News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

The Weak-Jawed Mutants


Imagine that you are a new parent. Your baby is a strange-looking creature: obviously human, but with much more delicate features than the norm. At first you worry, but he grows into a healthy and very intelligent child. The mutation that caused his strange looks makes him weaker in some minor ways but he has new strengths that more than make up for the difference. The child grows into a man and soon has children of his own. These children obviously have the same mutation. After several generations, the mutation spreads through the genome with no obvious ill-effects. In fact, the benefits are staggering. Soon enough, all living humans have this strange mutation and this is now the norm.

Just such a situation may have happened early in human history, separating modern man from other species. Scientists have concluded that a genetic mutation caused the jaw to become weaker due to a more delicate skull structure. The mutation had a generous side effect – more room in the skull for the brain to grow. This sudden increase in room resulted in the rapid increase in intelligence in homo sapiens, perhaps over 2.5 millions years. The conclusions are of course still being researched. Interestingly enough, the original theory of evolution was noted for its gradual nature of genetic modification. A new revision of the theory suggests that while most change is in fact gradual, this change is punctuated by events that result in the sudden leap forward of a species. A similar debate rages in geological sciences.

Greg Bear sets in modern times a sudden genetic leap forward in humans in his science fiction novel “Darwin’s Radio” and describes the social ramifications. This is simply another example of science fiction oddly paralleling the discoveries occurring in reality. The outcome of this line of research is of course not certain, but reminds me that leaps in our own knowledge are beginning to occur with some frequency. Science and technology are not just about the latest and greatest consumer electronic. Pure science itself surprises us with new insights that open up our world in ways we could never before have anticipated.

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