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back to article David Attenborough warns that humans have stopped evolving

Britain's most popular naturalist has warned in an interview that humans have become the first species to effectively halt the influence of natural selection. He also says, however, that it's not the end of the world, thanks to modern technology. "I think that we've stopped evolving. Because if natural selection, as proposed by …

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Meh

So we're moving from a primarily Darwinian evolutionary model to one that's more Lamarckian - with us in control. Well that could be either very good or very bad.

We really could do with a 'Careful now' icon.

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Anonymous Coward

"with us in control"

...seen the news recently?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "with us in control"

Frankly a visit to an average local is depressing enough on that score.

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Apparently, Sir David Attenborough failed to fully read up on evolution. It never was, nor ever was proposed as a purely linear process, with incremental changes in any species.

There would be no observable changes in an evolutionary sense in any species that would be identifiable in the time since evolution was first thought of.

That said, we have altered our own course, largely due to sanitation, modern medicine and significantly improved living conditions, as our current longevity and caesarian birth rate increases can attest to.

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Statement from the Department of the Very Obviouis

This is not a shock statement from Attenborough. Put people in hospital instead of leaving them to snuff it, and you have interfered with evolution, obviously. Fortunately the NHS is doing an excellent job of snuffing out the old and weak, so with their help it will be survival of the fittest again. And if you are not weak you soon will be when you haven't has a drink of water for 7 days.

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There's no selective pressure for better eyesight and hearing anymore. People with degraded senses can get them augmented with technology. So over generations our bodies will biologically degrade and we'll become dependent on technology.

Until a point where technology can actually engineer our bodies in the first place. But through the period of degeneration if we suddenly lose technology, eg mass world war, we might face extinction.

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Re: Statement from the Department of the Very Obviouis

"survival of the fittest"

thats not correct and taken quite out of context, let me quote about evolution:

1) more offspring are produced than can possibly survive

2) traits vary among individuals, leading to different rates of survival and reproduction

3) trait differences are heritable

Thus, when members of a population die they are replaced by the progeny of parents that were better adapted to survive and reproduce in the environment in which natural selection took place. This process creates and preserves traits that are seemingly fitted for the functional roles they perform. Natural selection is the only known cause of adaptation, but not the only known cause of evolution. Other, nonadaptive causes of evolution include mutation and genetic drift.

environment part is really important, i can imagine a number of environments where these "fittest" (commonly used as in "physically" fit) individuals might be actually at a disadvantage and they would not survive.

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Pint

I reckon this Dave Attic-thingy bloke is spot on. Someone should give him a knighthood, or at the very least a telly show.

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Mushroom

Stopped evolving?

Nothing that the 4 Horsemen won't eventually fix one way or another... as they always do.

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Def
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Re: Stopped evolving?

How will jockeys help?

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I don't know if I entirely agree with him.

Although a lot of our evolutionary pressures have vanished by shaping our environment to suit our current evolutionary preferences, we do have other artificial pressures. Stress, a preference for gregariousness within cities, the kinds of thought processes required for a modern life often lived in the office. Those that can better fit into that environment are likely to prosper.

However, I take his point that since our environment allows all to breed regardless of their "fitness" so-to-speak means that progress is likely to slow or stop.

The other, probably unspoken, implication of his piece is that because of the advances of medical science, those with genetic issues are "treated", thus perpetuating the genetic trait in a way that wouldn't happen in days gone by. That might be great for the individual, but not so for the race.

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Anonymous Coward

@skelband

Relative fertility still applies to people with treatable genetic disorders. In the developed world effective fertility is quite low - at or even below replacement. So long as people with better fitness have more than the average number of children, evolution continues.

The problem is that Nature is blind. If a single parent in a sink housing estate has more children than average, her genetic makeup is fitter. Attenborough may not like the idea that evolution might favour physically robust, promiscuous people of only average IQ, but if that's the way the cards are stacked, it's still evolution.

Tennyson understood this in the 19th century and wrote of the fossil record:

From scared cliff or quarried stone

She cries, 'a thousand types are gone

I care for nothing, no not one'

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Re: @skelband

Idiocracy explained that model quite well.

