Are there any instances of evolution happening before our eyes?

4 November

Definitely, it happens all the time and we’re looking at it right now. The classic one is the peppered moth in the Industrial Revolution. They’re something that massively changed very, very quickly; all of a sudden there was soot on walls and trees in the Midlands here in the UK. These little lightly peppered moths, that were quite pale with dark speckling, were suddenly really obvious to predatory birds and instantly a load of them got killed off which left proportionally more darker ones with a light speckling. They blended into this background much more readily, and suddenly they were doing much better and weren’t being picked off. That was evolution going on.

Even on the London Underground, the mice there have very different inner ear morphology with thicker bones to accommodate all that massive, deafening rumbling sound they live with all the time. It’s population-wide – they’re changing. Because if they’re deafened, they’ll die out very quickly. Then there’s the Orkney voles. They’re about 15-20% bigger than the mainland voles we have here and they’ve only been separated for less 10,000 - that’s within our historical period. So it’s not all dinosaurs and homo erectus. These things are happening as we speak.

A plus-sized Orkney vole (Photo: pauljennywilson)

The human evolutionary stuff is so interesting because it’s so personal. Even looking at the way the hole at the back of the head of chimp, the foramen magnum, which allows the spinal chord to enter the head, that position has moved right up the back of the head, because they were four-legged in locomotion. You can track that little but quite important hole moving and migrating down under the skull in several different species to the point where you get to our early human ancestors and it’s right beneath us. The presence of that hole tells us when our ancestors suddenly became bipedal and it’s not really that long ago in the grand scheme of things.

Or the first tetrapod to crawl out of the water onto land. Tiktaalik – this really weird, hideous half fish half frog, about two foot long. You can see the migration of pelvic girdles and pectoral girdles which suddenly allowed better ability to move with more stability on land. Then very quickly, within tens of millions of years – which is actually very quickly - you’ve got a whole range of species which have suddenly exploded onto the land. That one thing that crawled out of the water was our great-great-great-great - and I would be saying ‘great’ for days on end - grandfather or grandmother coming out of the water 400million years ago.

The prehistoric remains of a tiktaalik (Photo: Katrina Bowman)

Sometimes weird little quirks get thrown up which shows how still connected we are to our ancestors. Every time I lecture in the summer and I’ve got my flip-flops on, I show my class how I can pick things up, even very small things like coins, up off the floor with my toes. About one in 250 of us still retain traits that are echoes of our past – we’ve got these abilities that we can say “Ah! That comes from when we were arboreal and quadrupedal.”

We are beset with a whole range of problems that we’ve been left with too. In many respects, this sort of stuff makes me definitely think there’s no Great Creator. It looks like a cowboy builder has made humans. If someone was building us in perfection, in the eye of beauty and everything, they would not have given us bad backs and bad knees. I need back surgery because of this sort of thing – we’re in the wrong position because we’ve evolved really quickly and we’ve compensated with all these other things because we went bipedal. It was such a big leap for humankind but it came at a cost. The curvature of our spine causes us massive degenerative problems in the spine and huge problems with our knees. It’s left us with a legacy. We’re the result of a cowboy job of evolution.

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