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Book Review - Future Humans

Scott Solomon, a friend of mine who happens to be an evolutionary biologist, has just released his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution. If that name sounds familiar, it's because I mentioned the book a few months ago in the entry, New Book - Future Humans. Now, as I wrote then, I did read and comment on one of the draft manuscripts for Scott, so I may not be the most impartial of reviewers. But I still liked the book very much and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ongoing human evolution.

I can't sum it up much better than the description from the publisher's site:

In this intriguing book, evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. Combining knowledge of our past with current trends, Solomon offers convincing evidence that evolutionary forces still affect us today. But how will modernization--including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel, and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives--affect our evolutionary future?

Solomon presents an entertaining and accessible review of the latest research on human evolution in modern times, drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome. Surprising insights, on topics ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history--one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.

The book is well grounded in evidence. In fact, most of it is about actually observed human evolution, both in our very recent past just prior to the industrial revolution, as well as what can be gleaned in modern industrial societies. Of course, that makes the speculation far less sensationalistic than doe-eyed anime characters or web-footed aqua-people, but you probably won't lose any bets going along with Scott's reasonable inferences.

There were many good passages I could quote from the book, but here's one that I especially liked.

At it's core, evolution is about babies. Forget survival of the fittest - the only reason survival is important in evolution is because you cannot reproduce when you're dead. Ultimately, selection favors whatever traits result in making the most babies, grandbabies, and so on.

Scott went on to explain how natural selection has shifted in modern societies. When the vast, vast majority of people survive into adulthood, it becomes changes to fertility that will have the greatest effect on evolution. And that's exactly what many researchers have found - women having children earlier and entering menopause later, increasing their reproductive years and hence their number of offspring. Of course, the researchers have to use statistical methods to try to tease out cultural and environmental influences from genetic ones, but it really does seem as if these are hereditable, genetic changes. And that's just one of the many lessons I learned from the book.

There's a review in New Scientist some might find useful, Future Humans: Just how far can our evolution go?. You can also read an early version of one of the chapters as an article in Nautilus magazine, The Rhythm of the Tide, describing his trip to Ile aux Coudres, an isolated island in Quebec, to discuss what researchers there had discovered of recent evolution in the island's population.

On a personal note, I can say that it's a very different experience reading a draft as a reviewer vs. reading the completed book for pleasure. There's a bit of stress in reviewing the book, intentionally being critical, and trying to find flaws that could be improved. It was much more relaxing reading the book once it was done, and just enjoying it. (I should add that I reviewed it as a member of his target audience, not an expert in the field. I may like to write a bit about evolution on this blog, but I'm no biologist.)

The book was very interesting. It may be a little advanced for an evolutionary naïf, but if you paid attention in your high school biology class and remember the lessons, you'll probably find this book pretty informative. I definitely recommend it.

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