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jdv
Holmes

> Those that can better fit into that environment are likely to prosper.

The question is whether being likely to prosper is the same as having a higher chance of breeding. My hypothesis is that it isn't.

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All true of course: ability and opportunity to breed is of course the overriding concern.

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Anonymous Coward

This is what annoys me about all the people who object to genetic medicine based on such arguments as "we are messing with nature". We messed with nature when we introduced the medical breakthroughs which allowed people with genetic disorders to grow old enough to breed. We have allowed traits to be passed to the next generation which normally would not as the carrier would normally die before sexual maturity. We therefore need to either eliminate the condition through genetic medicine, or stop treating the people in the first place and letting them die. I (and I would hope most other right thinking people) would opt for the first option.

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Re: @skelband

"that evolution might favour physically robust, promiscuous people of only average IQ, but if that's the way the cards are stacked, it's still evolution."

Average IQ??? Have you seen the breeders?

Here's a joke to explain the situation to you

Shazza is down at the dole office........

Dole Officer: "And how many children do you have?"

Shazza: "Ten"

Dole Officer "And what are their names?"

Shazza:"Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne and Wayne,"

Dole Officer: "Isn't that confusing?"

Shazza: "Na it's great. When it's tea time, I just yell 'Wayne yours dinner is ready' and they all come and when I get sick of them I yell 'Wayne, get ta bed' and they all go to bed."

Dole Officer: "But what if you want to call just one of them?"

Shazza: "That's easy. I just use their surname........"

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Facepalm

Re: @skelband

For a very obvious reason; I shouldn't tell that joke to the professional semi-permanent pregant doleite in the next cottage further down the lane...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @skelband

Precisely, I am pretty uncomfortable with the "sink estate dead end" argument, many people in earlier years grew up in poverty in places like the East End of London and elsewhere, it didn't stop them becoming respected members of society.

Talk to any Psychologist and all of the arguments about how we develop break down into nature vs nurture, genetics vs upbringing and environment, in there own way the people he is deriding are surviving well in their own environment, gaming the system and in a breakdown of governmental control they would be far better equipped to defend themselves and survive than an academic.

I remember a friend who had a degree in maths from a prestigious university who worked for a spell in a factory, he admitted to me that the "uneducated" guys he worked with were able to work out the return from extra overtime in their heads far quicker than he was able, and correctly to the penny, what many educated people think of as intelligence is much more down to knowing the conventions and having the opportunity to study a particular area, I don't believe for a minute we have a human "sub species" living on Council estates.

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Have You Seen The Breeders?

Thorne wrote:

"Have you seen the breeders?"
Funnily enough, yes... The Jeremy Kyle Show is on the telly as I type this! :D

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Childcatcher

Agreement

@skelband: Although a lot of our evolutionary pressures have vanished by shaping our environment to suit our current evolutionary preferences, we do have other artificial pressures.

Precisely! Evolutionary pressures still exist. While we have more and more influence on our environment over time, every species influences its environment and is in turn influenced by the changes it introduces. The difference in our current situation and that of the past is a matter of degree, not kind. I would argue that while the effects are dramatic, only when we directly and consciously manipulate genetic makeup do we circumvent evolutionary pressures (and perhaps not even then).

Following this argument further, we have a relatively short history of genetically engineered organisms. In as much as we do not release these organisms into the wild, we might argue that their evolution is at an end.

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@AC 00:49

"This is what annoys me about all the people who object to genetic medicine based on such arguments as "we are messing with nature". We messed with nature when we introduced the medical breakthroughs which allowed people with genetic disorders to grow old enough to breed."

It goes back further than that - we "messed with nature" as soon as we learned how to use fire and cook food. It is what H. sapiens does very well, this "messing with nature. In fact, you could say it is our nature to mess with with nature.

I spend a lot of time with a different hat on asking people what they mean when they talk about nature/natural. Many of them on the eco-nutter side manage to show that they consider humans to be "unnatural" ...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @skelband

Aargh- just noticed the typo. Android autocorrect changed 'scarped cliff' to 'scared cliff'. Google's AI can't cope with geology.

