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Redefining “Fittest” in Human Evolution

Has Human Evolution Halted?

As per Darwin’s Theory of Survival of The Fittest, the “fittest” human beings would be favored in the course of human evolution, and the “weak” shall eventually perish. In wild nature, without any artificial intervention, a person with weak immune system will be quickly killed by bacteria or viruses. Only the ones with strong immune system will survive. A person with heart or liver anomalies will eventually die earlier while others will survive longer. The ones who survive longer and healthier tend to have more children, and these children get the healthy characteristics of their parents through genes. That’s how “survival of fittest” works.

However, when we look back in history or even when we look around us, we get a paradoxical picture. Even if you have a weak immune system and you keep contracting infections, today your survival is no longer critically impacted- thanks to advanced medical science. Strong well built men no longer have significantly decisive advantage in surviving longer than crippled ones. Our social systems have mechanisms that allow people with disabilities to lead a very satisfying and long life. Money is now more powerful than genes or muscles. The rich have far deeper and easier access to amenities that can support long life. Infertility can no longer stop a rich guy from passing his genes to the next generation.

Does that mean, evolution has stopped for human beings?

Does that mean, by creating a compassion driven society, we are creating a race of “weak” human beings?

This article will try answering these questions.

Please note: The phrases in “orange” font are hyperlinked to references

In an earlier article, we saw how every organ evolved over millions of years to support the rapidly evolving brain. The more powerful the connection is between the individual members, the more powerful those species become. And those connections are led by the brain. Human evolution really meant evolution of these connections. We saw that power does not come from strong muscles, or sharp claws or any such physical attributes. Power comes from co-operation and co-ordination. Better co-ordination between cells makes an efficient organism. Better co-ordination between organisms makes a better species. And that’s exactly why evolution revolves around evolving brain.

In this article, you will discover how nature rewards when you use brain to create strong meaningful networks with other. If you use brain to foster and strengthen connections, nature has mechanism to reward you. We will see that the magnitude of such rewards conferred by nature is directly proportional to the extent and the strength of the networks one creates in his/her life- time. If your use of brain leads to shredding of connections, there are pre-defined penalties.

Human Evolution Is Progressing Through Rewards and Punishments

Human Evolution- Reward vs Punishment

Socially we have been using rewards and punishments to drive desirable behaviors and outcomes. We use a carrots for encouraging success and sticks to punish failure! So is true with evolution.

As we have seen in the last 3 posts (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3) that evolution progresses when we make better connections. Within any species of organism, brain- supported by other organs- primarily drives the efficient connections between different individual organism of that species. Since we have amongst the most efficient brains and supporting organs, we make the best connections in this living world. In nature, Darwinian selection is constantly at work. The ones who can survive continue surviving and keep passing their “success” characteristics to future generations. The ones who cannot survive just die, and hence they don’t get a chance to pass their “failure” characteristics.

Since evolution has always been about getting better at making connections, biological mechanisms have evolved to reward better connections or penalize connection disruptions. Reward, by definition, would mean one would feel happy and there would be positive consequences. Similarly punishment would lead one to feel unhappy and should lead to undesirable consequences.

The Rewards for Forging “Connections”

So, when you make connections and do anything to make those connections strong, your brain releases chemicals that make you happy. That’s why we love to socialize. That’s why we love making friends and being with friends. Such a state of happiness has a remarkably calming effect on your mind and body. They act as de-stressors. After a long hectic week of stressful work, no one can deny the extent of happiness one gets by spending time with close friends  over beer and food! The most important phrase in the previous sentence is- “close friends”. Try having food alone. Or try having beer alone. It just don’t work!

Human Evolution- social

But, remember, this biological reward of pleasure and happiness is to motivate you to drive connections for better survival. If these connections you make are just for the sake of having fun, biologically it’s a waste of time.  So, if you just keep having beer and party with friends without any contribution towards overall survival of the group, the biological rewards will soon start fading. Your biological mechanisms will make you get bored of this.

Everything we “achieve” in life, eventually finds happiness only on sharing the same with the world. This is what really drives crazy traffic into social outlets such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Our brain releases “pleasure” chemicals when we share our achievements with the world. No art of an artist is completely satisfying to the artist, unless it receives public recognition. It is brain which is rewarding such fame seeking behavior with “pleasure”- and it is with the evolutionary aim of driving “strong connections.”

