One of the strangest aspects of our understanding of evolutionary biology is the tendency to conflate a sprawling protean dynamic into a sliver of a phenomenon. Most prominently, evolution is often reduced to a process driven by natural selection, with an emphasis on the natural. When people think of populations evolving they imagine them being buffeted by inclement weather, meteors, or smooth geological shifts. These are all natural, physical phenomena, and they all apply potential selection pressures. But this is not the same as evolution; it’s just one part. A more subtle aspect of evolution is that much of the selection is due to competition between living organisms, not their relationship to exterior environmental conditions.
The question of what drives evolution is a longstanding one. Stephen Jay Gould famously emphasized of the role of randomness, while Richard Dawkins and others prioritize the shaping power of natural selection. More finely still, there is the distinction between those which emphasize competition across the species versus within species. And then there are the physical, non-biological forces.
Evolution as selection. Evolution as drift. Evolution as selection due to competition between individuals of the same species. Evolution as selection due to competition between individuals of different species. And so forth. There are numerous models, theories, and conjectures about what’s the prime engine of evolution. The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin famously observed that in the 20th century population geneticists constructed massively powerful analytic machines, but had very little data which they could throw into those machines. And so it is with theories of evolution. Until now.
Over the past 10 years in the domain of human genetics and evolution there has been a swell of information due to genomics. In many ways humans are now the “trial run” for our understanding of evolutionary process. Using theoretical models and vague inferences from difficult-to-interpret signals, our confidence in the assertions about the importance of any given dynamic have always been shaky at best. But now with genomics, researchers are testing the data against the models.
A recent paper is a case in point of the methodology. Using 500,000 markers, ~50 populations, and ~1,500 people, the authors tested a range of factors against their genomic data. The method is conceptually simple, though the technical details are rather abstruse. The ~1,500 individuals are from all around the globe, so the authors could construct a model where the markers varied as a function of space. As expected, most of the genetic variation across populations was predicted by the variation across space, which correlates with population demographic history; those populations adjacent to each other are likely to have common recent ancestors. But the authors also had some other variables in their system which varied as a function of space in a less gradual fashion: climate, diet, and pathogen loads. The key is to look for those genetic markers and populations where the expectation of differences being driven as a function of geography do not hold. Neighbors should be genetically like, but what if they’re not? Once you find a particular variant you can then see how it varies with the factors listed above.
Every few years it seems that the British biologist Steve Jones declares the death of evolution by natural selection in the human species. The logic here is simple even to a schoolboy: evolution requires variation in fitness, and with declining risk by death during our reproductive years humans have abolished the power of selection. But this confuses the symptom for the disease. Death is simply one way that natural selection can occur. Michelle Duggar has 19 children. The average American woman has around two by the end of her reproductive years. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that Michelle Duggar is more “fit” in the evolutionary sense than the average bear. Even without high rates of death, some people have more children than other people, and if those people who have more children than those who do not are different from each other in inherited traits, evolution must occur. Q.E.D.
But you probably shouldn’t be convinced by logic alone. Science requires theory, experiment, and observation. (If you’re talking humans, you can remove the second from the list of possibilities: there are certain unavoidable ethical obstacles to experimenting on human evolution—plus we take far too long to reproduce.) But humans sometimes have something which bacteria can not boast: pedigrees! Not all humans, of course. Like most of the world’s population I don’t have much of a pedigree beyond my great-grandparents’ generation. But luckily for biologists, the Catholic Church has long taken a great interest in life events such as baptism, marriage, and death, and recorded this info parish by parish. With these basic variables, demographers can infer the the rough life histories of many local populations over the centuries. In many European nations, these databases can go more than 10 generations back. And some aspects of human evolution are revealed by these records.
What aspects am I talking about? Reproduction itself. Not only is variation in fitness one of the primary ways by which evolution occurs, but it is also a trait upon which evolution operates! How else are there rabbits which breed like…rabbits, and pandas…which don’t. There is often variation within species for the odds of multiple births, age at first reproduction, and lifespan, depending upon the differences in selection pressures over a population. And that seems to be exactly what occurs in human beings. There is interesting evidence for evolution of reproductive patterns from populations as diverse African pygmies and Finns, but more recently some researchers have been plumbing the depths of the records of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec, and they’ve come back with gold.