Professor Richard Dawkins, Biology: Changing the World Interview

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Professor Richard Dawkins Hon FSB, evolutionary biologist, was interviewed for Biology: Changing the World. He discusses what originally sparked his interest in natural selection, and why it’s important that biology is digital.

Find out more about Biology: Changing the World: http://biologyheritage.societyofbiology.org

Biology: Changing the World is a project collating and sharing the great biologists and biologically significant locations in the UK. The Society of Biology project received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and is being developed in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The resources produced will be shared with the public through social media, websites, mobile apps and resources for primary school children, for more information, visit http://biologyheritage.societyofbiology.org

31 COMMENTS

  1. Hello,

    I’m not sure if I am directing this to the right place – but I have a question.

    I just finished reading the “God Delusion” and really enjoyed it.

    My question for Mr. Dawkins is :

    From what I understand, humans in their present form have existed for around 50,000 years and from their earliest form, for around 250,000 years.

    If even small evolutionary changes occur over millions of years, how in the span of considerably shorter time spans do we get unique ethnicities, like, whites, blacks, Chinese, Indians, etc…..

    Your input would be much appreciated.

    Thank you!

  2. Nunya Mar 28, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    If even small evolutionary changes occur over millions of years, how in the span of considerably shorter time spans do we get unique ethnicities, like, whites, blacks, Chinese, Indians, etc…..

    Basically these come from geographical isolation and local selective pressures from competition, life style, diet, climate and culture.

    Some features are like a light body structure in cultures which involve tree climbing, or dark skin blocking excess UV light in tropical sun.
    Larger body size in high latitude cold climates. Endurance and athleticism in in hunting cultures, and a tough digestive system and more efficient lungs giving the ability to survive with reduced oxygen at high altitude in the high mountains These are all selected from the diversity of the wider gene pool with locally uncompetitive genes suppressed or dying out in particular locations.

    Basically humans are very adaptable and will fit populations to specific niches which support them – particularly in isolated locations.

    There are even specialist cultures which are almost amphibious!

    The Bajau people in Sabah, Borneo spend almost all their lives at sea, some are able to free-dive 20m to the bottom of the reef to search for fish. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on some “sea gypsy” children from Thailand and Burma show that they have unusually good underwater-vision because their eyes have adapted to the liquid environment.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/humanplanetexplorer/environments/oceans

    Other geographical niches, are covered in the BBC HUMAN PLANET EXPLORER series.

  3. J. B. S. Haldane.

    Naturally Haldane, with Fisher and Wright, are my gods!

    Speaking of gods, I was inordinately fond of beetles at one time!

    I wonder if T. gondii uses rodents as a sort of extended phenotype?

  4. Thank you for your response but I don’t think it answers my question. You simply offered examples of evolution. My question was how could such drastic differences evolve within such a small time? Are there other examples of such drastic diversity amongst other species within such a narrow evolutionary time frame?

  5. Nunya Mar 29, 2015 at 6:10 am

    My question was how could such drastic differences evolve within such a small time? Are there other examples of such drastic diversity amongst other species within such a narrow evolutionary time frame?

    Humans are relatively lacking in diversity when compared to the gene pools of other species.

    There are numerous examples of genetic diversity, with various races and sub-species within other species.

    There are even ring species where the diversity is so extensive to have evolved into a new species at extremes of its range, but where intermediate sub-species still exist, but are geographically separated.
    Should some extinction event such as a climatic change kill off the intermediates, the separated populations would continue as separate species without breeding intermediate subspecies linking them.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_species#Larus_gulls

    The minor variations in human populations, show the sort of short term selection of diversity over thousands of years, from the existing gene-pool: – which is illustrated in the selection by humans of breeds of domesticated dogs or other domestic animals.

  6. Again this does not answer my question.

    Please pardon my bluntness but I am not interested in the scope of your knowledge about evolution. I simply am looking for a logical answer to the question I posed.

    I’ll re-word it. If all humans evolved from a common ancestor then how in a matter of 250,000 years, which is a blip on an evolutionary scale, do we get white humans, black humans, Chinese humans, etc….? How does a white person become a black or Chinese person or vice versa in only 250,000 years?

    Thanks!

  7. Nunya Mar 29, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Again this does not answer my question.

    It answers it at the level you asked it.

    Please pardon my bluntness but I am not interested in the scope of your knowledge about evolution.

    It seems strange that you have asked a question about evolutionary mechanisms in human populations, yet you say you are not interested in the scope of the answers to those questions.

    Evolutionary biology is the understanding of the genetic mechanisms which control the developments of such features in sub-groups within populations. Without an understanding of genetics and responses to evolutionary environmental pressures, it is unlikely that those who have not studied the basic biology will understand the mechanisms

    I simply am looking for a logical answer to the question I posed.
    I’ll re-word it. If all humans evolved from a common ancestor

    The common ancestor of all present life on Earth was a single cell which lived billions of years ago.
    It is very likely that there were other earlier life-forms, but they have gone extinct without passing on descendants.

