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October 17, 2006

LSE scholar predicts brave new world

This is the sort of thing that gives evolutionary psychology a bad name:

Humanity may split into two sub-species in 100,000 years' time as predicted by HG Wells, an expert has said. Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge.

The human race would peak in the year 3000, he said - before a decline due to dependence on technology.

People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.

The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures. But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.

Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises.

Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds. Racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding, producing a uniform race of coffee-coloured people. [BBC]

Curry forecasts a golden age circa the year 3000 where all the women are strong, the all the men are well-endowed, and all the children are above average. After which, humanity will gradually diverge into two species: the tall, smart, good looking one; and the short, stupid, ugly one.

Curry is a research associate at the London School of Economics and teaches political theory at New York University. He undertook the study for the TV network Bravo.

Curry, who doesn't appear to have any formal credentials in biology, also predicts that "human chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food." Either the BBC reporter got it wrong, or Curry owes as much to Lamarck as he does to Darwin.

It's depressing that journalists are treating Curry's quasi-eugenic fantasy as a work of popular science. None of the media accounts that I've read bother to describe the evidence for Curry's bold predictions, or even the stated rationales for these projections.

The stories leave a number of questions unresolved. For example we haven't seen dramatic genetic changes in the human species over the last thousand years. Sure, people have gotten taller and sturdier over the centuries, thanks to better nutrition and improved standards of living. Still, there's no evidence that humans today are dramatically genetically and morphologically different from people 1000 years ago. Furthermore, even if Curry could show that there have been substantial genetic changes, he would still have to establish that these differences were the result of differential reproductive success. So, why does Curry think that the next thousand years will produce a willowy super-race and a permanent goblin underclass?

Class stratification existed a thousand years ago and it continues today. What is it about the next thousand years that is supposed to bring about such rapid morphological changes in human beings? Yes there's increasing inequality in our world today, but who can say what the next 1000 years will bring in terms of equality and integration, let alone the next 100,000 years (Curry's ETA for speciation)?

No one seems to have asked the obvious question, namely whether Curry believes that the early signs of the genetic divisions that will one day split the human species in two are already evident.

I'm not a reflexive ev-psych basher, but I think Curry is doing a grave disservice to his field by popularizing this caricature of human evolution.


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The LSE?

Oh, yes, Minister.

"The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures. But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims."

Elves and Goblins eh? I think he's been reading too much Tolkien.

We are giants! (No might be about it.)

(I'm 6'4".)

And here I demonstrate how much fun a person with absolutely no training in this field can have by conjecturing about it:

I think the last 1000 years aren't a particularly good time span to use as a critique; dramatic changes in our diet and exposure to the outside elements have only really accelerated in the last 100-150 years or so; prior to that, an extremely large percentage human work involved a great deal of physical toil and very provincial diets. I suspect changes will come more quickly in the next thousand than they did in the last thousand. That said, there are three immediate, huge problems I see.

First, what I said above rather obviously applies only to the industrial world. Those of us in the industrial world probably will be paler, have less body hair, and other "good" physical features. But I doubt very much everyone else will see similar shifts. If he's attempting to say there will be a dramatic difference between the appearances of industrialized citizens and developing ones ... he's already right. It just doesn't look the way he thinks it does.

Second, his notion about the physical strength of men seems to be exactly backward from what such a theory would predict; skinny men seem better adapted to current society than they were to the days of yore. It's very weird to think we'll have squarer jaws or more ruggedness about us. These are fairly temporarily attractive traits; one need only look at the medieval archetypal woman to see how those change. If we're talking about suitability rather than attractiveness, the traits indicated by square jaws and muscular build are growing less and less important. If anything, I suspect men will grow to appear more "feminine."

Third, his argument about lengthening lifespans is just totally absurd. The reason our life expectancy today is so much higher isn't because the human body has added decades to its physical capacity; it's because there are fewer premature deaths than there used to be. There is less physical labor, better sanitation, and better medicine. 80 years or so appears to be a fairly common death lifespan for healthy upper class people for the last several centuries. Life is getting longer, but very, very, very slowly.

There endeth my completely off the top of my head tripe. How did I do in comparison?

Speaking of evolutionary psychology, have you read the The Moral Animal, Lindsay? It is a definite must-read, especially for atheists who want more ammunition when they argue with fundamentalists about God being the alleged source of morality.

As far as Mr. Curry's "theory" is concerned, I wouldn't even dignify it by calling it a hypothesis because it's not even an educated guess. I'm going to guess that in the year 3000 people will be laughing about what a moron Oliver Curry was. That is, if there are any extant copies of his work then, which I hope not because they might think we were all morons for having a society in which shit like his gets published. However it's probably too late already. If a single transcript of "The O'Reilly Factor" survives they'll think we were all Neanderthals. Might as well start painting pictures of the hunt on my living room walls now. Except I don't hunt. Guess I'll have to paint pictures of me going to the grocery store instead.

Curry is doing a grave disservice to his field by popularizing this caricature of human evolution.

For people who know that Curry is an ev-psych person. The article doesn't mention it, or the field at all.

