing everything about the Universe is something that we are going to learn about by evolving through natural selection. I believe that this is a different type of evolution; the evolution of thought which is more sociological and philosophical rather than biological.
      Also if there are other superior beings in the Universe, they would be more adapted to their own habitat, so while they might be stronger or smarter, in the end, humans would be the best adapted to our own niche in the Earth. For example Coyne references the way that the honeybees have evolved to stand up to hornets, while the European bees, which do not have hornets as a natural predator are not capable to prevent the hornets from attacking their hives. So while human’s might not be fully evolved, our evolution is in response to the world we are currently inhabiting. If the world changes, which it is bound to do, I believe that we are able to evolve to inhabit it

      • drc1995 says:

        I agree with you secondcitytocapitalcity and my fellow commentators in saying that I too believe that humans are still evolving. Alternatively though, I think I have to disagree with your assertion that we will only be evolving sociologically and philosophically but not biologically. In particular, I liked the reference you made between our evolving and our knowledge of the universe and world around us, because it reminded me of an article by Forbes I saw a few months ago (see the link http://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2013/06/07/how-the-human-face-might-look-in-100000-years/). As I will explain in a moment, this article fully espouses my belief that we will continue to adapt to any condition we face, to a point agreeing with your last sentence that as the world (and even possibly the universe) we inhabit changes, as it is bound to in the long term future, we will continue to adapt.

        The Forbes article I posted takes a look at what the possibilities are of our future evolution in the next 100,000 years. It invokes a sense of logos by contemplating just how much of our lives we are able to control now, and expands into just how much we might be able to control in the near and distant future. I mean, as we become more technologically evolved as a species just imagine how much more we may be able to control. I think its logical to believe that will be able to control what seems uncontrollable now, to the extent of even possibly having control over specific genomes of human DNA as the article asserts. And even though if we don’t evolve by human intervention, there are still the natural processes of living in an entirely new environment such as maybe in a new universe far, far away.

        Dr. Alan Kwann in the Forbes article tries to make the case that humans will in fact be able to continually evolve to match our environments in the future, whatever they may be. I mean if you look at it, we as humans have up to now evolved to where we are based on our current environments. I think when people say we are done evolving and we have reached our ultimate stage of evolution (biologically at least), I guess people don’t realize that we experience now as modern human history like writing, society, science, etc has only been a mere glimpse of a few thousand years, as compared to millions of years evolving as a species. Just think to a few thousand or hundred thousand years away and how we might take a new step in evolution that we haven’t taken for the past few thousand decades.

        While not a biologist myself, I think the current debate among biologists should shift from are we evolving to how and why will we evolve in the future? Will we truly develop new and seemingly overwhelming adaptions like bigger eyeballs if we were possibly to expand farther into the universe? Will we be able to control our evolution like we never have before? I think it’s interesting to think about just how far evolution can go in a time period we can’t even imagine right now.

      • findwhatwind says:

        I agree very much with drc1995, and I believe this article in Forbes is very much what I expected to see in the article from the New York Times. I was very surprised the Zimmer’s article discussed human evolutions which are still occurring, and then did not discuss the future possibilities for human evolution.

    • I while I agree that being “the ultimate in evolution” is not that important, I do however think that as of so far on planet earth, humans are by far the uncontested champions. The way the human population has been able to not only mold its own destiny, but the planet itself is unrivaled by any other species on earth. That is not to say that evolution stops with man, as man can further evolve, we have already seen this with changes in the human population within human history, such as the huge average height increases. Man can and will continue to evolve, for as long as the species exists, as this is the very nature of evolution

  2. jps591 says:

    The occasion for this article, in my opinion, would be the recent studies scientists are doing on the DNA of our mountainous ancestors. I agree with the poster that the title is slightly misleading. The article’s author undoubtedly took advantage of the occasion by crafting a headline that would grab the attention of his intended audience of New York Times readers, many who may be unfamiliar with the science behind evolution. Rather than providing an entirely new concept to the theory of evolution, Carl Zimmer simply introduced a new case study, a new piece of evidence. The same idea has been acknowledged by numerous scientists and organizations, including the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in their “Human Origins” exhibit (http://humanorigins.si.edu/research/climate-research/effects). It is nonetheless important to our understanding of evolution; but, is in no means revolutionary to the quest to master the mysteries of evolution.

