A Question for Evolutionists

Speaking of evolution, I’ve got a question for those of you who believe that humans descended from apes or cavemen or whoever, in the same evolutionary process by which all other species appear to have originated. This isn’t a contentious, argument-starting, type of question. I really am curious to know if somebody has an explanation for this.

The thing about evolution is that it generally happens over millions of years, right? So theoretically, human beings, or the species that led to them, over millions of years would have gotten a little more intelligent here, a little more sophisticated there, and so it seems there would be an archaeological record showing a gradual increase in human capabilities over many, many years.

Instead, we have humans going from a life barely superior to that of animals to inventing spacecraft and computers all within a period of less than 10,000 years. How would you account for this radical advancement in terms of the evolutionary process? And why wouldn’t this have happened previously? Why now? Why weren’t airplanes invented 3,000, 2,500, 2,000, 1,500, 1,000, 500, or 250 years ago? Heck, why wasn’t the cotton gin, a relatively simple invention, invented 500 years ago? How does evolution account for those individuals who compose symphonies where 100+ musical instruments must work in harmony to produce the desired results? Is that ability tied to the ability to throw a spear better?

On a somewhat related note, what happens to us all now since we can create inventions to overcome the disadvantages of individuals of the human species? If a fat, lazy guy with a low iq can reproduce just as well as the smart guy with the great physique, does that mean our species is on a downward path and someday we’ll all be a mess, having devolved, in essence?


  1. Just thought I'd answer your question since I was clicking around and stumbled upon it. Though honestly I'm just passing through and probably won't see your response so we won't be able to make a conversation of it. But I think what you're talking about is social and cultural evolution. This is not necessarily correlated with intelligence. Cultures often develop at an exponential rate since innovation enables more innovation. Our society was essentially the same for hundreds of years until the mid 1800's People building wooden houses, traveling by horse, growing things in their yards, and selling them at the markets. Things are very different now just 200 years later. Do you think that's because people became suddenly smarter in the 1800's and that launched us into a technological revolution? Obviously that's not the case.

    Our cultural evolution is not gradual but spurred on by key discoveries. Controlling fire, the domestication of the dog, the beginnings of spoken language, the invention of the wheel, tribal government systems. All of these would have grown our cultural capabilities in jumps and leaps. Written language probably provided the first impetus for massive cultural growth, because it allowed knowledge to be transfered through time and across geographical space. The harnessing of electricity provided another in the 1800s. The invention of the car was yet another, and the invention of the internet was another. But you can see how the invention of written language made further innovation more likely. Likewise harnessing electricity made all kinds of inventions possible that weren't before. And so on and so forth. So as we accumulate greater technology and a more sophisticated society, we become more likely to innovate further, thus the exponential cultural growth rate.

    And to answer your other question, the simple answer is that musical abilities are likely tied to math and language skills. Having studied music theory for a good 10 years, I can tell you the skills are the same.

    I'm also LDS by the way. I went to BYU and now I'm in med school in California. Just a little background information.

    • Since creating this post I read the book The 5,000 Year Leap, which gives a credible argument in favor of evolution (ironically, and indirectly), in claiming that just about everything that has been produced within the United States since its founding is due to the type of government that was set up which provided incentives and freedoms not previously known to mankind on a large scale, and that the rise in living standards, technology, etc. is due indirectly to the United States as well as other countries have followed our lead.

      Of course as a Mormon I have my own ideas about who was behind the founding of the United States, as well as who was behind many of the inventions we enjoy, but nonetheless I'm trying to understand where atheists are coming from and how they explain things such as what I posted above.

  2. Ryan addressed the main points rather succinctly. I would add that human knowledge as an information system has grown logarithmically in much the same speed as overall population. In fact I would suggest you look at each graph side by side.

    The advent of language as Ryan also pointed out is the real key. The group(s) that first deveolped it likely enjoyed a great evolutionary advantage as information could be relayed at vastly greater rates than the methods before it. It is also the case that the question one of both evolutionary advance (the steady increase in the cranium and brain volume) and cultural advance. At a point though (you might call this the tipping point, the industrial revolution, ect.) as in all logarithmic systems the total volume of information rocketed up.

    I found the Wikipedia article on 'Emergence' fascinating (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence) and I think you will too. It's believed that the same principal is responsible for the unique characteristics of the human brain compared to our close cousins. That may address you symphony question.

    s for the cotton gin, there doesn't seem to be anything specifically that kept it from being invented earlier. Perhaps mass production of cotton reached a point where previous technology couldn't keep up. That is the nature of invention I guess. The Chinese had factories working 24 hours a day in 3 shifts over 1,000 years before the wests' industrial revolution. Sometimes things don't catch on.

    You last point is very possible. There has been an almost total removal of selection pressure on humans from nature (read: no tigers chasing us, no freezing to death in winter, periodic starvation) to remove genes from the gene pool that previously would have left a human vulnerable. Genetic screening, targeted surgery and advanced pharmacology will likely undo most severely harmful traits in the years to come resulting in far longer life spans than previous generations.

    Please feel free to reply if I have left something out (and sorry for all the parenthetical information, I am bad about that).

