Humans Are An Evolutionary Force


Evolution is probably one of the most disturbing ideas to have come along in the short history of our species. Darwin realized how upsetting it was to Victorian sensibilities and held back publication of his work for many years. Biologists are now comfortable with the idea that species have evolved, and most have gone extinct, over the course of millions of years.

In his new book, The Evolution Explosion, Stephen Palumbi shows how humans have dramatically accelerated evolutionary change in other species: human disease organisms like the HIV retrovirus and the staph bacterium; and at larger scale, in numerous insect pests of crops. Proof of evolution, if any further were needed, is seen in the now routine appearance of drug resistance by bacteria and viruses that formerly did not have resistance. Pesticide resistance also routinely evolves in agricultural pest insects. The result is an evolutionary arms race: we develop antibiotics and pesticides and use them for a limited time, their targets evolve resistance and we then need to fabricate new poisons. We can slow down the pace of this arms race, and reduce its cost, by using our knowledge of how evolution works.

We spoke with Professor Palumbi about how the evolution of resistance affects people and society.

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