  3. Sl1017 says:

    Connecting this article to our museum trip, this brings to mind the wall piece in the Hall of Human Orgins, where a huge “family tree” is mapped out with our ancestors towards the bottom and as you climb the tree you get closer and closer to Homo sapiens. We are placed at the very top, with no more room on the panel to add on another species, inferring that we not only superior to the humans before us but possibly will remain the most superior.

    I believe most anthropologists do not believe that we are the end of evolution, we will continue to evolve and adapt, like jps951 points out, to climate change and other fluctuations in geographical locations and also medical advances etc. This point was demonstrated in an interactive section towards the end of the exhibit about “what is next” for human kind? This fun activity geared towards children, but could catch the interest of any age group, allows you to create the next generation of humans. I, for example, gave us webbed feet in response to the climate changing and water levels rising. Homo sapiens certainly aren’t done evolving and adapting and I think the Smithsonian could have demonstrated that uniformly throughout the entire exhibit, rather than at the end.

    Zimmer is appealing to all NY times readers by making these complex ideas more understandable and simplifying his experimental data. He also uses pathos when describing experiments as beautiful. His opening paragraph is a strong instance of pathos, “In the hearts of evolutionary biologists, mountains occupy a special place. It’s not just their physical majesty.” The descriptive language in the first few lines appeals to your emotions. This article would have been structured very differently if it was trying to appeal to a more scientific crowd and used more logos and details about their studies and trials, which would also increase their credibility if it had been intended for a scientific journal or magazine.

  4. lnzgirl says:

    Sl1017 – I completely agree with your interpretation of the “family tree” inside the Hall of Human Origins exhibit. What I find most interesting about the “family tree” is not only the placement of modern humans, but also the lack of earlier homo sapiens on the tree. When looking at this picture, one can clearly see its anthropocentric tone. This “family tree” shows how modern humans are more advanced then early humans, but doesn’t show how early homo sapiens compared to Neandertals and other early human species living at about the same time.
    I think that both museums as well as teachers try to steer away from questioning the superiority of humans, for fear of offending people or turning them away from science. Through history, humans have always seen themselves as the central point of all existence, an idea fueled by the pervading religious belief in a higher power who specially designed humans to be the rulers of the world. Just as the idea of Earth as the center of the Universe was debunked, the idea that modern humans, in their present form, are the pinnacle of existence will eventually be overturned with new findings like the one in this article about the continuation of evolution.

  5. ojc31084 says:

    I disagree with the original poster; I do not think that the purpose of this article is to prove evolution. I think that this article is a reality check for many readers because it proves the point that humans are not the end of the evolutionary process. We still have faults that nature is trying to fix, and one example is helping humans who live at higher altitudes better “cope with low oxygen levels”. Additionally, I think that Zimmer actually assumes that all of his readers believe in evolution. Unlike other articles written about evolution, as well as the exhibit of human origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Zimmer does not hesitate to mention natural selection as a key part in evolution. The main uncertainty in this article seems to be where evolution is leading the human species. This uncertainty is one that most scientists share, since we cannot predict the future.

  6. phishmonkees says:

    In my opinion Carl Zimmer’s article is primarily focused on presenting new intriguing findings about human evolution. The core of Zimmer’s argument is that genetic mutations occur in different climates, however, the exact type of possible mutation varies by region. I agree with jps591’s point that Zimmer was simply introducing new evidence. EPAS1 and BHLHE41 found in Tibetans and Ethiopians respectively, proves that humans are constantly evolving and adapting to better suit their surroundings. Although modern man does not face the same challenges that were experienced by early Homo sapiens, this does not diminish the fact that natural selection is still occurring. Inspired, I looked into other articles written by Carl Zimmer. It seems that he is very interested in the ability of humans to effect evolutionary change not only in themselves but other organisms such as bacteria and smaller mammals (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/22/science/as-humans-change-landscape-brains-of-some-animals-change-too.html). After reading the preceding articles, I do not believe that Zimmer is making the case that humans are the ultimate in evolution rather that humans are the ultimate force in evolution.

