Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with Ken Weiss
What do we know about human variation that we didn’t know in Darwin’s time?
Well, we know for sure that we’re part of the natural world instead of being above the natural world, and we also know that we have a single evolutionary origin rather than multiple origins.
What do you mean when you say Darwin became a “lesser Darwinian” in your essay?
Darwin basically gave a theory of natural selection that supposedly applied to all organisms and all traits, but when it came to humans, he and many others, in his time and since, have said that we have overridden natural selection because we have culture. The idea of that argument is that culture protects us from the forces that would otherwise mold our nature, but that’s a mistake because culture has always been part of our evolution. From the very beginning, we have used tools for protection. We make things like fire to cook food that we couldn’t eat otherwise, we make clothing and shelter to protect us from the elements, and we have language that helps us – makes it possible for us to have social organization. These things have been with us and are inherently part of our nature from the very beginning.
Science still has a long way to go to sort out evolutionary processes?
I think that’s correct. In the case of the connection between genes and the traits that organisms have, we know the most interesting traits are controlled by a large number of genes and also by environmental factors, and these are very, very difficult to tease apart and to identify. So, as a result, it’s very hard to look at a genotype alone and predict what the organism will be like, except in very general terms. As far as natural selection goes and evolution, the same thing is true. Natural selection, most of the time, appears to be a very weak force. In other words, the difference between the favored and less favored genes is very slight at any given time, and that makes it difficult, at any time, to identify what's better and what's worse in evolutionary terms, and even more difficult, looking backwards in time to try to identify how that process worked in detail.
It’s surprising you say Natural Selection appears to be a very weak force?
The examples that we see on television and in textbooks are examples of very strong natural selection, such as pesticide resistance or the selection of colored moss against trees that birds can see or can’t see. Things like that are exaggerated examples and they tend to give an impression of selection as generally being much stronger than the genetic evidence suggests that it usually is.
What did Darwin’s “The Decent of Man” mean for Anthropology?
Well, he put everything, both human biology and culture, into an evolutionary or historical context in which one form grows out of another. He did a lot of try to compare different human cultures to the people in those cultures and although he was quite ethnocentric in doing that, he did give the idea that we can explain how people got to be how we are today and our variation in terms of evolutionary factors.
What do you think will be the next big discovery in Anthropology?
Well, this is, of course, just a guess, but here’s what I think, is that from Darwin’s time to this, we have been highly focused on competition and natural selection over the long term as the legacy of Darwin. I think what we’ll see is that besides that, there are some other very basic simple principles that can explain the way organisms are assembled, the way cells in an organism interact with each other, and I think, there, what we’ll see is that there’s a lot more cooperation than competition and that change, genetic change, is actually directed, rather than undirected. Using these principles, we will then move on to explain things that are quite different from the usual Darwinian explanations that we’ve had since Darwin’s time. Since his time, we’ve focused on competition and natural selection as leading to genotypes that determine the kind of organism that we are and, yet, one of the most characteristics of humans is things that are not determined. We assess the environment and we react to the environment in ways that are not hardwired by our genes and we don’t really understand how that works, and I think that the application of these various principles about how cells cooperate with each other will actually change our views from a highly predetermined view of the nature of humans to a highly unpredetermined view.