A Different Type of Evolution



Christina Sterbenz, an author for the Business Insider wrote a compelling article detailing how humans are amidst a rapid surge of evolutionary transition, but not the form of evolution we are accustomed to discussing. Sterbenz talks about we how humans are changing our mottos from “living fast and dying young” to “living slow and dying old”. As a species, our life expectancy has about doubled within a century and our birth rates are decreasing steadily. Humans actually spend the most time [of any animal] nurturing children into independence, and this time frame is only increasing as years go by.

Sterbenz quotes Cadell Last, doctoral student of evolutionary anthropology as the Global Brain Institute, when she starts talking about the “fundamental life history trade-off”. This tradeoff defines a spectrum of reproduction strategy, from producing as many offspring as possible or spending that time caring for offspring and making them as successful as possible. According to Last, humans are spending more and more time rearing young, and statistics support this; the CIA World Factbook lists that human fertility rates are decreasing, with half of the world’s countries having a fertility rate of 2.1. Since there are already so many humans on the Earth, this strategy of reproduction is very successful, producing better-prepared offspring who have better chances of survival.

Sterbenz goes on to discuss a different idea of Last’s, the idea of biological vs. cultural reproduction. Biological reproduction being a well-defined timeframe for an individual to create more offspring in a manner that provides them the best opportunity of survival. Human beings, according to Last, are moving towards cultural evolution, when an individual reproduces not necessarily with the best chance of survival, but works to assimilate the offspring towards a specific culture. For example, teaching children that stealing is bad isn’t necessarily best for their survival. From a purely survival based perspective, stealing can be beneficial, providing an individual with resources with minimal work. However, teaching a child not to steal benefits a culture, or a group of people, by creating a more cohesive and well-structured group that interacts positively.

This article talks about evolution in a different manner than we have seen so far, a purely genetic, phenotype/genotype-based way of defining evolution. It talks about evolution as a means for a group of individuals to create a form of structure that betters the group, not the individual. These changes are not necessarily based on genetic mutations leading to a different species, but rather the way we humans interact with each other. What do you all think of this idea? Does it seem legitimate to define this “cultural evolution” as evolution? Or should it be defined as something else? And if so what is that?

Also, what do you all think this idea of “cultural evolution” means for the human race? Will it eventually lead to genetic changes that enhance our abilities to survive in the modern age? Or has that form of evolution as we knew it come to a halt due to the new advances in medicine and technology that drastically reduce death rates in offspring?


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41 Responses to A Different Type of Evolution

  1. Very good post. I think any change is evolution and we are not the only species to form groups and work for the betterment of the group. At this point in human society, it seems that we almost choose our own evolutionary future. Instead of certain traits leading to our demise, we decided which traits we like and enhance those. Plastic surgery, for example, or braces, are cosmetic changes that we produce on our own. I would say that cultural evolution is the future of human evolution. I do not see the traditional type of evolution as being prevalent in our survival and success as a species any longer.

    • anonymousgwstudent, do you see plastic surgery and braces as promoting the evolution of a more attractive human being or killing that evolution? For the sake of example, it is argued that blond hair is slowing dying out because of all the girls that are getting their hair died blonde. With this, guys who are attracted to blond girls find “fake” blondes therefore reporducing and creating offspring who are not blonde and who dont cary the blonde gene. Im not trying to say that blonde is better or anything of that sort. It is just a theory that I have heard

      • I would say that It kills the promotion of more attractive people when we are able to make less attractive people (obviously a personal preference) more attractive.

      • glowcloud says:

        That’s a very unique perspective that I’ve never considered before! When I think of cosmetic changes or events that occur within a person’s lifetime that affect their body, when it comes to evolution I think of Lamarck and conclude that they have no affect on evolution. That’s what makes your idea so compelling and fitting with the original post, because essentially your theory means that cultural preferences can have direct impacts on the gene pool. While I don’t think this is exactly akin to evolution (in the sense that we have been studying), it is still really interesting to consider. Do you think that if certain trends are sustained over very long periods of time then we possibly could learn to adapt to them? Is this the same thing as sexual selection but with a uniquely human twist?

      • http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2284783.stm

        ok so apparently the rumor is untrue…. this article states that
        “The only reason blondes would disappear is if having the gene was a disadvantage and I do not think that is the case”
        anyways its a little ludicrous….. but for the sake of argument haha. It could be a possible path for “preferred” human traits.