  7. mykkros says:

    I think findwhatwind brings up an interesting question which I too have thought about; are we still evolving? I remember when I used to think that humans too were the “best” or “most evolved” as some people here stated but, as my former biology teacher put it, such a notion is wrong. Simply put, polar bears are “better” evolved for their environment but does that necessarily mean it’s also the most evolved. Humans simply have the most evolved brains and intelligence, something that was beneficial to their survival millennium ago as it is now. Yet, put a human in a polar bear’s environment and it takes a few minutes to kill him or her. Humans have evolved to their setting, polar bears, their own.

    Back to the New York Times article stated by findwhatwind. The article talks about how evolutionary biologists are able to study the evolution of humans by seeing how they evolved in the mountainous regions of the world. Many of the commentators stated that such is evidence that humans are still evolves, including myself and who ever is reading this. Yet, the article brings up some points that have been not been mentioned. For example, the reason that humans have seemed to evolved differently in such regions is because the demands put on people were much greatly than in other regions of the world. Either the people of these regions of the world had to survive or else they would die. In addition, such evolution, even though very minute on the grand scale, still took thousands of years to happen.

    To answer the question that tksekf and some others brought up, I did a bit of research and found some results about whether we are still evolving. It turns out that it is a source of much debate amongst biologists. However, I found an article from the PBS NOVA (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/are-we-still-evolving.html) which stated that we were in fact evolving. For example, it states that “Every population has a strong selective pressure for intelligence”, which makes sense. The site gives other examples but truly gives someone something to think about

    • phillykid888 says:

      The PBS NOVA article posted by mykkros brought up some fascinating points. I was especially intrigued by the ideas presented by Steven Jones; he said that, in the developed world, evolution is essentially over. While natural selection is always at work among animals, and it seems as if it would always be at work among people as well, is this really the case? Because human intellect has advanced to the point where we can treat and even prevent disease, and because we live in a society in which we care for each other, the weakest among us are no longer weeded out. In nature, the weakest animals die off and don’t reproduce, but in society the weakest are supported by the rest. Does this mean that we have reached a point where we transcend natural selection?

  8. greenDC says:

    I agree with phishmonkees regarding the constant presence of natural selection. As Coyne suggested, humans are absolutely flawed and by definition cannot represent the pinnacle of evolutionary success. The concept of evolution revolves around the idea of continuous development and working with the gene pool and “building blocks” you have. Retaining useless vestigial organs and other structural flaws demonstrate these imperfections. While it is easy to see why humans would be viewed as an end point as findwhatwind suggested regarding The March of Progress, it is important to keep in mind the scale of human existence in proportion to the rest of life. Based on history, human’s should follow a similar course of change and adaptation regardless of how minute or gradual it may be.

  9. thomgc says:

    Why is everyone assuming that their is a pinnacle of evolution in the first place? Human’s evolve thats been pretty much proven, this article doesn’t demonstrate anything that profound. Examples, blond hair developed via mutation in northern Europe as a means of absorbing greater vitamin D that they couldn’t get in that climate. Inuits, despite living in a similar climate, never developed such a hair color because they had a lot of fish in their diet. African people’s developed (or originally had, its not very well understood) darker skin so that there skin wouldn’t be burnt under the strong UV rays that more or less shine on the entire continent. There is nothing new or even really interesting about stating how humans can evolve.

    Now what is interesting is exploring these genes found in Ethiopians and Tibetans: do they have other side effects? When someone with this gene is out of a mountainous area does it help or hinder them? Would breathing more oxygen at lower altitudes enhance brain or heart functions? Does greater oxygen intake harm them in a manner similar to oxygen poisoning? Those are what people should be looking into not pondering the self evident notion that humans evolve.

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