Weird AF Examples of Human Evolution Happening Right Now
Despite what your grandma and your pastor tell you, evolution is real and, more importantly, still going on. Sure, there's no chance of mankind evolving an extra arm anytime soon (unless we start breeding heavily with people with pronounced third nipples), there are some cool mutations that have been doing the rounds, imbuing entire peoples with some quirky superpowers. For example...
A Proto-Human Gene Allows Tibetans To Breathe Normally At 14,000 Feet Altitude
From the Buddhists to the Han Chinese and even the Nazis, people around the world have always suspected that there's a little extra magic up in the Himalayas -- that is to say, they thought Tibetan blood had a little extra oomph in it. When you live at 14,000 feet, you've got to be doing something different from the rest of the world. But medically speaking, it's not exactly their blood.
Standing on "the roof of the world," life on the Tibetan Plateau can feel like you've been cursed by a witch. With the air pressure so low, water boils at weird degrees, rice remains uncooked, and you can't absorb oxygen properly, causing dizziness, tiredness, headaches and the occasional death. Unfortunately, the best way for the body to compensate for the thinning oxygen is by thickening the blood to carry more of it, but we don't need to tell you that clotted blood tends to be pretty fatal for your heart and brain. As a result, many high societies shift and shape their bodies to lessen the impact. But Tibetans don't need to grow barrel-shaped chests or bigger organs to cope. Instead, they've genetically evolved to lean into the oxygen deprivation like a jazz musician leans against a brick wall with a saxophone.
EPAS1 is a rare gene mutation sometimes called the "super athlete gene," since it allows carriers to perform under great physical strain without causing the body to break a sweat. Received from an ancient extinct species of human called the Denisovans, the Tibetan strand of EPAS1 is so efficient at transporting oxygen it causes them to effectively shrug off their climate's paltry 60% oxygen level. It basically means Tibetans are the only humans whose body isn't forced to adapt living so high even birds get dizzy, resulting in incredible physique and strength compared to the oxygen-starved climbers they have to schlep around.
What's even more impressive is that this genetic overhaul, now incorporated in 87% of the Tibetan population, only started happening in the last 2,750 years, which is when their population split with the local Han Chinese, of whom almost none have the mutation. This makes EPAS1 "the fastest change in the frequency of a mutation described in humans" ever. Show-offs.
Soft Foods Evolved Our Mouths To Say The F-Words
When it comes to drivers of evolution, it's not illness or the climate or big scary tigers that have shaped us as a species. By far, the food we shove down our gullets has impacted the human body in the most ways, from our brains to our bodies to, most important of all, our ability to cuss each other out.
Until about 35 years ago, linguists (and, if we're being honest, us laypeople as well) believed that for the last 300,000 years, human beings were able to communicate much like we do today. Well, at least from a physical standpoint. The human mouth hasn't changed a ton. However, in 1985, linguist Charles Hockett posited that for the longest time our Neolithic ancestors weren't able to make "f" and "v" sounds, both of which contain some of the funnest verbiages for fornicating.
As it turns out, our meat-loving ancestors' mouths were shaped so that our top incisors rested atop our bottom ones. which is great for chomping into festering wildebeest carcass, but makes it impossible to form these sounds known as labiodental consonants. Go ahead, align all your teeth and then say: "Victoria fried a fresh fish in a vat of fat." Congratulations, you just sounded like a ridiculous caveman.
So what changed? Food did. Hockett first observed that these labiodental sounds were more prevalent in societies that ate a lot of soft food, something we as hunter-gatherers couldn't pronounce, let alone produce. But when most of mankind sold out and went agrarian, there was no longer a need to be able to chew through a week-old buffalo butt. Over time, or lower jaw started to shrink and develop an overbite, the ideal dental position for telling someone to go eff themselves through a mouthful of pudding.
The Bajau Can Hold Their Breath For 13 Minutes Easy
If the movie Waterworld has taught us one thing (and it taught us so much already) it's that if you spend enough time in the ocean, you're bound to become part fish. But surely it would make more sense that we'd evolve into water mammals instead, right? At least, that's what happened to the Bajau, a people that have adapted so well at living in the water, they're now effectively part dolphin.
To say the Bajau are from Southeast Asia Would be a misnomer. It'd be more accurate to say they're from the Pacific Ocean, since their feet barely touch anything but wood and water. In fact, in the last 1,000 years, the Bajau people have spent so little time on actual terra firma that they get all dizzy and queasy from "landsickness." And because of their Aquaman-like lifestyle, they're the first humans to have ever developed genes that adapt to a H2O-based existence, something that allows them to see twice as well underwater, free-dive to depths of more than 200 feet and spend a ridiculous 13 minutes underwater on a single breath.
Their ability to free-dive so well has allowed the Bajau to subsist entirely off the bounties of the sea, and they have one organ to thank for that: the spleen. When a lumbering land-human dives into the water, their heart slows, the peripheral vessels shrink to keep the blood in the vital organs and the spleen contracts to inject extra oxygen into the blood, acting like a fleshy scuba tank.
And not to brag, but the Bajau's spleen is huge. Scientists theorize this is because they've developed a unique gene called PDE10A that regulates thyroid hormones, which in turn influences the size of their spleen. This makes their oxygen-pumper 50% larger than their land-dwelling counterparts and more akin to (other) sea-dwelling mammals. This allows their blood to be hyper oxygenated, with a whopping 9% extra oxygen on average, making it nigh impossible for them to run out of breath in a genetic strategy much like the blood-doping of Tour de France cyclists -- but without the international shaming.
