Journal Article

The Future of Human Evolution

Russell Powell

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 63, issue 1, pages 145-175
Published in print March 2012 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online September 2011 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
The Future of Human Evolution

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There is a tendency in both scientific and humanistic disciplines to think of biological evolution in humans as significantly impeded if not completely overwhelmed by the robust cultural and technological capabilities of the species. The aim of this article is to make sense of and evaluate this claim. In Section 2, I flesh out the argument that humans are ‘insulated’ from ordinary evolutionary mechanisms in terms of our contemporary biological understandings of phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, and cultural transmission. In Section 3, I consider two obvious objections to the above argument based on the growing literatures related to gene-culture coevolution and recent positive selection on the human genome, as well as a pair of less common objections relating to the connection between plasticity, population size and evolvability. In Section 4, I argue that both the ‘human evolutionary stasis argument’ and its various detractor theories are premised on a fundamental conceptual flaw: they take evolutionary stasis for granted, since they fail to conceive of stabilizing selection as a type of evolution and drift as a universal tendency that dominates in the absence of selection. Without the continued operation of natural selection, the very properties that are purported to reduce the evolutionary response to selection in humans would themselves drift into non-functionality. I conclude that properly conceived, biological evolution is a permanent and ineradicable fixture of any species, including Homo sapiens.

1Preamble: Received Wisdom or Straw Man?

2Making Sense of the Human Evolutionary Stasis Argument

  2.1What is evolution?

  2.2Evolutionary buffers

  2.3Phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, and cultural transmission

  2.4Examples of evolutionary buffering in humans

3Initial Objections to the Human Evolutionary Stasis Argument

  3.1Gene–Culture Coevolution

  3.2Recent positive selection in humans

  3.3Plasticity and evolvability

  3.4Population size, variation, and evolution

4The Future of Human Evolution

  4.1Shifting evolutionary gestalts

  4.2The Evolutionary Catch-22

  4.3Stabilizing selection is ubiquitous

  4.4Humans continue to evolve

Journal Article.  12101 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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