Monthly Archives: April 2009

Christophopher Dye lecturing on “Are Humans Still Evolving?”

For me, evolution is a given. I see the evidence for evolution all around – in plants and birds and domestic animals; in life-threatening diseases and the limited ways in which we treat them. But I have also believed that Homo sapiens had probably stopped evolving: we have developed the ability to change our environment rather than be changed by it.

I was therefore very interested to see a lecture by Christopher Dye at Gresham College entitled “Are Human Beings Still Evolving?

Dye too accepted evolution – the change in species through heritable adaptation in response to natural selection – as a given: he gave lots of examples and observations to support Darwin’s theory. But he also gave lots of evidence to prove my supposition that man had stopped evolving was wrong.

I wasn’t alone in my belief. Dye quoted Stephen Jay Gould, who believed there had been no biological change in humans in 40,000 years, and Steve Jones, who reckoned that with medicine reducing deaths before reproductive age and the modern reduction in human fertility – both necessary for differential reproduction through which evolving can occur – that humans were outside the process of evolution. (A fascinating corollary is that many of the diseases that plague modern life – those of old age – can never be eradicated through evolution: by the time they are active, humans have stopped reproducing: resistance to most cancers or Alzheimer’s disease can convey no reproductive advantage.)

In a fascinating discourse, Dye presented much evidence indicating the contrary: that in much of the world, the death rates of children and the evidence of differential reproduction demonstrate that indeed the survival of the fitter – natural selection – is still active: worldwide, ten million children die before the age of five years every year (often from illness which it is in our power to stop); it is just that most evolutionary scientists are in the privileged position of working in developed nations, where childhood mortality is greatly reduced and fertility is generally below or at the replacement rate. Similarly, some individuals in the developing world produce many more children than others.

But it is not entirely a process limited to the developing world. Different parts of England have significantly different childhood mortality rates, which have been stable in terms of the relative pattern since the 1860s.

Dye presented much data to support his view that there had been extensive selection pressure in the last 80,000 years – and that the rate of change – the rate of evolution – had increased in the last 40,000 years, and particularly in the last 10,000 years: modern man is still evolving, probably as a result of increased population growth in recent times.

I was going to go into a lot more detail, but you can read Dye’s lecture notes for yourself: I would just be regurgitating his thoughts. (You can also read some of what he said in the Independent; but they seem to have posted only some of his lecture, and messed that up, too.) But he definitely convinced me that man is still evolving.

Instead, I want to say what an excellent institution I think Gresham’s is. In the last month, I have been to two events they have organised, and both have been fascinating. They seem to attract an eclectic and interested audience – and a large one, too. I anticipate I shall go frequently to their lectures when I can.

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Communing with Communities…

Where I live, there is a community market. The community market includes a community fishmonger, a community butcher, a community greengrocer and a community florist; on Saturdays only, especially for the strong north London French community, a community fromagerie who only sells French cheese, and for the chauvinistic Covent Garden community, a community Neals Yard cheese merchant, whilst on Sundays there is a community antiques market – for the aged community, presumably.

I have no idea what any of these have to do with the community, except that people locally may shop there – as may anyone else. Perhaps a local market for local people wouldn’t resonate so much. Or neighbourhood market; or frankly, just “market” – because that is of course what it is.

Community” is a word I have problems with; I have been thinking about writing something about it – and my lack of understanding – for a while; but it is having difficulty coming out; this is the best I have done, so far…

Community is something I have discussed a lot – often with Francesca, for whom community is a particularly powerful concept, and more recently with people at BarCamp Scotland – indeed, a lot of the things I hope to discuss here were raised in conversation with @btocher, @lynncorrigan, 0olong, Cairmen, Peter Ashe and others at BarCamp, whom I thank!

One of the problems with “community” is that the word means so many different things to different people that it actually means nothing. I don’t think this is just semantics: people use the word because it does have powerful associations. When I first got a mobile phone, the service provider welcomed me to the “biggest mobile community in the World”, as if possessing a mobile phone was all that it took to create a romantic, nomadic lifestyle. The director of the department I used to work in used the word community as he vainly tried to control loosely connected work groups. Politicians talk about “community leaders” – a job I never saw advertised. This Government is particularly fond of community: there is the Department for Communities and Local Government, headed up by Hazel Blears (and I bet her idea of community is miles away from mine – if I had one…); they talk about !community justice” (which sounds like vigilantism to me – the posse is coming to a community near you!) and “community policing”. Schools have become “community learning centres”. The media talk about the “gay community”, the “black community”, the “Asian community”, the “Christian community”, and “Muslim community” – indeed, pick a religion – all manner of communities, as a shorthand for broad heterogeneous groups (and that sounds like stereotyping to me…).

And frankly it is all meaningless.

Perhaps it is just me. I was a teenager in the 1970s and a student in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s version of conservatism took its grip over the country. Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”, and maybe there’s no such thing as community – just people living, working and playing together.

Or perhaps it is just that I lack the genes that make me feel part of a community: I have of course been parts of things other people see as communities – neighbourhoods, schools, colleges, academic and professional practices, large corporate organisations – but growing up in a large city and subsequently living in three or four other large cities, maybe the sense of community left me: I see aggregations of individuals. People I know who come from small towns or villages certainly seem to have a stronger sense of community. Maybe that is what I call “friends”?

Or maybe everything can be seen as being part of a community: because Homo sapiens is a social animal; perhaps society is community. (Was @virginia875 right and it is just semantics?)

The context around community matters a lot. In Wikinomics, it is proposed that the value of contributors to (ugh) “Web2.0” is in part created by the sense of community created through collaboration, openness and sharing. There has been a lot of talk of how successful interactive, social media create a sense of community – such as Wikipedia, flickr, LiveJournal or Facebook. Thing is, of course, I am an active participant on these sites: I post photographs to groups on flickr, I belong to various communities on LJ, I remorselessly poke people on Facebook; none of which engender a sense of community in me.

Some of the strongest feelings around community seems to stem from those engaged in open source computing or other networks on the web. Talking to some who have been involved in online communities, they felt a community requires collaboration, participation – and hierarchy – this last, I believe, because the people I spoke to had been involved in moderating their communities, although they thought that even unmoderated communities had an implicit hierarchy. In society – at least in the Government’s eyes – there seems to be an implied hierarchy, too: one in which the establishment – their establishment – is on top.

Here are some of the things that others have suggested that create a sense of community:

  • shared values
  • shared meaning
  • shared interest
  • emotional attachment
  • shared commitment
  • shared assumptions

All of which sound like a shared culture to me: so what is the role of culture in establishing a community?

In the offline world, community seems most to be used around a specific locale – a neighbourhood, like my local market – or a “special interest group”. I am not sure that either of these have these shared attributes: they can have, but it isn’t a given. Just because I live somewhere, it doesn’t mean I have similar values to my neighbours (indeed, I wouldn’t presume to say what their values were).

And everyone has a different, changeable definition of community.