Newcastle Science Festival debate: Has human evolution stopped?

There are no longer literally wolves at the door and we won’t starve if this year’s harvest is poor

BBC1’s The One Show presenter, Marty Jopson, is coming to Newcastle Life Science Centre fort he British Science Festival
BBC1’s The One Show presenter, Marty Jopson, is coming to Newcastle Life Science Centre fort he British Science Festival

Meanwhile, medical science has overcome diseases which were deadly to our ancestors.

That set North East academics wondering that if these life-threatening pressures have gone, will it stop humans evolving?

A line up of experts will debate the issue tomorrow as part of the British Science Festival which opens in Newcastle today and runs until September 12.

The evolution debate has been organised by Durham University evolutionary anthropologist Dr Ian Rickard and evolutionary biologist Kirsten Wolff from Newcastle University.

“Humans in modern industrialised societies possess many technologies that protect them from nature,” said Dr Rickard.

“We are free from predators, famine and most of the infectious diseases that used to ravage our populations hundreds of years ago.

“So are we now ‘free’ from nature and the evolutionary force of natural selection? Have we stopped evolving?”

“Consider gene variant A that predisposed someone to put on fat more than the alternative variant B.

“Before the widespread availability of high energy foods in Europe, gene variant A might be more common than B because it helped people retain their energy balance under conditions of food shortage, allowing them to survive and eventually reproduce.

“However, nowadays A would be more likely to lead to obesity and diabetes and premature death, perhaps before the person with the gene had children.

“Having the B variant would not be so disadvantageous when there’s lots of high-energy food available.

“This means that B would be now be relatively more advantageous than A.

“As a result, natural selection against A would decrease, and selection for B would increase. If the selection pressure were consistent over time, this would cause B to become more common, and A to become less common.

“Genes that were important in favouring physical activity in the past may be less important in industrialised societies.”

Taking part in the debate, chaired by Prof Daniel Nettle, will be Prof Tom Kirkwood from Newcastle University, Dr Andrea Migliano and Pascale Gerbault, who will be talking about how keeping cattle enabled human adults to develop the ability to digest milk, which in the animal kingdom is reserved for the young.

The event at 4pm tomorrow will be in the Spence Watson room in the university’s Armstrong Building.

Also as part of the festival, local naturalists will be trying to find as many wildlife species as possible in a 24 hour bio blitz starting at 10am in Jesmond Dene on Sunday.

The organisers are appealing for people of all ages and abilities to help them to identify species of animals, birds, insects and plants.

James Littlewood, director of the Natural History Society of Northumbria said: “Many people aren’t aware of just how much wildlife can be found in urban areas.

“In wildlife corridors like Jesmond Dene, which link together natural spaces such as parks, nature reserves, rivers and gardens, it is amazing what’s there if you look hard enough.”

The festival will open with a family weekend.

At the International Centre for Life today there will be events ranging from Helen Keen’s Space Race to the Curious Chemistry Show.

At Newcastle Discovery Museum tomorrow events will include The Improbable Zoo, Creature Features and Animal Encounters.

Family Sunday at Newcastle University will include the Archaeology of Human Bones, A Beginner’s Guide to Surgery, the Poison Project and

What’s Hiding in Your Mouth?

Family Sunday at Northumbria University includes The History of Lighting and the Evolutionary History of Teddy Bears.

More details on


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