Sunday, July 30, 2006

A new kind of evolution

The NYTimes has a great article (first in a series) about how different the present-day humans are compared to those who lived just a hundred years ago. The studies mentioned in the article are all about the US and other Western countries, but the conclusions are valid for other populations too.

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.

The proposed reasons are as unexpected as the changes themselves. Improved medical care is only part of the explanation; studies suggest that the effects seem to have been set in motion by events early in life, even in the womb, that show up in middle and old age.

“What happens before the age of 2 has a permanent, lasting effect on your health, and that includes aging,” said Dr. David J. P. Barker, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southampton in England.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Interesting. Only today it came in the papers how young women are now more prone to heart attacks. One has already read many on executive burnouts in men. As far as I know, the standard of living may have improved but standard of life has deteriorated.

  2. Anonymous said...

    This reminded me the term 'epigenetics' and i started googling. Though Robert Fogel does not explicitly mention it, it seems to be strongly related. See the reviews 1,2 and of Jablonka's book in:
    I checked a bit more and found another review by an academic who decided to read at least 50 books in 2005: It is interesting to see what some other academics are doing. I did not set any lower limit for books this year. Just picked up some books on sociobiology, economics etc which I heard about and which i hoped to understand some. I am still struggling with Jablonka's book on "Evolution in four dimensions' probably very related to the topics in your post. Interesting how some days ago just googling.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Pl. also check:
    which has links to other sites that discussed this article. In particular future pundit has a lively discussion.

  4. Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  5. Anonymous said...

    I'd be interested in a study about the physiological aspects of how we're different too.