  3. I think the first post handled this question quite well. Just to reiterate, physical macro-evolution is totally separate from social and cultural evolution. And humans didn't evolve from apes. Apes and humans share a common ancestor. The fossil record does show a very gradual change in our physiology. One very simple way to illustrate this is simply look at average height of populations from region to region over time. We are quite obviously changing very slowly, over time.

  4. we have humans going from a life barely superior to that of animals to inventing spacecraft and computers all within a period of less than 10,000 years. How would you account for this radical advancement in terms of the evolutionary process?

    – Joshua Steimle


    Professors Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, both of the University of Utah, provide an excellent answer in their book, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution."


    Cochran and Harpending argue that human evolution has accelerated during the past 10,000 years, and continues to move faster. This is because of two factors. First, agriculture and urban civilization exerts different population pressures than a paleolithic existence. Second, the human population has grown dramatically, and a large gene pool evolves faster than a small gene pool because there is more scope for beneficial mutations.

    In an urban civilization men who are able to master literacy, mathematics, and more than one language are able to become merchants, government officials, artists, and so on. Consequently, they are able to provide well for their children, so more survive and reproduce.

    The inventions that separate us from our stone age ancestors are the work of a small minority of geniuses. When the average intelligence increases because of selective evolutionary pressures the percentage of these geniuses increases even more.

    • What's the gist of it?

  5. What’s the gist of it?

    – Joshua Steimle


    The gist is that evolution explains why we are different and more accomplished than our ancestors who lived by hunting with stone weapons over ten thousand years ago.

    • What's the gist of the explanation?

  6. What’s the gist of the explanation?

    – Joshua Steimle


    Evolution works the same way animal breeding works, but naturally. Animal breeders will decide they want to increase a characteristic in a domestic plant or animal: let us say turkeys with more breast meat. They will begin with a large population of turkeys. In every generation those turkeys with the most breast meat will be used to be parents of the next generation of turkeys.

    In evolution, members of a species that have characteristics that are more conducive to survival and reproduction will be more likely to survive and reproduce. Eventually their characteristics will become universal in the species. If the environment of the species changes, optimum qualities change, and evolution will move in new directions.

    If a species of mammal migrates north it will develop thicker fur. If the mammal gets to a location where there is snow most or all of the year, the fur will become white. This is why polar bears and arctic wolves are white, while grizzly bears and timber wolves are not.

    Like animal breeding, evolution works by a process of selection and rejection. Dark bears and wolves living in the far north are more visible than white bears and wolves, so they have a harder time catching prey. Consequently, they are less likely to survive and reproduce, so they get bred out of the population. However, white bears and wolves who migrate south will stand out, so they will be less likely to survive and reproduce.

    Similarly, prey animals benefit from being white in a snow covered environment, but at least grey in an environment with little or no snow.

    • Yes, I understand the basics of evolution, but I expect this book goes beyond providing what had been common knowledge for 200 years. What is the point the book is making?

  7. Yes, I understand the basics of evolution, but I expect this book goes beyond providing what had been common knowledge for 200 years. What is the point the book is making?

    – Joshua Steimle


    I already explained what The 10,000 Year Explosion has to say. Is that the book you mean? Read my explanation again. What do you not understand about it?

  8. Oh, that's weird, I somehow missed that stuff. My bad. I'm going to blame it on reading the comment on a mobile device.

    Hmm, that's interesting, but I'm still a bit skeptical. There are people today who live more or less as their ancestors might have 5,000 years ago. Their ancestors were all illiterate, and they are illiterate, and all they might know is farming. And yet if you took one of their children and raised it in a different society, they might become a genius at math, writing, or music. At a minimum, they could easily become proficient in these subjects. How can evolution explain the capacity of the human mind to develop abilities where there is no evidence of those abilities ever having been used before, in any way? Shouldn't there be large numbers of humans all over the world who are totally incapable of learning to read and write? How could these abilities have become so diffused if the actual use of those abilities still had not been diffused?

  9. There certainly are large numbers of humans who have difficulty learning how to read and write. Friends of mine who have taught mathematics in public schools have told me that many teenagers are incapable of learning any more than Algebra I.

    Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending explain all of that in their book The 10,000 Year Explosiong: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. http://the10000yearexplosion.com/

    I won't ask you to read the whole book, but in Chapter 4, "Consequences of Agriculture," they write on page118 and 119, "Groups that became agriculturalists relatively recently, or not at all, are slow to master important new social and technical developments."

    In Chapter 7, "Medieval Evolution: How the Ashkenazi Jews Got their Smarts," the authors document the intellectual superiority of the Ashkenazim, and write on pages 196 to 197, "The majority of the Ashkenazim seem to have been money lenders by 1100, and this pattern continued for several centuries. Such occupations (trade and finance) had high IQ demands, and we know of no other population that had such a large fraction of cognitively demanding jobs for an extended period."

    The authors do not discuss the Chinese, but we know that Chinese Americans tend to do well in American schools, even when English is not their first language. This is because for two thousand years the Imperial Exam System enabled the sons of peasants to rise to the highest level in the Chinese government if they could pass the exams. Those who passed the exams and became members of the Scholar Gentry were given high incomes. They were expected to have multiple wives and many children. Because they could provide well for their children a high percentage of them survived and reproduced. Contemporary Chinese are disproportionately descended from men who were intelligent enough to pass the exams.

  10. This is a neat suymmra. Thanks for sharing!

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