Have human beings stopped evolving?
That's the extraordinary claim made this week by famed British naturalist and animal documentary filmmaker David Attenborough. Speaking with British news magazine Radio Times, the colorful 87-year-old said that advances in birth control and family planning may mean natural selection is no longer affecting modern-day humans.
“I think that we’ve stopped evolving," Attenborough told the Radio Times. "Because if natural selection, as proposed by Darwin, is the main mechanism of evolution –- there may be other things, but it does look as though that’s the case –- then we’ve stopped natural selection."
The Cambridge-educated Attenborough, who was knighted in 1985, called humans "the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will, as it were.”
On the other hand, Attenborough said, "cultural evolution" may be continuing.
“Humans have a great cultural inheritance as well as a physical, genetic inheritance," he said. "We can inherit a knowledge of computers or television, electronics, aeroplanes and so on. Each generation has got all these books that tell them these things, so our cultural evolution is proceeding with extraordinary swiftness.”
(This is a rather cheery statement from the naturalist, who in January called humans "a plague on the Earth.")
Attenborough is no evolutionary biologist. Indeed, PBS notes that scientists are still struggling to come to a consensus on the question of whether humans are still evolving.
On the other side of the argument are scientists like Dr. Virpi Lummaa from the University of Sheffield in England. In 2012, Lummaa was part of a team of investigators that studied thousands of Finnish records and concluded that humans are continuing to evolve "just like all the other species 'in the wild.'"
''It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans," Lummaa said in a written statement. "We have shown significant selection has been taking place in very recent populations, and likely still occurs, so humans continue to be affected by both natural and sexual selection."