UPDATE: I’ve heard from Dr. Curry about this piece; he’s appalled that it was published and explains the situation:
I’m sorry that you had to waste some of your valuable time dealing with the old news story about the future of human evolution. The story purports to be about my ‘research’ on the future of human evolution; it is in fact a PR stunt by the television company Bravo. The real story is that, back in 2006 I was commissioned by Bravo to write an essay on the future of humanity. The essay was science fiction, intended to illustrate some aspects of evolutionary theory to an audience of television executives. It was not serious academic research, let alone a prediction about our actual future(!). However, Bravo put out a sensationalist press release about the essay, portraying it as science fact, and this press release was subsequently reproduced by the media (including the BBC). I watched in horror as the story spread around the world, and I am equally horrified each time the story bubbles up on the ‘most read’ list on the BBC homepage (as it does every few years, for reasons that are mysterious to me, as it did again the other day, hence your flurry of emails). As I am sure you can imagine, this is a recurring professional nightmare for me; and I am grateful to you for correcting some of the misunderstandings that the story has generated.
I haven’t read the paper that this BBC article refers to, nor do I know whether it’s even been published in the scientific literature, but several readers sent me this piece and wanted my take on it. Since it’s from 2006, I’m not sure why several readers sent it simultaneously.
The piece at BBC News is given the provocative title, “Human species may split in two.” And the theory floated in that piece, by Dr. Oliver Curry, a lecturer at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a research associate at the London School of Economics, seems deeply unsound: in fact, not even wrong.
Here’s how the BBC describes his “theory,” but again, if there’s a paper about it (one isn’t mentioned), I haven’t read it. All the article says is that Curry’s views were presented on a “men’s satellite TV show”:
Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge.
The human race would peak in the year 3000, he said – before a decline due to dependence on technology.
People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.
The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the “underclass” humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.
. . . Further into the future, sexual selection – being choosy about one’s partner – was likely to create more and more genetic inequality, said Dr Curry.
The logical outcome would be two sub-species, “gracile” and “robust” humans similar to the Eloi and Morlocks foretold by HG Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine.
. . . He carried out the report for men’s satellite TV channel Bravo.
I see no evidence that humanity will divide into two moieties in this way. In fact, intermarriage between humans will become more prevalent with greater migration between countries, creating genetic admixture between all kinds of genetically different populations. I’m curious how Curry manages to conclude that the human species is—or will be—splitting into two groups that will remain genetically and reproductively distinct, and that there is a bimodal distribution of matings, with attractive, creative, and tall humans on one end and short, squat, and ugly ones at the other. Is there any evidence of this happening now? Not that I know of.
Further, even if there were assortative mating for looks (and I suspect there is), it’s neither complete or associated with intelligence. Where are the data showing not only bimodal mating for height and attractiveness, but that those traits are strongly associated (for a strong association is needed to split the species) with intelligence?
There is simply no data to butress these speculations, which get press only because they’re sensationistic, smacking of 1984. Any tendency for such assortative mating wouldn’t create bimodality unless it was mandated by the government, for there’s sufficient gene flow between his dichotomous categories (attractive people of one sex marrying not-so-attractive people of the other, and so on) that this kind of “splitting” will not occur.
Curry goes on about receding chins, our loss of capabilities due to medical technology that allows the medically deficient to breed, and so on, but I’ll ignore that for the nonce. He adds this:
But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.
Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises.
Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds. Racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding, producing a uniform race of coffee-coloured people.
This is again insupportable. 1000 years is only about 30-40 human generation, and if we are supposed to increase a foot in height by then, there would have to be pretty strong directional selection for height (or sexual selection practiced by both sexes). Again, I don’t know of any evidence for a higher reproductive output of people whose genes make them taller. We have no such data, nor do we know how much of height difference between human populations is based on genetic versus environmental differences. Since World War II, for example, the Japanese have increased several inches in height, but that change is due entirely in improvement of diet, as there’s only been one or two generations since then and nutrition has improved markedly. As for those squarer jaws, longer penises, and pert breasts, that’s just bunk. As far as I know, we have no data showing reproductive advantages (actually offspring number) accruing to men or women with those features.
The stuff about human morphology becoming more uniform over time is one thing that Curry probably got right (even a blind pig can find an acorn). Certainly humans are moving around more now, and people from different ethnic groups are intermarrying, evening out the lumps in the landscape of human morphology. We all know of “hybrids” between people of different ethnic groups; I see them all the time among my students: children of Asian/Caucasian marriages, for instance. And you can often recognize them because their facial features and hair color are an admixture. But I don’t think we’ll be uniform in even a millennium.
And really, penis length? What data do we have that men with larger generative organs leave more offspring? Curry’s talking through his hat here.
This kind of unsupported speculation gives evolutionary biology a bad name.