    There were many evolutionary steps along the way to modern humans: via: multicellular life, then Vertebrate life: – fish – amphibians, reptiles mammals, and primates. All are well mapped out by biologists and palaeontologists.

    then how in a matter of 250,000 years, which is a blip on an evolutionary scale,

    Local environments favour survival and reproduction of people with particular body forms, while disadvantaging others who may survive better elsewhere. That is the nature of the constant on-going diversification of species into new niches as they evolve and adapt to changes, while less adaptable others go extinct.

    The topic is detailed and complex, being associated with successive migration routes out of the ancestral homes in Africa to various part of the world as sea-levels rose and fell with climate changes as ice-ages coming and going, were building and melting ice-caps.

    Here is a link with some details if you wish to study them.

    http://essayweb.net/history/ancient/prehistory.shtml

    do we get white humans, black humans, Chinese humans, etc….?

    Minor adjustments in development are due to selection of particular genes, or the switching on or of genes governing length of time or stages at which developments take place. (such as the length of legs or coats in dogs)

    How does a white person become a black or vice versa in only 250,000 years?

    White people from temperate climates will produce melanin in their skins, (sun-tan) in response strong sunlight, and indeed need some sunlight to produce vitamin D.

    A black skin is simply one which is evolutionarily adapted to give more protection in the tropics or at altitude. The genetic switch settings from the rage available, are selected to produce more melanin in the skin as those with this advantage survive better and have more surviving children in those locations.

    person become a black or vice versa

    A black person can become a white albino in a single generation with one inherited malfunction of the genetic pigmentation mechanism expressed in their genome, but in the African sun they will burn badly without modern sun-block protection. – Hence such mutations have tended to die out in these Negro populations because of this disability.

    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2014/sep/06/south-african-maidens-perform-annual-reed-dance-in-pictures#img-2

  8. The answer is in short: It does not take millions of years for evolutionary changes. Some changes occur much faster. The domestication of wolves is a good example. The differences between gray wolves and some breeds of dogs are much bigger than between different human races.

  9. elblobbo Mar 29, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    The answer is in short: It does not take millions of years for evolutionary changes. Some changes occur much faster. The domestication of wolves is a good example. The differences between gray wolves and some breeds of dogs are much bigger than between different human races.

    Not only that, but many subspecies can still interbreed and back cross, despite these greater differences!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canid_hybrid

    One of the problems with creationist incredulity, is that frequently it is based on a pre-Darwinian “fixed” notions of species as an individual sample, rather than a diverse and varied gene-pool, and is often also focussed, on mythical preconceptions about humans, rather than an understanding of workings of the wider field of biological diversity.

  10. From what I understand, humans in their present form have existed for
    around 50,000 years and from their earliest form, for around 250,000
    years.

    Historical evidence of Homo sapiens sapiens living in Africa with all cultural signs typical from sapiens is more than 50,000, at least 100,000 for sure.

    Although I am no authority on the subject, reading recently a Discover magazine issue, actually scientists metion that “those changes” you mention (ethnic group diferrences) occured “recently” (hope I can quote later on).
    Remember Prof Richard Dawkins mentioning that if you´d find two chimpazees in the jungle, the genetic differences among them would be greater than the differences among any humans from all over the world?
    (how can those scientists tell that, they are experts in genetics of course).

  11. Nunya Mar 29, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Again this does not answer my question.

    I’m not sure what you expect as an answers to a scientific question. You don’t say which aspects are unanswered

    I simply am looking for a logical answer to the question I posed.

    250,000 years of human history is quite a lot to fit into a short post.

    I’ll re-word it. If all humans evolved from a common ancestor then how in a matter of 250,000 years, which is a blip on an evolutionary scale, do we get white humans, black humans, Chinese humans, etc….? How does a white person become a black or Chinese person or vice versa in only 250,000 years?

    I’ll rephrase your question to clarify it:-

    I’ll re-word it.
    If all domestic cats evolved from a common ancestor then how in a matter of 70,000 to 100,000 years, which is a blip on an evolutionary scale, do we get white cats, black cats, ginger cats, Persian cats, etc….? How does a white cat become a black cat or ginger cat or vice versa in only 100,000 years?

    The individual does not, but some of its offspring may be different. In fact observation shows us that they often are different, with variations in accordance with the genetic rules of inheritance.
    Only when the environment or a pedigree breeder selects only a strain with particular features, to survive and reproduce, are the variations reduced or eliminated.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/06/070628-cat-ancestor.html
    Cat fanciers have long known that their feline friends have wild origins.

    Now scientists have identified the house cat’s maternal ancestors and traced them back to the Fertile Crescent.

    The Near Eastern wildcat still roams the deserts of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries. (See map.) Between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago the animal gave rise to the genetic lineage that eventually produced all domesticated cats.

    “It’s plausible that the ancient [domestic cat] lineages were present in the wildcat populations back as far as 70,000 or 100,000 years ago,”

    With humans selectively breeding cats, which have a suitable temperament, and attractive diverse patterning, various recessive genes and earlier mutations, were expressed from the existing gene-pool, giving the diversity we see today within very few generations.

  12. Richard Dawkin’s insight is generally glorious, you know, especially in comparison to what glorious used to mean, which involved God.