If people don't realize that the guy's an evolutionary psychologist, it's even worse. He's undercutting the credibility of evolution in popular discourse. The average person might differentiate between evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists. I just hope parents don't get the idea that evolution in the public schools means an Oliver Curry-based lesson plan.

Good point--I didn't mean to suggest that Curry's ideas were credible. I've read better science fiction stories.

Sometimes I wonder if someone at the Beeb is deliberately undercutting science by publicizing the frothy ruminations of this clown and others such as Kevin "Captain Cyborg" Warwick, who has not only proclaimed the advent of the Six Million Dollar Man, but selflessly volunteered himself to become that Man on the installment plan, starting with having an RFID chip implanted in his own arm, which proved... absolutely nothing.

I didn't think you were sticking up for Curry, RSA. Perish the thought.

I haven't read "The Moral Animal," but it's on my list.

Curry's actually a smart guy. His PhD dissertation - on evolutionary psychology's implications for meta-ethics - was fascinating. It's sad to see him trading in stupid predictions like these.

Curry's actually a smart guy. His PhD dissertation - on evolutionary psychology's implications for meta-ethics - was fascinating. It's sad to see him trading in stupid predictions like these.

I'm sure you're right, MP. It's frustrating because he's smart enough to know better.

certainly doesn't sound at all like science to me. the notion that our societal compartmentalization would permanently effect genetics has long been the dream of rich white people. now, i am a skinny, white, square-jawed guy with a big penis. i am, i suppose, "a giant" because i am 6' 5''. my parents are neither wealthy nor tall. genetics are a little more complicated than, "well my mother's tall and attractive, so i will be, too."
also, i wonder why the status quo in terms of class will be chiseled into the genome, but somehow, racial boundaries will disintegrate. i don't get it. if the rich are going to get taller, with bigger dicks and perkier tits, how could interacial breeding not get in the way of that? how can one status quo be cast aside (race) when it is internally connected to the status quo (wealth) which is being enshrined in future humanity?

Sorry for the double post - stupid Safari.

His predictions are idiotic both in the short run and in the long run. In the short run, human height is increasing due to better nutrition, but there seems to be a hard genetic limit, judging by how Scandinavians' height has not increased to the same extent the Dutch's has. And the points about looks are pure projection, which plagued H. G. Wells and is plaguing him; fashions change, and they're especially likely to change in the next hundred years, as the world's center of cultural gravity shifts from the US and Europe to China and India.

On another note, although economic inequality is increasing now, cultural inequality is decreasing almost monotonically. More on this later, but basically we live in an epoch that's been lasting for a few centuries and will probably last a few more, which is characterized by the gradual extension of equal rights from kings to the entire world. A post-racist, post-religious, post-patriarchal society may not look that much different from our own, but it'll have an entirely different social history.

"Gives evolutionary psychology a bad name"? As if EvPsych has a good one?

Sounds like he was hit on the head by a copy of HG Wells' The Time Machine... I mean, those are pretty much exact descriptions of the Eloi and Morlocks.

Three Rings for the Republican-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Judicial-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Iraqi Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord Bush on his dark throne
In the Land of Washington where the Diplomats lie.
One fool to rule them all, One fool to find them,
One fool to bring them all and in the darkest prisons bind them
In the Land of Washington where the Diplomats lie.

If only he'd made his predictions six million years ago! He'd have been close to right. Though personally I think chimps are kind of cute, they are undeniably squat.

Dabodius, I think ev psych deserves the benefit of the doubt to prove itself as a science. Its expected value depends on how you define "psychology." If you want to include subjects like the evolution of depth perception under the umbrella of psychology, which I think is entirely appropriate, then I think that an evolutionarily informed perspective is very valuable.

Where ev psych tends to get stupid is in the analysis of cultural phenomena like the dating patterns of college students.

My understanding of evolution is that it tends to happen to genetically isolated populations which are under stress... that is, from their environment. Necessity is the mother of evolution.

The thing that twigs my bullshit meter on this one is the emphasis on 'looks'. It ignores the fact that human breeding patterns, sexual selection, is much more complex than the two best looking people procreating.

I certainly think its possible, hypothetically speaking, that we might end up with subspecies....due to genetic engineering... but purely as a function of evolution... this doesn't make a lick of sense given the prevailing conditions our species finds itself in.

Oh and I'm not an evolutionary biologist, so I'm probably talking out of my ass as much as anyone on this subject.

I like Phillip Jose Farmer's idea in one of his Non-Riverworld books where humankind exists for millions of years, basically unchanged. Different combinations of racial traits get shuffled, civilization and technology rise and fall, but humans as a species just keep plodding along.

In the book he said that sometimes nature comes up with a type that just doesn't change much for millions of years, like the coelocanth. Or I guess, the cockroach.

That seems to be a more likely scenario, given that we tend to adapt our environment to us, rather than the other way around.

I think most human evolution is going to be on the molecular level, dealing with pathogens and pollutants, rather than any morphological changes. Even then, our technology is moving much faster right now than any changes caused by selection pressure.

Most human evolution is on the molecular level. People develop immunity to fatal infectious diseases around them; that's what accounts for the "germs" part of Guns, Germs, and Steel.

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