Are human beings still evolving in response to any recognizable factors?

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #142

Having now seen the cover of the book being summarized in my article, I’m thoroughly embarrassed that I didn’t investigate further. Shame on me!

That said, the claims are not entirely without merit, it seems.

Zanna Clay of the U of Birmingham, who has published with de Waal, also detracts from the stereotypical view. Emphasis in the quotation below is mine; it points to aggression in bonobos. They do not war as chimps and humans do, but they are far from peaceful. [Edited for accuracy.]

This is all true, but the public fascination with these behaviours has given rise to a view of bonobos that is a little extreme, says Zanna Clay of the University of Birmingham in the UK, who has spent years studying wild bonobos. “There is this perception that they have sex all the time, that they are like nymphomaniacs.”

The reality is more nuanced. The frequency of copulation in bonobos is not as high as most people assume, she says. “In terms of reproduction they are not more sexually active than chimps.”

The genital rubbing and touching is very common, but it only happens in very specific contexts, often ones that are not obviously sexual.

“People think they just do it for fun but it’s not really to do with that. It’s to do with uncertain social situations,” she says, summarizing the conclusions she and de Waal came to in a paper published in the journal Behaviour in 2014.

For instance, when a group arrives at a new feeding tree, there is tension over who is going to make the richest pickings. “The females will have lots of genital contact with each other and that will relieve the apprehension of this feeding competition,” says Clay. “Once they are calm they can actually feed together in the tree and be quite peaceful.”

Females will also often use genital rubbing to defuse tension between two rival groups, avoiding the kinds of violence seen in chimp wars. But this does not mean that bonobos are incapable of aggression.

“One of the reasons they have this genital touching is because they need to relieve tension after they’ve had fights.”

Things can get particularly nasty in zoos, where the artificial set-up can let females assume more power than they normally would in the wild. These super-dominant females can be pretty violent towards males, says Clay.

“There are lots of males in zoos that are missing digits. There’s a male bonobo that’s actually missing the tip of his penis because the female has bitten it off,” she says. “This isn’t quite [in line] with the stereotype of them being peaceful.”

(Stephen Matheson) #143

My impression is that you found a cultural spat with relatively little scientific impact. The author (Lynn Saxon) seems to have made her name by attempting to rebut Sex at Dawn, a speculative lay-level book from 2010 that causes good people to squirm because it’s in part about promiscuity. It is surely the case that this dispute, about whether “we” are or should be monogamous, has spawned the misuse of science by partisans on both sides of the… “debate.”

What remains undisputed is the dramatic difference between bonobos and chimps. This difference is relevant anytime human culture or behavior is examined in an evolutionary context. Our closest living relatives are chimps and bonobos, which gives every propagandist or partisan a choice: to choose one or the other (and thereby mislead their audience) or to acknowledge the incredibly interesting complexity that the chimp/bonobo/human tree exhibits.

(Stephen Matheson) #144

No, I disagree. Huge kudos for acknowledging an error. No more shame.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #145

It’s funny noticing the anxiety one can feel watching the little “sfmatheson replying…” :grinning:

I guess that means I’m not an alpha male…

(Randy) #146

It was also in BBC. I thought it sounded familiar…

(Stephen Matheson) #147

That’s the same piece that @AMWolfe linked above. I think it’s easy to see that the primatologists are trying to counter over-interpretation of their work. This is, IMO, different from claiming that the bonobo’s distinctness is a “myth.” The BBC piece doesn’t say that, because no primatologist says that. The upshot is that someone who points at chimp warfare as somehow more relevant to human evolution than bonobo genital-rubbing is someone cherry-picking data to tell a misleading story. At least that person will be way ahead of the hapless Jordan Peterson, who chose lobsters. :laughing:

(Mitchell W McKain) #148

Are human beings still evolving?

Yes, faster than ever. (though some stretching of what is meant by evolution is involved in arriving at this conclusion)

Genetically we are only seeing a great increase of genetic diversity as a result of the community protecting and supporting the survival of the individuals. But it is a mistake to think this represents an end or stalling out in the evolutionary process. The opposite is the case.

  1. The real driving force of evolution is not selection, but variation.
  2. In addition to the evolution of individuals there is also the evolution of communities. And while the first requires selection, the latter thrives on diversity because it serves the development of specialization, which in turn enables the development of production, transportation, and communication technologies. This has happened at least twice before, first with the development of eukaryotic cells and second with the development of multi-cellular organisms.
  3. But the greatest leaps forward in the evolutionary process is the advancement of information storage and transmission, such as when life on this planet learned to utilize DNA and RNA molecules. Human civilization has improved upon this with the development of language and other communication media. As a result we no longer suffer from the limitation of “no inheritance of acquired characteristics.” Now we learn things in the matter of years and radically transform the nature of our existence in mere decades.

What are the factors we are evolving in response to?

The environmental challenges are still there, including disease, disasters, waste management. In addition there are all kinds of internal challenges from social conflict and adjusting to the changes in life largely due to our own advances. But now our range of responses to these challenges are greatly increased to include legal and technological solutions. The DNA and biological solutions are much too slow to be of much value by comparison (not by its own learning/evolutionary methods anyway).


Thank your for your input, @sfmatheson . I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.

(Mitchell W McKain) #150

The trend I am seeing is a greater dependence on technology for having children and that is only going increase because the selection against some of the incompatibilities has been removed.

