Race and the Speed of Human Evolution

In the Economist:Cst912

PROBABLY, more bad science has been conducted on the concept of human race than on any other field of biology. The reason is that an awful lot of research into race has been motivated by preconceived ideas that one lot of people are somehow “better” than another lot, rather than being a disinterested investigation of regional variations in a single species and the evolutionary pressures that have created them.

Contrariwise, even well constructed studies, if they do find racial differences, risk opposition from those who deny that people from different parts of the world could ever differ genetically from one another in important ways. As a result, only the foolish or the daring rush in to add to the carnage. It remains to be seen which category the authors of two papers in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences fall into.

One of the papers, written by Andrea Migliano and her colleagues at Cambridge University, looks at a local outcome of human evolution—the short stature often known as pygmyism—and tries to explain the evolutionary circumstances that cause it. The other, by Robert Moyzis of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues, asks a broader question: how much evolutionary change has happened since Homo sapiens climbed out of his African cradle and began to colonise the world? The answer is, quite a lot—and the rate of change seems to have speeded up.