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Humans impact evolution
on July 23, 2001
"The Evolution Explosion" by Stephen R. Palumbi, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2001.
By David Liscio
Anyone seeking an eloquent explanation of recent evolution as it relates to human impact -- from the use of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics to AIDS treatment and genetic manipulation -- should find "The Evolution Explosion" a worthwhile read.
Harvard University biology professor Dr. Stephen R. Palumbi has written what is essentially a text on fast-paced evolution, in a style more akin to travel and adventure books, yet packed with scientific detail.
From the start, he explains that the task is "to bring home the equally common impact of evolution on daily life - and not through eclectic recourse to scientific theory or historical anecdote. Instead, I need to do it through examples about how evolution in the world around us matters." To make his point, Palumbi refers to the fertile soils of Kansas that "are part of the everyday life of millions of people - and billions of insects and weeds. And evolution lives among the fields and stalks the checkbooks of struggling farmers - here, like everywhere else, living in the many weed and insect species that have evolved resistance to pesticides." Palumbi notes that as long ago as 1954, a young Paul Ehrlich studied the impact of DDT and evolution of flies that would survive and resist the deadly chemical. As the author explains, Ehrlich's famous work, "The Population Bomb," is partially a result of "the DDT dustings (Ehrlich) and his future wife endured at drive-in movie theaters during Kansas' aborted attempt at mosquito eradication."
Consider this: American troops during WWII dusted themselves and civilians with a white powder. In 1944, entire neighborhoods of Italian villages were coated to keep typhus-bearing lice in check. The epidemic was soon declared dead. "But complete victory was short-lived, and only a year later, DDT-resistant insects were reported," Palumbi writes. "By 1946, houseflies in Sweden were resistant, and by 1951, mosquitoes and flies in Italy were resistant not only to DDT but also to a wide range of the new pesticidal chemicals like chlordane, methoxychlor, and heptachlor."
The author adds that both Egypt and the U.S. used DDT to control mosquito-borne malaria from 1947-52, even though the disease was already on the decline because of extensive dredging. It is yet another example of attempts by human to intervene and, ultimately, speed up the natural evolutionary process.
Palumbi, 44, who in 1996 relocated his laboratory after 11 years from the University of Hawaii to Harvard, articulately lays out the issues surrounding AIDS treatment, the use of antibiotics, and the genetic "tinkering" linked to the fight against crop-destroying diseases, all framed in terms of evolutionary speed.
The researcher most recently caused a stir in the scientific community by using molecular genetics to show that the meat of a certain whale species was contained in fish products sold by Japanese commercial markets. Although the product was marked as containing whale, Palumbi's technique showed that the specific whale was a member of an endangered species.
The book publicist quotes Harvard University's Edward O. Wilson as commenting that Palumbi "has hit upon and clearly explains one of the most important but widely neglected issues of our time in biology, medicine and agriculture: the potential for the swift evolution of our organisms when accelerated by human activity."
Bottom line: evolution is generally thought of as slow, with significant change requiring millions of years, yet human intervention can dramatically speed up the process through efforts to improve the quality of life. The benefits and risks of such intervention must not be ignored....