Many have assumed that humans ceased to evolve in the distant past, perhaps when people first learned to protect themselves against cold, famine and other harsh agents of natural selection. But in the last few years, biologists peering into the human genome sequences now available from around the world have found increasing evidence of natural selection at work in the last few thousand years, leading many to assume that human evolution is still in progress.Wow! The story when I was a kid was that human evolution was over because our culture gave us a nice safe niche in which to live so all the selection pressures were off. This new research blows that to bits.
One of the signatures of natural selection is that it disturbs the undergrowth of mutations that are always accumulating along the genome. As a favored version of a gene becomes more common in a population, genomes will look increasingly alike in and around the gene. Because variation is brushed away, the favored gene’s rise in popularity is called a sweep. Geneticists have developed several statistical methods for detecting sweeps, and hence of natural selection in action.
About 21 genome-wide scans for natural selection had been completed by last year, providing evidence that 4,243 genes — 23 percent of the human total — were under natural selection. This is a surprisingly high proportion, since the scans often miss various genes that are known for other reasons to be under selection. Also, the scans can see only recent episodes of selection — probably just those that occurred within the last 5,000 to 25,000 years or so. The reason is that after a favored version of a gene has swept through the population, mutations start building up in its DNA, eroding the uniformity that is evidence of a sweep.
The article ends with another consideration: genetic change is rare because its driver is mutation, but there is a much faster technique to get a population to change its characteristics:
But the new evidence that humans have adapted rapidly and extensively suggests that natural selection must have other options for changing a trait besides waiting for the right mutation to show up. In an article in Current Biology in February, Dr. Pritchard suggested that a lot of natural selection may take place through what he called soft sweeps.The article is fascinating and well worth reading.
Soft sweeps work on traits affected by many genes, like height. Suppose there are a hundred genes that affect height (about 50 are known already, and many more remain to be found). Each gene exists in a version that enhances height and a version that does not. The average person might inherit the height-enhancing version of 50 of these genes, say, and be of average height as a result.
Suppose this population migrates to a region, like the Upper Nile, where it is an advantage to be very tall. Natural selection need only make the height-enhancing versions of these 100 genes just a little more common in the population, and now the average person will be likely to inherit 55 of them, say, instead of 50, and be taller as a result. Since the height-enhancing versions of the genes already exist, natural selection can go to work right away and the population can adapt quickly to its new home.
Here is a bit from a paper by John Hawks that argues for 100x faster evolution in recent times for human evolution (bold added):
It is sometimes claimed that the pace of human evolution should have slowed as cultural adaptation supplanted genetic adaptation. The high empirical number of recent adaptive variants would seem sufficient to refute this claim (9, 12). It is important to note that the peak ages of new selected variants in our data do not reflect the highest intensity of selection, but merely our ability to detect selection. Because of the recent acceleration, many more new adaptive mutations should exist than have yet been ascertained, occurring at a faster and faster rate during historic times. Adaptive alleles with frequencies 22% should then greatly outnumber those at higher frequencies. To the extent that new adaptive alleles continued to reflect demographic growth, the Neolithic and later periods would have experienced a rate of adaptive evolution 100 times higher than characterized most of human evolution. Cultural changes have reduced mortality rates, but variance in reproduction has continued to fuel genetic change (51). In our view, the rapid cultural evolution during the Late Pleistocene created vastly more opportunities for further genetic change, not fewer, as new avenues emerged for communication, social interactions, and creativity.