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Radio Review: Peter Snow Returns to the Future

2 November 2015
Appeared in BioNews 826

Peter Snow Returns to the Future

BBC Radio 4, Thursday 15 October 2015

Presented by Peter Snow

How will the human race evolve over the next few hundred years? This is an interesting question that divides opinion among biologists. One such scientist, Professor Steve Jones, the famed British geneticist, recently discussed this topic with presenter Peter Snow in 'Peter Snow Returns to the Future' on BBC Radio 4.

In the series, Snow invites his guests aboard a time-travelling DeLorean, offering them a chance to go back or forward in time. The 13-minute piece started by going back a few centuries. 'In London in Shakespeare's time, two-thirds of all babies born died by the time they were 21. In London in 2015, only one baby in 100 is dead before he or she is 21,' he says. Professor Jones then explained his belief that, because of reduced natural selection, humans have now largely stopped evolving.

Professor Jones says that because of this reduced juvenile mortality and the decreased geographical isolation of populations, there are no longer strong evolutionary drivers on our species. These assertions have been criticised by other academics, including Professor Chris Stringer, who says the idea that evolutionary pressures are no longer taking their toll is true only of Western civilisation. Furthermore, molecular studies repeatedly show selection in humans for physical factors, for instance, for resistance to cold. However, these were not mentioned in this short Radio 4 piece.

Although the feature only provided one viewpoint, it was highly absorbing throughout. Professor Jones offered some thought-provoking comments: 'We [humans] are all going to end up being more or less the same on the surface as we already are beneath the skin.' He explains that after the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, there was a huge population explosion, followed by waves of migration out of the Middle East. As people moved further north they developed pale skin – and in some cases red hair – in order to make enough vitamin D. 'To a biologist, race doesn't mean anything. Yes, there are different human groups, but the word 'race' doesn't have any meaning.' As social barriers between the races disappear these superficial differences will also go away. 'The future isn't black or white – the future is brown,' he claims.

One problem that Professor Jones foresees in the future for these darker-skinned people is vitamin D deficiency, which is caused by lack of sunlight and is becoming increasingly prevalent in Northern European populations. However, this can be mitigated by vitamin D supplementation, he says 'My hope is human ingenuity will defeat the forces of nature in the way it has in so many others'.

I would highly recommend this highly accessible and engaging piece and will leave you with Professor Jones's last comment. His prediction for redheads in the future: 'No doubt they will be worshipped like Gods!'

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