      • Vikingsfootball33- Does dying your hair really affect the genes? Evolution is a mutation of genes which causes either a change in the genotypes or phenotypes. In this case, hair being a phenotype, it is not to my knowledge that dying your hair can change genetic coding.

      • waterbottle19 says:

        I think plastic surgery has no effect on evolution. It’s not widespread enough to have any major effect on the human population as a whole. It’s not changing physical features over generations and it has almost no effect on reproduction. Someone who has undergone plastic surgery will not have a child that will look like her/him after the surgery. People who undergo cosmetic surgery are just as likely to reproduce before surgery as they after, albeit maybe not with the demographic they are looking for. Therefore, I see no correlation between plastic surgery and evolution.

      • californiarepublic79, what the theory is that people who dont have the gene of blond hair are giving themselve the apparent phenotype. Therefore, men who are attracted to blond hair are choosing women who dont really have the blond hair gene because they look like they do. By doing so, the actual blond hair gene is dying out becuase they are not reproducing as much as would occur otherwise. im not saying that I necessarily agree with this theory but it is an interesting idea

      • I agree with everyone who has commented on this so far, that anything that is done by the hand of man for the sake of cosmetics–such as braces, hair dying, etc.–will not be passed onto subsequent generations because those traits are artificially–not genetically–improved upon. I don’t think that this will have any real impact on the natural genetic evolution of our species over time.

    • collegeblogger19 says:

      Anonymousgwstudent: I agree with you when you say that we as humans are beginning to decide which traits we like and which we would like to implement. However, I don’t think the “traditional type of evolution” will ever completely go away. Evolution deals with genes and DNA, and as a species we will never stop passing on our genes to our offspring. I definitely think cultural evolution affects biological evolution, but it won’t completely replace it.

      • collegeblogger19: I agree. I was just saying that the process of people with less desirable traits (both in terms of health and attractiveness) dying off is less prevalent because of medicine and medical treatment that keep people alive and because of our ability to change our appearance. Evolution is still not gone, I just think it is not as much of a controlling factor.

      • greyelephant1 says:

        anonymousgwustudent I agree that medicine and medical treatments are affecting are becoming less prevalent. I believe that changing these things though are not affecting evolution because there is no genetic changes in getting braces to make your teeth straighter or dying your hair, so in the end, these cosmetic changes have no longer affect.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thank you anonymousgwustudent. I think that you are confusing evolution with simple cosmetic changes. Evolution occurs when an organism undergoes enough genetic mutations over time to alter their DNA in a manner that forms an organism with different form and function. Cosmetic changes do not alter DNA, but only our physical appearance, so the change (i.e. nose job) would not be passed down to subsequent generations, and therefore would not constitute as evolution.

    • cfc0567owls says:

      Human beings will soon be living in a new age of our evolutionary history. We are nearing a point where natural selection is no longer the main driver of evolutionary change. Humanity is creating it’s own evolutionary future, and in the next half century, humanity is going to change very dramatically. What a time to be alive!

  2. This is an incredibly interesting article. I have always wondered what is going to happen to evolution of the human species with the increase of medicine, technology, and social programs such as welfare. I agree that as we come together as a species and help promote the existence of all of our kind that we are transitioning to evolving as a culture, group, etc. from evolving as individuals. This idea of a “idea pool” replacing the “gene pool” has a lot of value. Because in todays age we can fix most gentic problems with new ideas. Therefore, evolution is going to have to come in the form of ideas and culture. However, I dont think that genetic or physical evolution will completely dissappear. If we look at what was considered attractive in the medieval ages, it was a more robust figure because is signified wealth. However, nowadays it can be argued that a fitter and healthier figure is more attractive. This could possibly result in a human body that is more accustomed to a healthier lifestyle. Or possibly the inverse when we look at fast food. It is a very interesting idea.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thanks for commenting vikingsfootball33. I like the way you phrased your idea of an “idea pool replacing a gene pool”, I agree with this idea. To your point about, genetic and therefore physical, evolution continuing throughout the years, I would like to pose a question. If medical advances today lead to children with defects surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on those bad genes, how will “natural selection” based evolution occur? Is the basis of this evolutionary theory not that the fittest will survive and pass on their genes?

