Briefly Noted: We Are Taming Ourselves


Conventional wisdom among anthropologists used to be that human evolution stopped about 50,000 years ago. Since then, according to paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, "Everything we've called culture and civilization we've built with the same body and brain." 

Not so, claim the University of Utah anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending in their new book, The 10,000 Year Explosion (Basic Books). Recent genomic screening suggests that civilization has accelerated human evolution. Cochran and Harpending find evidence that the higher population densities made possible by farming created selective pressures that favored genetic shifts toward more sociality, less violence, greater tolerance of alcohol, and more resistance to infectious diseases.

Even more intriguingly, certain genes associated with brain function have been sweeping through human populations. We need to take genetic change as well as cultural change into account to understand the human past and present. —Ronald Bailey