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Re: @skelband

you must have a different version:

"I care for nothing, all shall go" in mine ...

thanks for the Tennyson!

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

No he makes the correct point that "number of offspring surviving to breeding age" is now totally disconnected with any genetically inherited characteristics.

If accidents are the major cause of death of young people it's hard to see the selection pressure - unless there is a gene for not stepping in front of a bus,

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Trollface

Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

Even I know Attenborough is wrong, just from reading ...

The human race evolves very slowly in human timescales ...

I suspect that he's both right and wrong.

The human race will probably be evolving in terms of resistance to certain infections. A "good" flu pandemic is likely to kill off staggering numbers of people despite the best efforts of the drugs industry. So the post pandemic population is likely to have a higher natural immunity to that strain of flu. So to that extent he's wrong.

But we also help all sorts of people to procreate that couldn't do it naturally. IVF is allowing unsuccessful genetic pairings to have offspring. So this is stopping evolution from removing these people from the gene pool.

As to survival of the fittest, well we might not like the results of "fittest to reproduce" in a so called advanced civilisation. Outwardly successful people tend to have fewer children, so are choosing to not be genetically successful, in terms of having large numbers of offspring and so pass their genes on as much as possible. While typically those who've been less successful in the modern world are much more likely to have more kids and so are more genetically successful.

As they say, the future's bright, the future's orange.

We'll evolve into a species with a natural predisposition to spray tan.

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Def
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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

I've been saying for a long time that IQ tests should be mandatory precursors to having children. Within a hundred years we'd be a fitter, smarter species, most probably with only the slightest residual traces of religion hanging on at the edges of society.

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Re: the future's bright, the future's orange

Did everyone view Idiocracy as a documentary, rather than a piece of entertainment (or have I made the similar mistake of taking this forum far too seriously)?

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Re: the future's bright, the future's orange

@Lamont -

This is what happens you get a self-selected group of society's natural victims in one place bemoaning their lot when not reading their support scripts to people they despise for living much richer and more full lives than they do. It becomes semi-fascistic. I and my peer-group of second-class degrees and unnatural obsessions with Dr Who assistants should be the only ones allowed to breed! although usually put less honestly in terms of (highly gameable) IQ tests and proficiency with something nobody else in universe gives a shit about, such as Ruby on Rails.

What makes it particularly hilarious is their "educated" opinions. There was a post recently about Hyper-V from some TechEd conference down under. The sheer amount of retarded commentry on it served to finally disabuse me of the notion that the Reg's commentards are of any benefit to anyone at all and point firmly to a state where they should absolutely not be allowed to breed.

Luckily, most never will.

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

"If accidents are the major cause of death of young people it's hard to see the selection pressure - unless there is a gene for not stepping in front of a bus,"

Accidents are definitely a selection pressure when they are avoidable, but society tries to sidestep that too.

Surely there are genes that dictate your natural level of situational awareness; in days gone by the vast majority of folk who frequently did something dumb like crossing the road without looking or cutting a branch while sitting on it would have removed themselves from the gene pool. Nowadays with our collective knowledge of medicine and physiotherapy, they survive and re-enter society, possibly to pass on genes that Nature alone would have gotten rid of.

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

I suspect Sir David knows more about evolution than you do "just from reading Stephen Jay Gould and Scientific American". Probably a lot more.

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

Well, as I tried to explain, the number of offspring surviving to breeding age is not as significant as how many offspring they have in turn.

If the Daily Mail sink estate mother with 7 kids by different fathers (I believe there are really not that many, but it isn't important for the argument) brings those children up to be drug addicts, they may survive to breeding age but that does not mean that they in turn will have more, or as many, children as average. It may be a breeding pattern which, on evolutionary timescales, tends to die out. As the Darwin Awards points out, both death and infertility have the same effect on reproductive fitness.

