August 20, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Pygmies and Sherpas Are People, Not Evolved Genes

Some scientists and reporters are too eager to attach the word “evolution” to human beings who have particular genetic traits.

We should not be surprised to find tribes of people who share common traits, such as slanted or straight eyes, light or dark skin tones, and differences in average height.  Some traits can be accentuated by inbreeding of founder populations.  Some traits are attractive within certain cultures.  Some traits contribute to health in certain environments.  But all humans are interfertile and members of a single species, Homo sapiens (see 8/10/14).  Is it proper to speak of “evolution” between members of the same species?  If anything, human trait differences are not even examples of “micro-evolution.”  They may share some common genetic loci, but no new genetic information is added; it’s just the sorting out of existing traits.

Some reporters and scientists, however, are all too eager to apply “evolution” to the human race.   A couple of recent examples illustrate the trend.

Pygmification Is Not Evolution

When a new paper in PNAS spoke of “Adaptive, convergent origins of the pygmy phenotype in African rainforest hunter-gatherers,” reporters went on a Darwin binge:

  • African pygmies evolved their short stature twice (New Scientist)
  • It’s not another tall tale: Evolutionary biologists have developed a new understanding of the genetic basis of short stature in humans. Also known as the pygmy phenotype, a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that this trait has evolved several times over the course of human history (National Geographic).
  • Pygmies’ small stature evolved many times (Michael Balter in Science Magazine).
  • Charles Q. Choi applied the Kipling Just-So Story formula in his headline for Live Science, “How Pygmy People Got Their Short Stature.

The authors of the paper, though, start by saying, “The evolutionary history of the human pygmy phenotype (small body size), a characteristic of African and Southeast Asian rainforest hunter-gatherers, is largely unknown.”  All they did was find common genetic differences in the Batwas of Africa, and different genetic differences shared by the Bakas, another tribe of short stature.  They assumed that natural selection caused these differences, but ignored the fact that people have minds that make choices.  At best, natural selection was a “suggestion” coming from the data, not a proven fact.  In addition, they resorted to “convergent evolution” to explain the differences: “Together, these results suggest adaptive and at least partially convergent origins of the pygmy phenotype even within Africa, supporting the hypothesis that small body size confers a selective advantage for tropical rainforest hunter-gatherers but raising questions about the antiquity of this behavior.

What selective advantage?  They weren’t sure.  They only suggested possibilities: maybe when you’re short, you can duck under jungle trees faster.  Maybe you don’t have to eat as much if you’re short in a place where food is hard to get.  Maybe if you stop growing earlier you can breed sooner (Michael Balter brought up that guess).  In the paper, the evolutionists seemed to scramble for ideas and then handed off responsibility to others:

Although our results alone cannot identify the specific ecological factor(s) linked to the evolution of the pygmy phenotype, future association and evolutionary population genetic studies of metabolism, thermoregulation, mobility, immunity, or other traits could theoretically establish the contemporaneous presence of selection pressures relevant to the various adaptive origin hypotheses.

Yet these theoretical “selection pressures” cannot be natural laws, or else everyone and everything would evolve to be shorter.  Many Africans are known for their exceptionally tall height (consider African-American basketball stars).  As an explanation for the “pygmy phenotype,” the evolution story amounts to: natural selection makes people shorter except when it doesn’t (see Stuff Happens Law in the Darwin Dictionary).  The “convergent evolution” idea suffers additional explanatory challenges.  “These small statures apparently developed independently in these populations, an example of convergent evolution, much as fish and dolphins both evolved streamlined bodies to better swim in their watery worlds,” Charles Q. Choi simplistically quips, not realizing that such statements beg the question of evolution, and equate humans with fish.

Surely the authors would not make a racist claim that a member of the Batwa tribe could not board a plane to America and marry a Watusi spouse, or any other member of Homo sapiens for that matter.  Yet National Geographic quoted an evolutionary anthropologist who called this study “one of the most significant advances made on the genetic determination of the pygmy phenotype so far.”  During the data collection, were the subjects treated respectfully as full members of the human race?  Ethicists and lawyers may want to look into the way these people were treated.  It appears the authors secured the cooperation of some local governments and European review boards, but did the actual subjects know their genetic information would be used to support a Darwinian idea?  None of the reporters thought about such matters.  In their rush to attribute the “pygmy phenotype” to blind, unguided forces of evolution, they seemed indifferent to the humanity of these people.

Sherpafication Is Not Evolution

There are sherpas in the Himalayas and Andes who survive handsomely at altitudes that would leave sea-level-dwellers gasping for air.  What makes the difference for Tibetans is a genetic mutation, according to a press release form the University of Utah.  This “8,000-year-old mutation” confers an advantage, the scientists claim.  In their mind, this justified their effort to collect samples from 90 Tibetans and non-Tibetans.

Their efforts were worth it; the DNA had a fascinating story to tell. About 8,000 years ago, the gene EGLN1 changed by a single DNA base pair. Today, a relatively short time later on the scale of human history, the vast majority of Tibetans – 88 percent – have the genetic variation, and it is virtually absent from closely related lowland Asians. The findings indicate the tiny genetic change endows its carriers with a selective advantage.

Prchal collaborated with experts throughout the world, including co-senior author Peppi Koivunen, Ph.D., from Biocenter Oulu in Finland, to determine that the newly identified genetic variation protects Tibetans by decreasing an aversive over-response to low oxygen. In those without the adaptation, the thin air causes their blood to become thick with oxygen-carrying red blood cells, often causing long-term complications such as heart failure. The EGLN1 variation, together with other unidentified genetic changes, collectively support life at high altitudes.

