The Impact Of Humanity Is Driving A Seismic Shift In Evolution

Everyone knows the sort of impact humanity has had on the planet. Pretty much since (but not limited to) the Industrial Revolution we have easily been the dominant force of change on Earth. In the modern age of information, we’re bombarded by reports of the latest way we’re screwing everything on and below the surface of the planet. Scientists are pushing for our period in history to be called the ‘Anthropocene’ due to this massive impact, and it may be the period future scholars refer to when they talk about huge changes in evolution.

Research by Marina Albert and her team published in PNAS and work in a series of articles in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B cement this idea that we are responsible for big changes in evolution.

These changes include pollution, large-scale urbanisation, habitat fragmentation, massive climate change, over-hunting and over-fishing, domestication, and the emergence, disappearance and resurgence of diseases. Most of these are having evolutionary effects that can be measured today, like urbanisation, while others look to be having a longer timeframe, like the long-term effects of climate change.

For example, commercial fishing impacts wild fish hugely. From the commercial point of view, they want the biggest fish they can in order to maximise profits and keep within the local conservation rules. In response to this, some fish are becoming smaller; reaching maturity younger and at a smaller size.

Other documented changes include bird feathers changing colouration and weeds in paved areas not releasing seeds.

However, easily one of the biggest evolutionary changes we can see today is antibiotic resistance. Obviously it’s not a good change for us, but it is evidence of microbial change happening fast. With regard to what will happen to us, our efforts to find new ways to combat disease aren’t advancing as fast as biology is evolving. Unless we make major breakthroughs in the near future, we could be in for a world of epidemics.

We know this because it has happened before. The large-scale social changes that happened with the development of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution after that led to lots of migration, with more people living in smaller parts of the land. This higher urban density combined with big changes in our diet led to the emergence of infectious diseases. Unsanitary conditions, how we handled animals and the pests attracted to settlements all combined to the major epidemiological transitions happening.

The changes in our environment are also crucial for changes in evolution. The facts are simple – we are the reason for the changes in climate, regardless of how ‘overdue’ we are for a big change in climate. It isn’t only affecting us, but other species as well. Bees for example are one of the victims of the speed and ferocity of climate change, and should bees become extinct there will be catastrophic consequences.

For the first time, we have the ability to consider the future right now. And now, more than ever, we need to do so. There have been major shifts in the past – socially, economically and environmentally. So many changes that we can see happening now have happened before, and we can use that to prepare for the future. Not just humanity, but so many other species will depend on making the right decisions now.

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