Evolution - right here, right now

Updated Tuesday 24th February 2009

OU academic Valerie Jeffries explores the evidence that evolution is all around us. What do you think? Join the debate.

Martin Hyder portrays Darwin's voyage for the Mark Steel Lectures Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission


There is no doubt about it – there is visibly ongoing evolution all around us: in hospitals where pathogens such as MRSA have evolved by adapting to the new environment of antibiotics, between your toes where the athlete’s foot fungus needs a different treatment from last year, and in mosquitoes evolving pesticide resistance while pharmaceuticals play catch-up.

Evolution is too fast for us. Species of East African cichlid fishes that took hundreds (not millions) of years to evolve now look like hybridising to produce even newer species faster than the funding arrives for observing them.

Rapid environmental change increases selection pressure and adaptive change follows. Human intervention to change the rules of fitness may be ‘artificial’, but the selection mechanism is the same.

While history speculates on how long it actually took to domesticate dogs, modern experiments produced friendly tail-wagging floppy-eared patchwork puppies from wild foxes in 20 generations just by selecting for tameness. 20 years from wild pest to soppy floppy pet: Russian scientists have done it!

There’s no sharp divide between natural evolution and response to man-made environmental change these days. To see evolution in action on a large scale, we could just carry right on and watch the biosphere adapt to Global Warming. I hope that will NOT be in our lifetime.



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