When you end up establishing strong networks amongst your fellow human beings, which is sustained and progressive, biology tends to favor you with sustained happiness and good health leading to longer lifespan. This does appear to be an exaggeration at the start. But you will soon see through this article that this is an established fact. The strongest inter- individual connections that we make as humans are the family ties. And nature rewards such long lasting strong inter- individual connections with long life.

Animal studies have already shown that social isolation is detrimental to biological health. Experiments performed in rats show that when they are kept in a prolonged state of isolation, their health deteriorate significantly with increase in the incidence of cancer, accelerated aging, and shortening of life span.

In 2016 Yang et al published their famous research  in the prestigious “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” journal. These scientists followed up almost 35000 individuals, collecting and correlating social relationship measures and biological parameters at multiple time points over a duration of several years. This classic study kept a close watch on change in social measures over years and how those changes impacted health measures. This research firmly concluded that social integration protects health and promotes longevity. The scientists found that social strain is a significant predictor of worsening health outcomes.  Adolescent social connections differentiate health risks in young adults, long before symptoms or overt signs of disease emerge. We know that chances of chronic conditions such as diabetes/ hypertension naturally increase during late adulthood as part of the aging process. However, this study showed that older adults with strong social ties experience fewer disease risks.

A similar study performed by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health found that older individuals who had more families in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their families were less likely to die. In this famed study titled “Social Relationships and Mortality in Older Adulthood”, the researchers also revealed that type of social ties matter. Close familial ties are the most rewarding ones.

Human Evolution- Family

These irrefutable findings scientifically make sense. When you are in a firmly bonded family, you are way less stressed. In such relationships, people take care of each other mentally and physically. All challenges are met together in a coherent fashion. The members are significantly relaxed while leading their lives, knowing that they won’t fall hard when facing any worldly challenge. Compare this with individuals leading solitary lives. It’s way more stressful for them. And, it’s a known fact that any form of stress in the long run leads to accelerated biological disruptions and fast aging.

 Some people might say it’s genetics. And that also is true. If you have the capability of making strong sustainable connections, biology allows you to live longer and, eventually you pass on those characteristics to your future generations via genes. But genetics is dynamic. While genes do define how your body will work, your interactions with nature can also modify the genes. Studies have shown that spouses marrying into longevity-enriched families (families in which members live long life) end up living longer. So, it’s not just about the genes. Longevity-enriched families just have stronger familial ties and bonding.

Marriage is a “rewarding” association

Positive relationship between being married and health has been consistently noted across different cultures and countries. Conversely, poorer health is observed in those who are widowed, unmarried and single Studies have shown that marriage also reduces the risk of poor mental health and all-cause mortality. Those who are married have fewer hospital admissions, shorter hospital stays, and are less likely to move into a nursing home.

Human Evolution- marriage

Is this about marriage or the bonding? Again we have enough research to answer this question.

It seems that having more marriages does not confer more benefit . A higher number of previous marriages increases the risk for mortality in both men and women (and this is after excluding the effects of age). Mortality is greater among the divorced, the widowed, the never-married, and the remarried who had previously been divorced compared to those in their first marriages, after correcting for age effects.

The quality of a marriage is important. Poor quality marriage relationships are associated with worse health outcomes. On the same intuition, research also shows that mortality among same-sex married men is far lower than amongst unmarried and divorced men. One study showed that compared with married individuals, those in share-house arrangements were 3.6 times more likely to die.

Further, pregnancy correlates with longevity. But it has to be “stress free”. While child bearing leads to family and eventual familial ties,  too many children can simply add to stress and eventually negate all the positive effects. A study published in the “Annals of Human Biology” showed that  completely sterile women and those who had a large number of pregnancies had an equal longevity.

Myths Regarding Human Evolution Led to “An Era of Tears and Blood”

Based on Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest”, there is a school of thought that evolution can proceed positively for humans only if we selectively allow the “healthy and strong” to be born, and try eliminate the “unhealthy and weak”. This line of thought is known as “Eugenics”, that gained popularity in early 20th century.

