How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

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An authoritative exploration of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life today

It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in "nature," or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world's leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today.

The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691170398
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/26/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,219,774
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jonathan B. Losos is the Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America and Curator of Herpetology at Harvard University. Richard E. Lenski is the John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University.

Read an Excerpt

How Evolution Shapes Our Lives

Essays on Biology and Society

By Jonathan B. Losos, Richard E. Lenski


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8138-3



Richard E. Lenski


1. Biological foundations

2. Evolution in health and disease

3. Reshaping our world

4. Evolution in the public sphere

5. Nature and nurture

Many people think of evolution as a fascinating topic, but one with little relevance to our lives in the modern world. After all, most people first encounter the idea of evolution in museums, where they see the fossilized remnants of organisms that lived long ago. Later exposure to evolution may come in courses that present the basic theory along with evidence from the tree of life and the genetic code shared by all life on earth. For those enamored of wildlife, evolution might also be discussed in programs about exotic organisms in far-away lands, often showing nature "red in tooth and claw." So it is easy to overlook the fact that evolution is important for understanding who we are, how we live, and the challenges we face.

The comic strip shown here comes from Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury series, and it reminds us that evolution is highly relevant to our lives and to society. In fact, it touches on several themes in this volume. The conversation between the doctor and patient reminds us that despite our efforts to control nature, we remain targets for organisms that have evolved, and continue to evolve, to exploit our bodies for their own propagation. At the same time, the cartoon emphasizes that humans have acquired another mode of response — the use of technology — that allows us to combat diseases far more quickly (and with less suffering) than if we had to rely on a genetically determined evolutionary response. More subtly, the technology, institutions, and language (including humor) that make human societies what they are today all reflect a process of cultural evolution that emerged from, and now often overwhelms, its natural counterpart by virtue of the speed and flexibility of cultural systems. Finally, Trudeau jabs us with the needle of the conflict between evolutionary science and religion that dominates many discussions of evolution in the public sphere, despite the overwhelming and continually growing body of evidence for evolution.


To set the stage, we begin this volume with a question: What is evolution? From subtle shifts in the genetic makeup of a single population to the entire tree of life, evolution is the process by which life changes from one generation to the next and from one geological epoch to another. The study of evolution encompasses both the historical pattern of evolution — who gave rise to whom, and when, in the tree of life — and the ecological and genetic mechanisms that underlie the evolutionary process (see chapter 2).

When Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1871, he used the comparative method to make sense of the evolution of our species. That is, he looked to the similarities and differences in the appearance and behavior of humans and our living relatives to understand how we came into being. Some Neanderthal bones had been discovered, but otherwise there was no fossil record of hominids — the taxonomic family that includes humans and the great apes — in his time. It would be several decades before much older fossils were discovered that began to fill in some of the so-called "missing links," and the insights from DNA lay more than a century ahead. Today we have a bounty of fossil hominids, and DNA from both living organisms and fossils is providing new insights into what makes us human, where we came from, and even who mated with whom (see chapter 3).

One of the important attributes of humans is that we live in social groups that require a substantial level of cooperation — in hunting game, rearing a family, and dividing the tasks of labor seen in modern societies. But cooperation is not unique to humans, or even to our close relatives (see chapter 4). Social insects, for example, exhibit remarkable cooperation and division of labor. Within ant colonies and beehives, most individuals forgo reproduction while supporting reproduction by their queen, who is usually the sister of the nonreproductive workers. In other cases, unrelated individuals cooperate, as in mutualisms involving different species, such as the fungi and algae that together make lichens. Understanding the evolutionary forces that promote these different forms of cooperation sheds light on our own behaviors as humans, as well as on some of our commonalities with other organisms whose behaviors have been shaped by these same forces.

One approach to understanding the evolution of human behavior is to ask whether our actions are, in some sense, optimal. Do humans consume food in a manner that optimizes nutritional status? Are children born at intervals that maximize reproductive success? The recognition that there might be trade-offs — for example, between the number of children and the probability they will survive to adulthood — allows the possibility, at least, of defining optimal strategies in mathematical terms (see chapter 5). However, the conditions in which our species exists have changed greatly as a result of our ancestors' migrations across the planet, as well as technological innovations that affect food availability, life expectancy, and so on. As a consequence, there might be critical mismatches between the behaviors that were evolutionarily advantageous in the past — which continue to influence how we respond — and those that would be most beneficial at present (see chapter 6). By understanding how evolution helped shape our psychology, individuals and societies might make better decisions about how to respond to the challenges and choices we face today.


Diseases are usually studied with a focus on proximate causes. For example, what organ is having problems, and how can it be repaired? Did an infectious agent cause the problem, and if so, how can it be eliminated? But one can also ask questions about the evolutionary forces that shape disease, although this is rarely done, and that failure may leave important stones unturned (see chapter 7). For example, why might one group of people be more susceptible to a particular disease than another group? Why are some diseases more prevalent now than in the past, despite improved sanitation and increased access to food? Why do we senesce, losing our reproductive capacity as we age (see chapter 8)? And why, in particular, do human females lose the capacity to reproduce even while they are still healthy and vigorous?

