Another Great Example of Evolutionary Thinking

In a recent report, Oliver Curry, an evolutionary theorist at the London School of Economics, claims that the human species may split into two separate sub-species. There seems to be quite a bit of internet hoo-ha over this story, which often tends to be the case when someone makes outlandish claims about human evolutionary trajectories past or future. However, as far as I can tell the original report is unavailable, so there is no telling whether or not it was undertaken in all seriousness. Although, perhaps the fact that the report was commissioned by Bravo, who also brought us shows like “My God, I’m My Dad” and “Costa Del Street Crime”, should imbue us with a good measure of reassurance. After all, it would hardly be surprising to find out that Curry had taken this as an opportunity to feed Bravo a hammed up version of Gattaca and run off with a lump of cash. Furthermore – it’s not as if science journalism is free from shoddy reporting, so the clumsiness may well have been written in afterwards.

Anyway, Curry’s report claims that the human population will diverge into two sub-species, a genetic upper and lower class. Apparently, those lucky enough to be born into the upper class will be healthy, intelligent and attractive whereas those born of genetically plebeian parents will be dim-witted, short, ugly and unhealthy.

He also says that assortative mating will be the mechanism responsible for this speciation event (the evolutionary point at which two species diverge). Assortative mating happens when organisms select their mates based on certain characteristics. In this case, he’s claiming that a speciation event will result from the tendency of healthy, intelligent and attractive people to mate with other healthy, intelligent and attractive people and dim-witted, short and ugly people to, in turn, mate with their respective counterparts.

Now, this is a particularly surprising claim. And here’s why. All these traits are know as continuously varying traits, (i.e. traits that vary continuously between two extremes). This means that for assortative mating to lead to this kind of speciation event, those with intermediate trait values (niether especially attractive or ugly, dim-witted or intelligent, etc.) would have to somehow be prevented from breeding whilst those at the two extremes ‘got busy’, so to speak. By preventing intermediate phenotypes from breeding whilst encouraging the mating of those at the two extremes it’s possible we could see a speciation event in the far-future. However, unless Curry has reason to believe that some pretty weird eugenic policies are going to be implemented he has no reason to make this prediction.

The second outrageous claim is that in ten thousand years time our increasing reliance on technology will have caused substantial deterioration in our ability to communicate with other humans, as well as in our ability to love, trust and feel sympathy. Now, if this is simply a assertion about the causal relationship between technology and these human abilities then it is simply an empirical issue (albeit likely a false one) – for it could be the case, for example, that growing up with technology really does impede one’s ability to communicate, love, trust and feel sympathy. None of this, however, has anything to do with evolutionary trajectories, so if this is Curry’s claim, it is, at best, irrelevant.

If however, intead, this is a claim about the evolutionary relationship between increased use of technology and these human abilities then it’s particularly odd; he would be committing himself to the idea that those worse at communicating, loving, trusting and feeling sympathy will be those that tend to have more offspring. So unless this technology is technology to prevent loving, caring and trusting people from having children then Curry has given us no reason to believe his claim. But then again, maybe he has a patent pending.


4 Responses to “Another Great Example of Evolutionary Thinking”

  1. 1 Chris October 28, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks so much for this! I read these ridiculous predictions yesterday reported in multiple news sources, and couldn’t understand why it was being reported at all. There was so little logic in it, and no consultation with other evolutionary theorists to see what they might have thought of Curry’s dubious claims. I also had the thought that perhaps the reporters themselves were botching the information, but when I saw that the report was commissioned by a men’s television station, it started to make a little more sense. Curry got paid to tell male viewers that in the future they’ll have bigger penises and women will be better looking. Oh. That’s good science! *sigh*

    Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed the problems with this headline-making “news.” Thanks for restoring some reason!

  2. 2 Chris October 28, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    I found Curry’s report!

    Unsurprisingly, the media did botch and distort a fair bit of what he said, but it’s still a messy mish-mosh at best.

  3. 3 Carlos Lopez October 29, 2007 at 12:04 am

    This is one of the best examples of bad science I’ve seen recently. It is a shame how Curry is trashing the reputation of a rather decent university.

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