So in the first place, they did not establish that the single mutation had the primary effect without other “unidentified genetic changes”.  In addition, the mutation appears to have broken a functional physiological system by decreasing a natural threat response to low oxygen.  And the 8,000-year date is predicated on evolutionary beliefs about when Tibetans migrated to the area.

These scientists apparently took pains to secure the cooperation of the Dalai Lama and the subjects before taking samples:

To earn the Tibetans’ trust, Prchal obtained a letter of support from the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.. “The Dalai Lama felt that a better understanding of the adaptation would be helpful not only to the Tibetan community but also to humanity at large,” said Prchal. He also enlisted the help of native Tibetan Tsewang Tashi, M.D., an author and clinical fellow at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. More than 90 Tibetans, both from the U.S. and abroad, volunteered for the study….

When traveling with Tashi in Asia, Prchal was surprised at how he was able to get Tibetans to grasp the research they were being asked to take part in. Tashi simply helped them realize that their ability to adapt to life at high altitude was unique. “They usually responded by a little initial surprise quickly followed by agreement,” said Tashi. “It was as if I made them realize something new, which only then became obvious.”

So they were told they possessed something “unique,” but it’s not clear if the scientists told them they were looking for evidence “to better understand human evolution” — i.e., that they had all arisen to humanity by unguided, natural processes from lower animals.

Culture Sharing Is Not Evolution

An article on PhysOrg claims that “Before they left Africa, early modern humans were ‘culturally diverse’.”  It goes on to describe how people groups across the continent shared their discoveries about which stone tools work best.  The populations that were more isolated tended to have more distinctive tool types.  All these claims can be explained by fully capable human beings using their minds with intelligent design.  Interaction and technology sharing is a common human behavior today; nobody calls that evolution.

Hunting Is Not Evolution

A scientific upset was announced in a paper on PNAS: “Demography, not inheritance, drives phenotypic change in hunted bighorn sheep.”  Contrary to earlier hypotheses, hunters are not driving bighorn sheep to get smaller by taking out the big trophies.  The significance of the study is broader than just sheep:

Understanding the consequences that selective harvest has on a targeted trait, such as body size, is a great challenge. This is principally because it is difficult to evaluate the relative importance of the evolutionary and demographic factors that underlie a change in the distribution of a selected trait in a hunted population. Here we use a novel and recently developed two-sex integral projection model to tease apart the underlying demographic and evolutionary mechanisms of trait change in a trophy-hunted bighorn sheep population. We find that body size is weakly inherited and that subsequently demographic change, and not evolutionary change, as previously thought, is the principle driver of trait shifts in hunted bighorn sheep.

Human-caused elephant crisis:  On a related but urgent note bearing on morality, poaching of elephants is driving their numbers down drastically.  Based on a paper in PNAS, the BBC News posted a report and video warning that elephant decline has reached a tipping point unless measures are taken to stop the illegal trade in ivory driven largely by demand in Asia.  Some 34,000 elephants – 7% of Africa’s elephant population – are being killed annually by poachers who hack off the tusks and leave the noble mammals to die on the ground, leaving trails of blood.  More animals are now dying than are being born.  Conservationists in the video remind viewers that whole ecosystems are affected by the loss of one species.  Elephants could become extinct in 100 years or less unless something is done.  The article had only political solutions: tougher penalties on poachers, for instance.  It’s hard for law enforcement officials to be everywhere in the vast elephant habitat, though, especially when poachers are becoming more skilled at surveillance and evasion tactics.

Human-caused butterfly crisis:  Humans are responsible, too, for the decline of Monarch butterflies, National Geographic reports—but in this case, it’s not because of poaching.  It’s because of habitat loss due to genetically-modified crops that allow widespread pesticide spraying that kills off the milkweed—vital to the Monarchs’ reproductive cycle.  Encroachment by civilization is another factor.  Though less overtly immoral compared to elephant poaching, the effect on the species is equally disastrous.  A video clip in the article encourages individuals to plant milkweed to save this iconic American species.

Much harm is caused by treating people as evolutionary lab rats.  Nothing in the stories above justifies further research to “shed light on evolution.”  Quite the contrary.  It’s mental and moral issues at the root of these reports, from the intelligent decisions of people whom they wish to marry or where they wish to live, or how they wish to share technology, or how they should punish evildoers.  Evolution is a ball and chain that Darwin bigots insist on clasping onto every story.

To save the elephants, why not try free market economics to drive down the incentives for poaching?  Let Asians build elephant parks and allow hunters to cull them in a sustainable way.  Look how Christmas tree farms have saved many a forest from exploiters going out into the public lands and taking whatever they want without fear of consequences.  Entrepreneurs could have a thriving business with controlled but legal hunting.  The cost of ivory would plummet, making poaching less lucrative, so that fewer poachers would take the risk.  It’s clear that punishment is not working, and who can trust the UN to do anything right?  This is a classic public-goods economic situation that proven free-market strategies can correct, just like William Bradford found out in the Plymouth colony, when he scrapped collectivism for private property rights.  Since the current situation with elephants is in crisis, some new thinking with proven strategies is in order.  Another market approach would be through biomimetics: producing synthetic ivory that is better and cheaper than elephant tusk and incentivizing Asia to switch to it, driving down the demand for poachers.

The Monarch butterfly crisis is more complex, because there is not a market for hunting butterflies; their loss is an unintended consequence of other market forces.  (See the documentary Metamorphosis for appreciation of the design and beauty of butterflies—intelligent design that defies Darwinian evolution.)  Whether enough people can be persuaded out of sympathy to plant milkweed is doubtful.  However this crisis should be addressed, it is a moral problem, not an evolutionary one.  We need intelligence and ethics to understand people and their responsibilities.  Evolution is a useless appendage that distracts, enlightening nothing, rationalizing much evil (see new Discovery Institute video).


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