Turning our attention to infectious diseases: why do some pathogens and parasites make us very sick, or even kill us, when closely related microbes are harmless? For many years the conventional wisdom was that evolution would favor those parasites and pathogens that were harmless to their hosts. If parasites killed their hosts (so the thinking went), then they would drive their hosts and themselves to extinction. From this perspective, a highly virulent parasite was seen as a transient aberration, perhaps indicative of a pathogen that had recently jumped to a new host — one that would, over time, evolve to become less virulent if it did not burn out first. But this view has been challenged by more rigorous analyses. Even lethal infections do not usually drive their hosts extinct, and the optimum virulence, from the parasite's perspective, likely depends on the balance between within-host growth and between-host transmission (see chapter 9).

The antibiotics that scientific researchers and pharmaceutical companies developed to treat bacterial infections were hailed as a triumph of technology over nature. Only a few decades ago, the most dangerous infections were largely conquered in developed countries. Schools of public health shifted their attention from infectious diseases to other threats, while the public looked forward to a cure for the common cold (along with personal jet packs). This benign outlook was shaken, however, in the 1980s by the AIDS epidemic and the discovery that it was caused by a virus. And it continues to be shaken by reports of emerging and reemerging diseases that threaten denizens of even the wealthiest nations, from the SARS virus and bird flu (the H5N1 influenza virus) to multidrug-resistant strains of dangerous bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus. The reemergence of these bacterial pathogens reflects the evolution of varieties resistant to some or all of the antibiotics that were previously used to treat them (see chapter 10). Thousands of tons of antibiotics are used each year, causing intense selection for bacteria that can survive and grow in their presence. As a consequence, pharmaceutical companies must spend vast sums to develop new antimicrobial compounds that will allow us, we hope, to keep up with fast-evolving microbes. Meanwhile, emerging diseases that are new to humankind typically derive from pathogens that infect other animals.

The toolbox of molecular evolution and phylogenetic methods is now widely used to determine the source of zoonotic infections and to track a pathogen's transmission through the host population based on mutations that arise as the pathogen continues to evolve during an outbreak. And if these challenges were not enough, some terrorists have deployed pathogens. Investigators must identify the precise source of the microbes deployed in an attack, using evolutionary approaches similar to those used to track natural outbreaks. The "Amerithrax" case, in which spores of Bacillus anthracis (the bacterium that causes anthrax) were spread via the US Postal Service, demonstrated the power of new genome sequencing methods to discover tiny genetic differences among samples that may identify relevant sources (see chapter 11).


Some 10,000 years ago, humans began to harness the power of evolution by selectively breeding various plants and animals for food, clothing materials, and transportation. However, humans were not the first species to invent agriculture. That distinction belongs to ants, some of which began cultivating fungi for food millions of years ago (see chapter 12). Some ants even tend other insects, such as aphids. Humans and other farming species change the environment of domesticated species by providing them with shelter, nutrients, and reproductive assistance. Selection in this protective environment reshapes the morphology, physiology, and behavior of the domesticated varieties. While we usually think of the farmer as controlling the domesticated species, their relationship is really a mutualism; the farmer, too, may evolve greater dependence on agriculture. For example, humans have evolved an unusual trait among mammals that enables many (but not all) adults to continue to produce lactase, an enzyme that allows milk sugar to be digested.

Agriculture is the most familiar way in which humans use evolution for practical purposes, but it is not the only way. Over the past few decades, molecular biologists have developed systems that allow populations of molecules to evolve even outside the confines of living cells (see chapter 13). For example, RNA molecules have been selected to perform new functions in vitro, such as binding to targets of interest. After a random library of sequences has been generated, sequences that have bound to the target are separated from those that have not. The former are then amplified (replicated) using biochemical methods that introduce new variants by mutation and recombination. This Darwinian process of replication, variation, and selection is repeated many times, allowing the opportunity for further improvement in binding to the target. Similar approaches allow the directed evolution of proteins, so that today RNA and protein molecules produced by directed evolution are used to treat certain diseases.

Perhaps even more remarkably, computer scientists and engineers are harnessing evolution to write code and solve complex problems (see chapter 14). They do so by implementing the processes of biological evolution — replication, variation, and selection — inside a computer. This approach has been used in biology to test hypotheses that are difficult to study in natural systems, and in engineering to facilitate the discovery of solutions to complex problems. For example, the design for an antenna used on some NASA satellites was generated not by a team of engineers but in a population of evolving programs (variant codes) that were selected based on the predicted functional properties of the objects encoded in their virtual genomes. Of course, it was necessary to build the physical objects and test them to see whether they would perform as intended, which they did.