There is another factor. If educated, well off people have fewer offspring but they are, owing to lack of social mobility, drawn from a steadily narrowing gene pool, there is a selection pressure at work here too. Evolution can occur within subgroups of populations. H G Wells, with his Eloi and Morlocks, was clearly aware of this. Evolutionary change can occur within isolated subgroups (Darwin's finches, even if some of his examples turned out to be incorrect). If those subgroups deliberately choose to isolate themselves, this doesn't mean it is not evolution.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: the future's bright, the future's orange - @dogged

Too late, in my case. I have grandchildren...

Oh, and stuff you, you and your delusions of your own superiority. It's quite funny that you start by complaining about other people, and then we find in the last paragraph that you behave exactly like the group you're complaining about.

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

You may be right, but I have never seen anything published by him that suggests that this is the case.

My point was that anyone who works through Jay Gould's explanations of how selection actually works and what evolution means, will see that Attenborough is repeating some of the fallacies that Gould complains of. If expert evolutionary biologist with extensive peer reviewed publication history A says one thing and explains with examples the thinking behind it, and naturalist B makes unsupported comments which appear to disregard A, then I'm surely entitled to think that A knows more than B

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Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

"Outwardly successful people tend to have fewer children, so are choosing to not be genetically successful, in terms of having large numbers of offspring and so pass their genes on as much as possible"

Is that actually the case?

It may be, but "successful" in human terms is not necessarily the same as "successful" in evolutionary terms. You may also be assuming that "successful" is a desirable trait - when, as it usually involves consuming far more energy and occupying far more space than the average person, it may be very undesirable in terms of the long term survival of genus homo.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Naturalist! = evolutionary biologist

And again, what evidence have you that IQ tests test for any desirable outcome, in terms of the long term survival of our species?

The tests needed to decide whether people should be allowed to have children could be rather different. A world full of over-competitive people good at abstract reasoning might result in ever more vicious wars to control resources, ideological conflicts, and the use of sterilisation to ensure the success of one political/social group over another.

169, since you ask. And I know that it is only useful for a rather narrow range of jobs. I would, for instance, be a crappy farmer, and farmers are far more likely to ensure human survival than are software engineers.

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Re: "IQ"

It seems it's necessary to point out (again) that IQ is a measure that is normalised to the average. An IQ of 100 is always the average intelligence of the population at the time.

I speculate that this means that a person with an IQ of 100 today is significantly less intelligent than someone with IQ 100 of a few decades ago. The average intelligence is declining, because we are making it easier and easier for people to survive and reproduce, many of whom would not be capable or fit to do so in a natural environment.

That is not even mentioning the fact that most implementations of a welfare state (e.g. UK) actually incentivise people to indiscriminately produce more mouths to feed.

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Facepalm

Re: IQ tests

@ Def. Thanks for the laugh.

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Who TF is David Attenborough?

Sure, he's the guy on the telly that my parents used to watch, but when did he make the jump from media luvvie to monopolist of the truth? Senile twat.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

He's the guy that Adam Savage imitates when he wants to piss off Jamie Hyneman....

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

You sir, are an ignoramus of epic proportions, please do humanity a favour and don't procreate.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

>Who TF is David Attenborough?

>Sure, he's the guy on the telly that my parents used to watch, but when did he make the jump from media

>luvvie to monopolist of the truth? Senile twat.

Juvenile twat. Baby twat. Twatlette.

(wtf are you?)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

Someone who is more respected and loved than you ever will be in your whole life.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

Wow, just wow.

Sir David Frederick Attenborough, BA(CANTAB) MSC OM CH CVO CBE FRS FZS FSA

OM - Order of Merit

CH - Order of the Companions of Honour

CVO - Royal Victorian Order

CBE - Order of the British Empire

FRS - Fellow of the Royal Society

FZS - Fellow of the Zoological Society

FSA - Fellow of the Society of Antiquities

As controller of BBC2, commissioned The Old Grey Whistle Test, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Money Programme, America and The Ascent of Man.

Written and presented countless award winning natural history programmes.

Reknowned as "the great communicator, the peerless educator" and "the greatest broadcaster of our time."

And just what exactly have you acheived to feel qualified to call this man a Senile twat? MCSE? Foundation ITIL?