  3. sm4321 says:

    Very interesting post, gatorade15. I had never heard of this opposition of biological and cultural evolution. I am interested in the way you approach this subject, as there are many ways to interpret it. I think that for sure our medical advances are the main reason for this longer life expectancy. This taps on the subject we talked about several weeks ago with how medicine is playing evolution. These advances cause both biological and cultural changes in the evolution realm. In my personal opinion, I do not think that cultural evolution is even really valid, for evolution has never been about the culture of the beings before us, merely how they changed and adapted in order to survive and reproduce. The article talks at one point about “cultural” vs “biological” reproduction. Although I know Wikipedia is not an academic source, it has the best online resources when looking to define cultural reproduction.


    Here the Wikipedia author (unknown) focuses on elements of culture being passed down from evolution to evolution. Are we concerned with maintaining the culture of those that came before us? Not as parents or grandparents but as Neanderthals and creatures that lived thousands of years ago. Should the concept of evolution revolve around (or even consider) culture? If so why are modern humans more important than all the beings that have come before us? We were never concerned with the “cultural evolution” of those that have come before us. All that mattered was how we got from them to us in a way of “biological evolution” as this article by Sternbenz articulates.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thanks for commenting sm4321. You pose some interesting points and I enjoy seeing some different perspectives come about on the blog. I have some counterpoints I would like you to think about. You say in your comment that you think cultural evolution is invalid. However, how do you think that humans came to posses the intellectual and emotional capacities we do today? It was through learning for out forefathers and passing down these ideas. All animals do this, some primates pass down skills regarding rudimentary tool usage to their children. We learned how to make a flame, shape the wheel, create the alphabet, dialect, buildings, and much more, through our ancestors. No change in our genetic code could enable us to understand and speak a language. Generation upon generation were taught these skills, honed them, and then passed them down to their children. What we are today, I believe at least, is the product of the culture of our forefathers.

    • cfc0567owls says:

      You touch an interesting point in your comment, sm4321. You say that, because cultural evolution was never a driving force in human evolution in the past, it is invalid in the current world we live in. Natural Selection drives biological evolution in a wilderness environment, where the unfit are picked off one by one. We are not living in that world any more. We no longer need to have a dozen children and hope that 3 live, because infant mortality is at historic lows. We are delaying having children later and having less children than ever before. We have technology and medicine we didn’t have before. The rules that governed evolution in the past are not going to dictate the future of evolution.

  4. collegeblogger19 says:

    This was a very interesting article, and I enjoyed reading about this new idea. When learning about evolution, we always hear about how biological reproduction is such an essential aspect. In fact, I think one of the reasons why many people don’t like to accept the idea of evolution is due to this concept as well as the “survival of the fittest.” It almost dehumanizes us and relates us to all other organisms on earth. The idea of cultural evolution, on the other hand, might be easier to accept for people who are unsure of the idea of evolution. It puts humans on another level–a more advanced and intellectual level. However, can this new idea of cultural evolution really be considered evolution? Evolution, in the Darwinian sense, is all about genes being passed from generation to generation, whereas cultural evolution deals more with passing down ideas and intelligence.

    On another note, cultural evolution has influenced the way we, as humans, raise offspring, as the article points out. So even though cultural evolution doesn’t have anything to do with genes/DNA, it still influences the way we live–having children later in life and living longer.

  5. gatorade15- thank you for sharing this article, I was a very pleasant and informative read. There was two topics in the article that really caught my attention.

    Fist, “Humans need more time to develop to take advantage of our complex world.” I found this to be shockingly true. The best example could be found in education. We, as members of society, must undertake a minimum of twelve years of schooling in order to be able to learn how our society works. For example, in learning Algebra, we as students are taught the fundamentals to every other math related course which then can be translated to real-world applications, such as using physics to determine the speed a car should be going when entering a curve.

    Second, “biological reproduction has even become ‘too costly.'” According to CNN, (http://money.cnn.com/2014/08/18/pf/child-cost/) it costs nearly 250 thousand dollars to raise a child from infant until they graduate high school. During this current society, having a child is no longer necessary as it was once. Generations before us would have multiple children, many as much as nine or ten, so that when the children grew, they would be able to be helping hands in the farm or the family business.

    To address one of your questions, I do believe that “cultural evolution” is a different type of applicable evolution. As a reminder, evolution is the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth. In this case, cultural evolution is applicable. We as a society are making a transition towards a better future. It is only up to time to decide if these “human advances” are in fact beneficial to the human race.

    • californiarepublic79, I think it is important to note that this necessity for education is only seen in the western world. While I ultimately agree that in in our society it is very necessary to have that education, there are still many cultures where women are married off at the age of twelve and men need only learn to hunt. There are still parts of the world that are not in the same circumstances as the western world and the situation of evolution and adapting to the scoieties in those areas could be very different.