    Biology is a-effing-mazing, which I think Dawkins would agree with, since that was basically his message from day 1. Thank you for speculating, investigating, and generally propagating the science of biological evolution!

    You are a tribute to the species who has undoubtedly moved us forward. Given the controversy, I’m sure you hate (or at least mildly rage at) certain arguments. Know this, you Richard Dawkins may not have won the war, but you won battles that mattered. You have inspired a whole generation of “Hey, …. is that true?” and helped to reinforce skepticism in its own right.

    There are days I think your talents are wasted tilting windmills, but thankfully I know you, personally, have inspired the DXA, (The Don Quixote Army) to fight for the purity of science, and the advancement of the human species. Some would argue that it would have happened without your brand, but I think I speak for a bulk of humanity when I say: You helped shape the debate.

    You are sir, one of the greats.

  13. It is a very good question, I’m not sure why you are getting greif in the comments below. The thing is that the earliest estimate for the first wave of migration of Homo Sapiens out of africa is 1.8 million years ago. Then as you say there are also esitmates as early at 250,000 years until we can technically call them homo sapiens, though these are often disregarded. The 50,000 time frame is what they call “modern humans” because by this time we had invented some sort of farming and art starts popping up etc. If you took a half way point between the estimates and said about 1 million years then there is more than enough time to develop different races etc. Another thing to remember is that different races have almost identical DNA. After all our DNA is 99% identical to chimps. The colour of your skin is governed by a very small set of genes. So small is this set of genes in fact that a black person can have a single point mutation in a gene called MCR1 and turn out as an albino. Also, evolution can happen extremely fast under extreme pressures. A russian scientists in the second world war (I forget his name) wanted to see if it could be true that we domesticated wolves to create dogs. He managed to complete domesticate foxes in 6 generations. Only 6 generations produces foxes who wag their tails, enjoy being stroked by human and who’s ears had gone floppy and submissive like a dog’s. So, in conclusion, I think you’re time scale is too short, most estimate say it took longer than that, and also things don’t necessarily take 10’s of millions of years to change, they can change quickly if there is a violent selection pressure. Hope this helps.

  14. It probably only took a few thousand years to lose skin pigmentation and it was most probably driven in part by the dietary changes wrought by agriculture and a drop in dietary vitamin D creating the selective pressure.

    This account summarises the best theory to date with new evidence in support.

    It is only recently we are starting to properly understand how evolution at this seemingly rapid rate of change can occur. One aspect is the adaptive pre-conditioning afforded by epigenetic means that can create and stabilise a modified phenotype, allowing a more secure base for genetic change to subsequently occur. The other aspect is the newly understood richness of potential solutions to evolutionary pressures.

    This first can be understood from the study of silver foxes subjected to the evolutionary pressures of breeding. (link follows)

    The breeding experiments in Russia of silver foxes show spectacular behavioural changes within seven generations. Though these are changes in gene expression rather than of the genes themselves, as mentioned, it is sometimes the precursor to how genetic change comes about.

    The second is best got from reading Andreas Wagner’s essential summary of his teams extensive research into innovability. (link also follows).

    The solution space for novel proteins and the like is hugely larger than we imagined. Their functionality is derived from their shape (helices, sheets etc. folded like thus and so) and these shapes are far less dependent on specific chemistry than we might think. Additionally these functionally identical solutions are spread across the potential solution space (of all possible variants) but massively (hyper-dimensionally) connected in networks across this space allowing far more non-lethal mutations where genes might be multiply functional. In short, far fewer mutations are needed to hit the jackpot than was once thought. Far fewer mutations prove lethal than thought.

  15. Here´s the video I am mentioning in my previous comment, the good retired professor didn´t bother to be professor again.

    3. Great Ideas of Science & Philosophy – Dawkins: We are all africans

    Although differences may seem “dramatic” (not to me), they are due to mutations that occured recently (in the second out of Africa, less than 100,00 millions of years) to face adaptation.

    As some anthropologist mentions, when we want to consider differences as significant because of racism, theré´s always a reason to consider differences as significative.

    (there are different species that seem exactly the same and however they cannot breed between them)

  16. “Ethnic” morphological diffrences among homo sapiens were not so distinct in the called homo fossilis as Cro-Magnon, Chancelade and Grimaldi in Europe, so time really matters it seems
    A geneticist would better answer of course.

  17. For one thing, evolution doesn’t necessarily take millions of years. Right next to where I live, scientists have found a species of “water lice” (Daphnia galeata) that have changed their nutrition due to water pollution and replaced the formerly dominant species of water lice within 50 years.

    Furthermore, a change in skin color doesn’t require much of a change in genes. It’s only a change in concentration of melanin in the skin, so no big deal like an extra arm or some such ;-). I imagine that something like that can happen very quickly, if an insect species can change its nutrition in 50 years…

  18. The simple answer is that 250,000 years in evolution from our ancestors of that time to now is not a small change. “We” were much different then than now. There is far less difference between Chinese and Africans than there is between any modern race of humans and those ancient ancestors. There are less than half a dozen loci and only a few alleles that plug in to those that are responsible for skin colour. Compared to the total number of loci, that’s nothing.

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