With the success of agriculture and other technologies, the human population has grown tremendously in size and pushed into geographic areas that would otherwise be inhospitable to our species. As a result, humans have altered — by habitat destruction, introduction of nonnative species, and pollution — many environments to which other organisms have adapted and on which they depend, leading to the extinction of some species and threatening many others. Evolutionary biology contributes to conservation efforts in several ways (see chapter 15). For example, phylogenetic analyses are used to quantify branch lengths on the tree of life and determine, in effect, how much unique evolutionary history would be lost by the extinction of one species or another. Given limited resources for conservation efforts, this information can inform where those resources will have the biggest impact. Also, the mathematical framework of population genetics, which underpins evolutionary theory, is widely used in the management of endangered populations. In particular, captive-breeding programs and even the physical structure of wildlife reserves can be designed to maximize the preservation of genetic diversity and minimize the effects of inbreeding depression. However, the challenges are only growing. Through many of the activities we take for granted — the production of desirable products, our travel for work and pleasure, and the heating and air-conditioning that keep us comfortable — we are changing the earth's climate (see chapter 16). As we do so, we impose selection on many other organisms. Which species and lineages will survive, and which will go extinct because they cannot cope with the changes? And how will the survivors cope? Might they simply migrate to new habitats and locations that match their previously evolved requirements? Or will they evolve new preferences and traits that allow them to tolerate their altered world?


Evolutionary biology attracts substantial public attention for two reasons. First, many people find it fascinating to understand how humans and other species came into being. Indeed, that question has interested people since the dawn of history, with different cultures and religions providing diverse narratives about the origins of the world and its inhabitants. Second, evolutionary biology often attracts attention because its findings are inconsistent with those narratives. The resulting tension is complex, with many different positions held by scientists and nonscientists alike (see chapter 17). Some people reject religions whose narratives are contradicted by established bodies of scientific evidence. Others emphasize the difference between evidence and faith, viewing them as separate domains of human understanding; these people may retain some religious beliefs and sensibilities while rejecting the literal interpretation of prescientific narratives. Yet other people have suggested that evolution may, in fact, illuminate theology by providing a deeper understanding of nature as it was created.


Excerpted from How Evolution Shapes Our Lives by Jonathan B. Losos, Richard E. Lenski. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Contributors ix

Chapter 1 How Evolution Shapes Our Lives 1

Richard E. Lenski


Chapter 2 What Is Evolution? 15

Jonathan B. Losos

Chapter 3 Human Evolution 31

John Hawks

Chapter 4 Human Cooperation and Conflict 46

Joan E. Strassmann and David C. Queller

Chapter 5 Human Behavioral Ecology 61

Virpi Lummaa

Chapter 6 Evolutionary Psychology 77

Robert C. Richardson


Chapter 7 Evolutionary Medicine 93

Paul E. Turner

Chapter 8 Aging and Menopause 114

Jacob A. Moorad and Daniel E. L. Promislow

Chapter 9 Evolution of Parasite Virulence 134

Dieter Ebert

Chapter 10 Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance 147

Dan I. Andersson

Chapter 11 Evolution and Microbial Forensics 163

Paul Keim and Talima Pearson


Chapter 12 Domestication and the Evolution of Agriculture 179

Amy Cavanaugh and Cameron R. Currie

Chapter 13 Directed Evolution 191

Erik M. Quandt and Andrew D. Ellington

Chapter 14 Evolution and Computing 206

Robert T. Pennock

Chapter 15 Evolution and Conservation 220

H. Bradley Shaffer

Chapter 16 Adaptation to a Changing World:

Evolutionary Resilience and Climate Change 238

Martha M. Muñoz and Craig Moritz


Chapter 17 Evolution and Religion: Conflict and Dialogue 255

Francisco J. Ayala

Chapter 18 Creationism and Intelligent Design 284

Eugenie C. Scott

Chapter 19 Evolution and the Media 300

Carl Zimmer


Chapter 20 Linguistics and the Evolution of Human Language 313

Mark Pagel

Chapter 21 Cultural Evolution 331

Elizabeth Hannon and Tim Lewens

Chapter 22 Evolution and Notions of Human Race 346

Alan R. Templeton

Chapter 23 The Future of Human Evolution 362

Alan R. Templeton

Index 381

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Yet another book about evolution? Yes, and thank goodness. With engaging brief essays by leading experts, this book illustrates the importance of evolution for our lives and planet so vividly that I plan to create a course to share it with students—and to have an excuse to read it again myself."—Randolph M. Nesse, M.D., director of the Arizona State University Center for Evolution and Medicine

"Evolution is everywhere, it changes everything, and it is relevant to everyone. This volume shows us how, with chapters on topics ranging from language to medicine to biodiversity. Moving beyond superficial summaries, each of the essays is a thoughtful consideration of just how much evolution matters."—Marlene Zuk, author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live

"Drawing on recent discoveries to illuminate how evolution impinges on all aspects of our lives, this is a marvelously informative, stimulating, and inspiring book."—B. Rosemary Grant, Princeton University

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