      • sm4321 says:

        Vikingsfootball33 makes a good point. Evolution to western world citizens may look very simple and easy. We already have all of these necessities at our disposition but in societies where this is not the case evolution and the ability and need to adapt are still very much in play. I think these types of societies demonstrate one in which cultural and biological elements are in play at the same time.

      • waterbottle19 says:

        I disagree. Education is a critical component of East Asian countries. Education is taken very seriously there, and teachers are treated with more respect when compared to the United States. Only in very few places are women “married off at the age of twelve and men need only learn to hunt”. I agree that the various parts of the world are in the same circumstances, but they are no where near as uncivilized as you make it out to be.

      • Vikingsfootball33- perhaps that is true, education is only a “necessity” in the western world. For the sake of argument, I would have to state that even in a place, maybe in the depths of the Amazon, where women are married off at twelve and men hunt, they as a couple, would still have to teach their offspring the ways. The new-born would have to learn to adapt to their cultural practices, such as making spears or bows, in order to be able to survive. Ultimately, resulting in the same concept of “cultural evolution” as stated by gatorade15.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Great post californiarepublic79! I love the ideas you present here and I couldn’t agree more with you. Your point about the education really highlights the idea of cultural evolution.

  6. thinkbrush says:

    Gatorade15, thank you for sharing this article. I think it brings valuable perspective to the debate on where modern society is going as propelled by evolution. Too often can folks discussing evolution focus on evolution’s influence the prosperity of a single organism. In this case, that organism is a human. The concept of cultural evolution helps bring light to the fact that biological and cultural shifts are meant to ensure survival of a species and not just the lineage of one specific family. If it were the other way around, parents would still be producing as many offspring as possible to ensure the continuation of their family regardless of the environment and what it had to offer. I believe this may seem to be a smarter and more deliberate form of evolution that might help folks understand the bigger picture.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thanks for commenting thinkbrush! Great nickname by the way. You do a really good job of describing cultural evolution here and making it easier for readers to understand the concept. You even defined it better than I had it defined in my head.

  7. This is a great post that forces us to look at evolution from a modern perspective. Evolution can even be seen within the century if we look at it from the aspect of life expectancy and length of child rearing. It’s completely fair to look at evolution from the cultural stance as it can in turn, affect our genetics over time. Even the Smithsonian compared the evolution of cultures and how communication between homo sapiens helped to advance society forward. The modernization of humans that has occurred in the 20th century has created a generation that is oriented towards the adaptation of technology into almost every aspect of our lives. It seems possible that some sort of evolution may occur within human genetics that would make us more apt to technology use, for example, more dexterity for keyboard typing and eyes that easily adjust to screen usage. I think it’s impossible to say that evolution has come to a halt just because we cannot see it within our own lives. Especially because evolution is defined by climate change, which is definitely apparent in our society today whether we believe it’s man made or not. Cultural evolution is a great way to look at the possible factors that could be a catalyst to genetic evolution.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thanks for commenting slowdownyourmind. You present some interesting ideas, but I would like to counter your point bout humans evolving to be more adept at using technology. As I posted earlier, an enormous majority of babies born today live on to reproduce, regardless of any harmful genes they may have. Some major genetic defects can be tolerated with certain medical advances these days. Therefore, the genetic pool is randomized and individuals with beneficial genes don’t really possess a benefit over people with normal genes at reproducing. So with this in mind, do you really we will evolve to possess these traits you speak of?

  8. punky1218 says:

    I found this post to be really interesting. Coyne discusses in Why Evolution is True that organisms can evolve at different rates, some organisms very quickly while others slower. vikingsfootball discussed this point as well. How will the advance of medicine and technology effect the evolution of humans (and what kinds of evolution will advance)? Cultural evolution has constantly been changing in the modern world but the more traditional forms of evolution, like ‘survival of the fittest’ will not be as impactful because modern medicine interferes with the ‘traditional’ kind of evolution (not that that is a bad thing).

  9. glowcloud says:

    I know we’ve been considering this “cultural evolution” in terms of its impact on human evolution, but I think that there is actually a place where our cultural preferences directly affect evolution in the Darwinian sense, and that is with the evolution of bacteria. Our cultural preferences of whether or not to vaccinate our children, or to use pesticides or herbicides, or even the use of hand sanitizer is directly driving the evolution of other species, as this article points out: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/medicine_03 .

