Evolving ideas

While the centenary of the Origin of Species has come and gone, it has left a legacy of thoughtful publications, films, and so on about evolution and genetics. At the recent Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, I came across a booklet and Web site , suitable for non-specialists, that explain Darwin and the evolution of thinking about evolution. While Darwin’s conception was a breakthrough, it has taken the work of genetics and genomics to show the mechanism for favouring one feature over another. I’m particularly fascinated by the research into why music evolved, since it appears to serve no evolutionary purpose. Darwin found this a puzzler, and subsequent theories have ranged from courtship display (serenading works, evidently) to co-evolution with language to reinforcement of group ties. Epigenetics has now gone beyond genetics to explain changes how some traits can be inherited without a change in the underlying DNA. Current research shows that genes develop and spread in populations extremely quickly — from the Grants’ research showing that Galapagos finches change beak shape within one generation, to the discovery that the gene for lactose tolerance spread in humans over about 5000 years (faster than previously thought possible) as they cultivated cattle (Nature Genetics 2003 35(4):311-3). Our understanding of evolution is a moving target… as are we.

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