I despair.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

"Sure, he's the guy on the telly that my parents used to watch, but when did he make the jump from media luvvie to monopolist of the truth? Senile twat."

Now that is a beautifully condensed, practically perfect example of why the human race never learns from experience. For a start, Sir David is not a "media luvvie": he has a science degree, studied for a postgraduate degree in anthropology (unfinished), and has spent the last 45 years or so studying wildlife. Only a very thoughtless person would believe that he didn't learn a very great deal about biology and related topics in that time. (By the way, Wikipedia notes that "[b]y January 2013 Attenborough had collected 31 honorary degrees from British universities, more than any other person").

"Senile twat". That charming epithet lies at the root of the problem. Yes, Sir David is old: 87 and counting. But he is very obviously NOT senile, or suffering from the slightest mental diminution. Yet you apparently believe that just because he is very old, and admired by your parents, he is necessarily a fool and his opinions worthless.

Every generation - arrogant young men in particular - finds reasons for looking down with contempt on all previous generations. How else could they convince themselves of that very important belief: that they are the brightest, most creative, and best people who have ever lived? (Which is intuitively obvious to them).

As usual, the whole issue was pithily summed up by George Orwell: "Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it". But of course Orwell would be 110 if he were still alive, so I shudder to think what your opinion of him must be.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough? @Shagbag

Spectacular piece of trollery there, old chap.

Hats off to you, indeed.

Not that I wish to encourage such stuff, but some people really should learn to

NOT FEED THE TROLL!

I'd venture there's enough troll food here to sustain your average Ringlefinch for about a year.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

All of this may be true, but I missed the PhD in an evolution-related subject, that would actually qualify him to make his statements.

Being eminent is not a guarantee of being right. And as for your Orwell quote, it doesn't alter the single most important fact about science; that subsequent generations build on the knowledge of their forebears, and so young scientists DO know more than old but distinguished scientists who haven't kept up in their field. That is why elderly scientists tend to stick to good works and administration rather than pontification.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

"I missed the PhD in an evolution-related subject, that would actually qualify him to make his statements".

It's funny how one of the oldest of logical fallacies - the appeal to authority - has become institutionalized in the worship of qualifications. You don't need a PhD, a degree, or even a GCSE to understand the salient principles of evolution. All you need is reasonable intelligence, some books, and commitment. By the same token, plenty of PhDs and professors say things that are demonstrably wrong.

May I point out that Charles Darwin didn't have a PhD in an evolution-related subject? Yet without his books, there would be no such subject as evolution - let alone PhDs in it. Let's have a quick look at Wikipedia to refresh our memory. First, we learn that Darwin was a naturalist (just like Attenborough); indeed it was his extensive observations of living creatures in the course of his travels that gave him the material for his theory of evolution.

"Darwin's early interest in nature led him to neglect his medical education at the University of Edinburgh; instead, he helped to investigate marine invertebrates."

Ho hum. So Darwin, just like Attenborough, was a naturalist. Just like Attenborough, he started out studying a biology-like subject (medicine) but neglected it because he found it far more interesting to study actual wildlife. And then he thought up the theory of evolution, which somehow caught on despite his lack of a PhD in it.

One may also note that neither Newton nor Einstein had a PhD in physics. And so on.

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Re: Who TF is David Attenborough?

"...subsequent generations build on the knowledge of their forebears, and so young scientists DO know more than old but distinguished scientists who haven't kept up in their field".

By that logic, each new generation of scientists know more, as individuals, than anyone who lived before them. In a few more generations we may have a dangerous epidemic of bursting crania, as the sheer amount of knowledge becomes to great for their skulls to hold.

Actually, of course, the trend is for individual scientists to know more about less. Which may not be a good thing at all, as eventually it would lead to people who know everything about nothing.

As a matter of interest, when was the last time a scientist came up with a breakthrough on the order of Darwin's theory of evolution, Babbage's computing engines, Maxwell's work on electromagnetic radiation, Einstein's relativity, the Big Bang theory, or Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's ideas about panspermia?

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