    • The article you added is really interesting! I completely agree that many of the advancement we are making to improve are lives in many ways are actually destructive, such as the use of antibiotics doesn’t let our immune systems adapt and improve naturally.

      • glowcloud says:

        True! Which is also why we’re beginning to see new trends of super bacteria, such as certain strands of tuberculosis that are antibiotic resistant. However, the point I was trying to make was more about the idea that (as the OP proposes) our personal preferences are impacting evolution, just not necessarily in the ways we anticipate. Does anyone else know of any other examples of how cultural trends have impacted the evolution of other species? I remember reading something about moths during Europe’s industrial revolution being impacted by smog…

    • Glowcloud- this is a very interesting and important fact to take into consideration. The best example, in comparison to this, that I can recall is AIDS. AIDS became a huge problem in the medical field due to their ability to fast evolve, which ultimately makes medication useless. The only way this problem was able to be controlled, was by stopping, for a certain amount of time, the use of medication so that AIDS would de-evolve and return to their natural form, only then to be attacked by medication once more.

  10. arcanium82 says:

    Good find Gatorade. This article makes you think about evolution in a whole new way. There is no doubt that advances in medical technology have circumvented many diseases or birth defects that would have normally influenced the gene pool.

    This article also reminds me of a documentary that was aired on HBO a few years ago called “The Weight of the Nation.” Even though there are good uses for technology, we must also be reminded that some advances in technology are not advantageous to our species. For instance, humans evolved over millions of years to survive on a certain amount of calories. For much of our existence we also needed to exert a substantial amount of calories (either through hunting, gathering, or farming) in order to acquire those calories. However, within the last 50 years or so, technology has allowed us to produce and consume much more food than we ever could before. A person can literally pick up the phone and order an unlimited amount of food that will be delivered right to their door. A massive amount of calories attained with little or no effort on the part of the person consuming them. Our bodies are having trouble adapting to this new caloric environment which is one factor that enables a large percentage of our society to be overweight.

    The weight problem can also be attributed to sugar. For more of human existence we only received sugar once a year when the fruits fell off the trees. And even then it was a limited amount. Now, if you look at the nutritional facts of foods you buy at the grocery store EVERYTHING has sugar in it. Sometimes much more than you would think. This increased sugar consumption is leading to diseases like diabetes which were never much of a problem through most of human history.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Thanks for commenting arcanium82! I really enjoyed reading your post and I like how you talk about obesity in todays society and how it came about. You’re right, humans aren’t supposed to have access to as much food as we do today. Really no animal is. Almost every organism on the planet has evolved to compete for food, to struggle to survive. By surpassing this, humans actually hurt themselves, because there is a battle between that brain and the body. The brain, an ancient organ, wants us to constantly feed, under the outdated impression that we may not have a next meal, while the body wants to be fit, lean, and only have enough fat to survive. Long story short, this causes us to eat way too much, get fat, and acquire medical issues that were not prevalent in the past.

  11. cfc0567owls says:

    Fantastic article! Thank you for posting it. I already have some knowledge of the Singularity and Raymond Kurzweil (one of the futurists mentioned in the article), but this is a different aspect that I hadn’t really thought about before. Kurzweil is the main proponent of the Technological Singularity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity), or the belief that the human brain will be linked with computers by the year 2045. At the exponential growth rate of computer processing we are currently going through, this will be very likely. Combining the Singularity with the cultural evolutionary changes we are facing, the future of human evolution is going to be incredible.

  12. I really like the idea of cultural evolution, but I think it is important to keep this idea separate from accepted scientific evolution. I do, however, think that if cultural evolution were to yield significantly pronounced changes in the ways that humans lead their lives, it could provide a pathway for genetic evolution–just the same way that we have evolved thus far because of advantageous traits to handling environmental obstacles.

  13. lumastan says:

    I feel that this article has a lot to do with the post written a couple weeks ago, by sm4321, “Designer Babies and Evolution”, in the sense that it covers a new idea for the future of human evolution: taking our evolutionary path into our own hands. Like AnonymousGWStudent says, the traditional form of evolution holds little place in the future of advanced human civilization. Once man has the ability to chose what he/she desires, or rather what benefits the group to the best extent, be it what to devote time to or what gene to modify, evolution can never stay the same for mankind. Raw need to repopulate has been mellowed out to a collective desire to better the group that exists and create a sort of “boutique”-esque population. As intelligence and ability crescendo in humanity, the fate of our race and how its determined slowly become more and more manipulable in our hands.

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