Followers of Eugenics worldwide believed that they could perfect human beings and eliminate “the weak” using concepts of genetics and heredity. They believed the use of methods such as involuntary sterilization, segregation and social exclusion would rid society of individuals deemed by them to be unfit. The German Nazis and followers of Hitler aimed for evolution of the perfect Aryan race by eliminating “weaker” sections of the society.

Human Evolution- eugenics

While history texts across tend to paint the picture that Nazis were the demons, a careful evaluation shows many intellectuals and governments including those in US and Europe had been adopting cruel and inhuman practices driven by the belief in the science of Eugenics.  In 1912, the Eugenics Education Society of Britain organized  an international conference at the University of London. This conference was attended by noted biologists, physicians, politicians from Europe and North America.

The presenters in this conference voiced that “western civilization was in danger of collapse, since we were preserving the weak and ‘genetically undesirable’ and allowing them to breed at an alarming rate…Indeed the pauper pedigrees presented at the Congress…proved conclusively that the poor and the feebleminded were highly fecund and would one day inherit the earth unless wise men intervened with a programme of genetic measures.”

This conference was considered a major success at the time, and attendance exceeded expectations, with over 800 attendees; and was organized twice again subsequently.

These presenters campaigned for eugenic legislation in their home countries, and to fight to eliminate feeble-mindedness.

And it is such blind understanding of evolution that led to an era of tears and blood.

Advancement of human evolution by genetic manipulation at population level is possible and was in practice across several cultures. It was actually a very advanced science that our ancestors possessed thousands of years ago. The science of Hindu Gotra and Varna system (which latter got corrupted and demonized) was a marvelous application of evolutionary genetics for advancement of human race. Being a medical doctor and a man of science, I personally had a biased notion that these are “pseudosciences”. But then I had an opportunity to relook and investigate scientifically. I have written a detailed article explaining the science of “Gotra system”.

The science and practice Eugenics is an insult to that “lost” science.

It is easy to judge ancient systems by branding them as “pseudoscience”. Please have a look yourself with an unbiased scientific vigor. I have written a detailed article with thorough explanation on genetics involved in Gotra system. Click here to read more.

Understanding “Survival of the Fittest” in Human Evolution

It’s a myth about evolution that the “strongest” will survive and the “weakest” will perish. In short run, individual strength does count. But eventually, survival depends on strength of connections you make with others. One man will of course die if he is battling a lion with his bare hands. But a team of humans can easily connect and collaborate to tame thousands of ferocious lions.  And such collaboration is way beyond mere physical and intellectual attributes. Collaboration excels in teams where individuals support each other without fear of being judged or discriminated. A great leader is nearly always someone who does nothing but ensures that the team- work is well oiled and everyone is respected for both attributes and fallacies each possess. Exemplary leaders are successful not because of their physique or IQ, but because they connect and lead groups so well. Each individual has or will develop shortcomings- that’s what make each of us unique. While muscular and physically swift warriors are needed to defend a clan, you need those pot- bellied businessmen to manage economy. Diversity of various strengths and weaknesses is the real key. Best performing teams are not successful because the individual team members are brilliant and in best physical shape- they are successful because they know how to collaborate best, making optimal use of each individual attributes and weaknesses.

Hence, the whole idea of eugenics is flawed. Definitely, evolution is about survival of the fittest. But traditional definition of “fittest” is ill conceived. Human evolution favors people who have the ability to be genuinely compassionate and empathetic. There is no exaggeration when someone says “A Pen is Mightier Than a Sword”.

Human Evolution- Pen Is Mightier Than Sword

Concluding remarks

While independence is desirable, interdependence is far more powerful. It’s a myth that evolution is about strength. Evolution has always been about making life easier to survive. And the most efficient way to make this possible is to be interconnected and interdependent.

Human race has been evolving rapidly- and that evolution is not led by display of individual physical/intellectual strengths, but it is by combining and co-ordinating our individual strengths and weaknesses. We can evolve only when we can respect each other’s weaknesses and try support each other without judging individual attributes. And it is such behavior that is well rewarded by biology with longevity and good health.

After reading this post, I hope you will agree that human evolution is actually progressing faster than ever.

Dr Subir Roy

10 thoughts on “Redefining “Fittest” in Human Evolution

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