But where we go from here is going to depend on a number of social factors. So far we are not much in favor of tinkering with the genome of the next generation. And I am not in favor of parents having that much control in this area – too many dangerous implications. But overcoming the inability to have children might be considered a case where tinkering is allowed, in which case the trend above could go even further. The result is that future generations may be less able to interbreed with each other without help than they are able breed with our generation. This is not even a pointless question because “frozen” eggs and sperms could become a resource for future generations.

My overall point/message here is that there really is no separation between biological evolution and technology. They really are part of one and the same process.

(Mark D.) #151

So we are continuing to evolve in the general sense of the word but perhaps not in the Darwinian sense. I don’t disagree but it was really the biological sense of evolution I had in mind. Do you think that is still possible except under catastrophic conditions?

(Mitchell W McKain) #152

Even in the biological sense, evolution continues. Even that hasn’t slowed down in the slightest. It is just harder to see, because pattern is a little different. The increase in variation is a part of biological evolutionary change which is happening, and I have shown how the interaction with technology changes the biology also. The point is that you cannot talk of biological evolution in isolation from the technology anymore.

Go back to the last time this happened with multi-cellular organisms. Did biological evolution stop because the communities were protecting the individuals? No. Quite the opposite. It frankly looks even faster. But except for the increase in diversity, the changes in the individuals, the cells, were not so dramatic. They simply were not the whole story anymore. The interactions between the cells became the more important changes. Think about the comparisons we have been making between humans and chimpanzees. Are the cells really different? Except for the genetic material, not at all. The real changes are frankly the analog of what we call technology found in the interaction between the cells and things made possible by the specialized roles they are playing.

(Mark D.) #153

I agree that medicine generally and especially better child bearing supports is a good example of technologically enhanced biological evolution. It just doesn’t seem to be the kind of evolution which would be capable of ‘dividing the herd’ toward new speciation. Of course most speciation seems to need isolation of populations as a catalyst anyway and our technology makes that increasingly unlikely. But I have to concede even with that difference, we are still evolving.

(Jay Johnson) #154

Sorry that I’m late answering the bell, @AMWolfe, but I have the same impression as Stephen. The blogger’s previous post on bonobos actually was more in line with Stephen’s take, as the post included a quote from a primatologist that shed some light:

Data sets from the wild clearly show that over the course of a year female bonobos do not copulate any more than female chimpanzees. So let’s put that myth to bed right now. Females are not dominant over males in the sense that all male chimpanzees are dominant over all female chimpanzees. This is a very poorly understood area and we predict that future results will show that their dominance system is more to do with mother/son coalitions.

Bonobos are violent. Granted they are not as violent as chimps but then what animal is? They fight and aggress each other just like any other group living species that have intragroup competition. Males sometimes rip infants from their mothers arms and bully the mothers. It happens, it’s a reality and an adaptive function of normal bonobo society.

Copulating face to face – again, guess where this idea came from – captivity. Where they don’t have trees to climb in. I’ve recorded hundreds of copulations in wild bonobos. Want to know what percentage was ventral-ventral? 5%. All ventral-ventral copulations were when they were on the ground. It’s not about being face to face, it’s about what position is most convenient.

Bonobos – not sex crazed, not peace loving, not female dominated. But easily the most intriguing and wonderful species to ever see and study in the wild. We don’t need to cling on to this anti-chimp image we are so desperate to give them. Their real behaviour is far more interesting.

Absolutely, both are relevant. Lord, spare us from Peterson!

(Randy) #155

I don’t know much about Peterson but someday would appreciate a summary and critique in regard to his perception of science. I know he is popular among some, and your and @sfmatheson’s perspectives would be helpful as he seems relevant to young people in some ways.

Enforcing Honesty and Restoring Colleagues
(Stephen Matheson) #156

Peterson wrote things so scientifically ridiculous that his writings now should be compared to creationism, anti-vax propaganda, and climate change denial. Same genre. Note that I make this judgment based on what seems to be a choice to mislead, and based on the failure (refusal) to correct huge errors.

The specific claims here are about lobster behavior and its relevance to human behavior. Peterson invites his readers to link the behavior of lobsters and humans, making an evolutionary “argument” so laughable that it reflects on the author’s credibility. For me, the lobster comparison in Peterson’s writing is bad enough to disqualify him as a voice worthy of attention.

Below is a very nice explanation. But before you read it, consider a thought experiment. Suppose you hear someone say “grasshoppers do X, and humans are related to grasshoppers, so I recommend you do X the next time Y happens to you.” What would you conclude about this person’s knowledge of the natural world?

(Jay Johnson) #157

Glad to hear that. My favorite take on Peterson:


Wild bonobos: adult female has sex with infant male.

Rated xxx. You watched it anyway.

(Jay Johnson) #159

Not sure what you’re trying to prove, but if you’re attempting to shock my sensibilities, you got the wrong guy. I worked with incarcerated sex offenders. Bonobos are tame compared to humans.


I’m trying to show that bonobo sex in the wild is kinkier than chimpanzee sex. Female chimps are promiscuous but they aren’t like bonobos.

(Randy) #161

I really admire you for your work, especially with the article I read.

it must be very hard for them to break out of that sort of mold, especially if they (as seems often the case) were exposed to that sort of behavior as children. Did you find that there was a particular approach that they responded to better? Were some of them religious, and did that help? Kindness? Firmness? Thanks.