Australian Aborigines Have A Metabolism Gene That Allows To Shrug Off Extreme Temperatures
When it comes to heat, our bodies are a bit like our dads -- wait, please, hear us out. They rigorously control our temperature, immediately notice any changes in degrees, and absolutely freak out if things get too hot like when we get a fever or fall into a volcano. But not the Pitjantjatjara. Through genetic mutation, these independent Australian Aborigine people have taken control of their internal thermostat and they're twisting the dial all over the place.
The most common misconception with deserts is that it's always scorching hot. But the scalding air that causes you to sweat through your shirt during the day will turn your pits into popsicles at night. So while roaming a continent that's 18% desert, the Pitjantjatjara had two choices to survive: either lug around two entire seasonal wardrobes everywhere, or tell their bodies to get used to it. So over the span of countless generations living in these extreme climates, they unlocked a beneficial mutation that allows them to better control the release of thyroxine, a hormone that heavily influences metabolism and is triggered by body temperature. Get too hot, and it raises the metabolism to cope with the heat exhaustion. Get too cold, and it also raises the metabolism to get you pumped for a night of shivering.
Thanks to their mutation, Pitjantjatjara can just tell their thyroxine to chill so that they can chill in the most extreme of climates. A 1958 study observed that an Aborigine could comfortably move through heat waves all day to then sleep comfortably outdoors at night. Wait, there's more -- in zero degree weather. Stop, wait again, there's even more -- in the nude. More recent studies have shown that not just the Pitjantjatjara, but half of the Australian indigenous population has metabolism mutations that don't merely allow them to survive extreme temperature externally, but internally as well, since subduing thyroxine levels also keeps the body from going into overdrive during a fever making Aborigine adults (and, more importantly, children) better able to fight the effects of infection and inflammation. If the world starts goes down due to global warming, this is probably the group of people we might wanna keep an eye on.
The Cannibalistic Fore Are Becoming Immune To Brain Disorders Like Dementia
In the mid-twentieth century, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea began succumbing to a mysterious disease they called kuru. Kuru was a waking nightmare, made sufferers convulse and speak in tongues before dying horribly mere months later. At its peak in the late 1950s, kuru was killing 2 percent of the unfortunate Fore population every year.
Much later, doctors discovered that kuru is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, like Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which, as the Germanic name implies, is a terrible and existentially bleak affliction of the brain. Prion diseases attacks the noggin with prions, which are misfolded proteins that gunk up the works and transmit their misfolded-ness to healthy brain proteins until the afflicted become mad misfolded messes. But while fatal, prion diseases are almost impossible to transmit between humans. Seriously, you'd actually have to eat someone's infected brain to get it, and who would possibly do th--oh, no, please, no.
At this point, we should probably mention that back then the Fore were non-violent cannibals, as they ate the flesh and brains of their deceased members as part of religious mortuary feasts because they can only pass when their loved ones ... ugh, pass them. And as it turns out, one of its members had hit the literal one-in-a-million odds of spontaneously developing Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. So what followed wasn't a plague, but the most horrific case of self-fulfilling food poisoning ever. The unfortunate Fore died from the brain illness, so others ate their brain ... and died of the brain illness ... so other Fore at their brains and so on and so on.
When they caught on, the tribe smartly ended their millennia-long tradition of eating their dead uncles, but it had gone on long that it had triggered a mini-Darwinian adaptation. More and more Fore started developing a gene variant called G127V, which made them immune to the kuru disease. It's not particularly valuable in a post-kuru world, but it turns out that G127V works on all prion diseases, making the Fore the only people in the world that have any defenses against certain dementia triggers. And some scientists now believe this gene could unlock a a potential treatment and maybe even cure for CJD and similar brain-wasting conditions -- if we ever figure out how G127V works, that is.
A Tiny Bone That Screws Our Knees Is Popping Up Again
There's a term in evolution called vestigiality where creatures are unable to grow out of certain body parts despite them being pointless and/or have become a massive pain in our evolved asses. What there isn't a term for, is for when a stupid body part we almost completely managed to get rid of suddenly returns to worm its way back into medical textbooks.
The fabella (Latin for "lil bean") belongs to the family of sesamoid bones which are embedded within the tendons, such as the kneecap. But unlike the useful kneecap, this bone is just a dick. It has no beneficial properties to the knee and, worse, researchers have linked it to knee problems like constant soreness and reduced mobility. It's also twice as prevalent in people who suffer osteoarthritis, which is just great, since this beanie bastard makes it harder for doctors to perform knee replacement surgeries.
The good news was that, for millennia now, humans had been growing out of this knee-blocking bone. But based on data from more than 21,000 studies conducted on human knees over the past 150 years, the little bean seems to be returning at a break-knee pace. Over a century ago, the not-so fab fabella was only present in about 11 percent of the population. But more recent studies have found that between 1918 and 2018 its presence has increased more than threefold, with now up to 39 percent of people suffering from this seemingly pointless bit of calcium.
We say seemingly because science isn't exactly sure what's the point of this thing even is. Since everyone thought this knee invader was on its way out, not a lot of research has been done into it. So we don't know for sure what the fabella does or even what causes it. Our best guess is that it's back thanks to that flabby combo of modern nutrition rates and increased sedentary lifestyle -- making us so fat that maybe our knees figured they need all the bones they can evolve as to not buckle under the weight of our massive carcasses. Oh no, are our bodies preemptively preparing for the plot of WALL-E?
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