Are we still evolving? Or has our mastery of the environment stopped natural selection in its tracks? In Children of Prometheus, biologist Christopher Wills gives a surprising answer: that the evolution of Homo sapiens is actually accelerating. To make this controversial case, Wills takes us to the far reaches of the planet. To the Tibetan plateau, where the severe climate has prompted rapid, short-term evolutionary change. To Africa, where human-caused ecological upheaval continues to spawn ever more virulent ...
Are we still evolving? Or has our mastery of the environment stopped natural selection in its tracks? In Children of Prometheus, biologist Christopher Wills gives a surprising answer: that the evolution of Homo sapiens is actually accelerating. To make this controversial case, Wills takes us to the far reaches of the planet. To the Tibetan plateau, where the severe climate has prompted rapid, short-term evolutionary change. To Africa, where human-caused ecological upheaval continues to spawn ever more virulent strains of infectious diseases - diseases which in turn affect the evolutionary course of their hosts. To the hushed corridors of Whitehall, where job stress is taking some British civil servants to an early death. In each of these cases - and in the many others that Wills examines - our power over nature has done nothing to halt evolution's unrelenting march. Spurred by a rapidly changing environment, and acting on our ever-expanding gene pool, natural selection will likely take us even deeper into uncharted territory. And Wills offers an exciting glimpse into this fascinating and frenetic future. What will become of our species as more and more of us wire our brains into vast electronic webs? Or pop "smart drugs" that alter the brain's very biochemical structure? Or adapt to bizarre conditions on extrasolar planets?
...[S]plendidly eclectic....[H]e undertakes to "show...that our evolution — particularly the evolution of our minds —is actually proceeding at an accelerating pace."
Wills (biology, U. of California-San Diego) argues that human are evolving faster rather than slower than they used to, at least partly because of the changes they themselves have made in their environment. He describes harsh climates in Tibet, new diseases in Africa, stress in the British civil service, and other causes as spurs to rapid adaptation. Pbk. edition (0168-5) $15. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Paul R. Gross
[I]t remains worth arguing that humankind has evolved and is stille volving. Children of Prometheus advances the argument more effectively than most books, whether scholarly or popular....Technical parts of the argument...read smoothly, betraying none of the labor that must have gone into the writing....[T]his is an authoritative antidote to the...trendy calumny that evolution...is just a tired 19th-century iea, ripe for overthrowing.
— WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
...[S]plendidly eclectic....[H]e undertakes to "show...that our evolution -- particularly the evolution of our minds --is actually proceeding at an accelerating pace."
Building on earlier ideas (presented in The Runaway Brain, 1993, and Exons, Introns and Talking Genes, 1991), Wills, an English evolutionary biologist transplanted to the Univ. of Calif., San Diego, makes a cogent case for the continued and even more rapid future evolution of our species. The counterargument: Since the advent of life-saving drugs, vaccines, clean water, and other public health measures, even the "unfit" survive so handily that natural selection has nothing to work on. Not true, says Wills (and most evolutionary biologists), presenting such interesting evidence in support of his position as the finding that native Tibetans have as a group lived longer than anyone anywhere else at extreme altitudes with the help of adaptive changes. (Even during pregnancy, the Tibetan fetus is able to extract more oxygen and achieve a normal birth weight more successfully than newborns of nonadapted Chinese living the same area.) Wills is at his best in presenting examples such as this, as well as in his detailed discussions of the genetic trade-offs that have led to the survival of sickle cell or cystic fibrosis genes. Via these, he reprises the paleontological literature, focusing on his pet theme: the rapid growth of the human brain and mental faculties. His opinion: Environment plays a major role in interactions with genes, which among themselves may act quite mysteriously. He also points to new evidence that the uterus itself constitutes an environment that contributes to the concordance for certain traits seen, and the difference in others, in identical twins. Ultimately, Wills forecasts a rosy future: "smart" pills for us to swallow as we learn more about the makeupof biochemical mind boosters; a gene pool diverse enough to meet future contingencies; life spans double what they are now. More important than this clearly optimistic vision are the cogent arguments about our evolutionary path to date and that make possible the uniquely human qualities of language, culture, and civilization.
Christopher Wills is Professor of Biology at the University of California at San Diego. His books include Yellow Fever, Black Goddess and Children of Prometheus. Jeffrey Bada is Professor of Marine Chemistry and Director of the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Exobiology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.