Sunday, November 2, 2008

Evolution in the Media

A recent report indicates that technology is causing the human brain to evolve while another report attempts to provide an explanation for why gay genes persist, despite their reproductive disadvantage.

In the first case, Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA’s Memory & Aging Research Center states that the brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.

According to Small, a study of 24 adults showed that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.

The report quotes Small:

"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others. We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."

Small goes on with:

"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills."

This statement strikes me as particularly misleading – Small seems to be using the term evolution in a very loose sense. I believe he simply means that humans are using a different part of the brain when engaged with technology and with repeated use of technology, they are strengthening particular parts of the brain.

Does this mean that the human brain has evolved, from a biological sense of the word? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that Small can make the case for evolutionary change; however, the media seems to implying so with headlines like this one:

The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

The article can be found here:

The second article is from THE ECONOMIST and attempts to explain why homosexual traits survive. The question posed is:

“THE evidence suggests that homosexual behaviour is partly genetic. Studies of identical twins, for example, show that if one of a pair (regardless of sex) is homosexual, the other has a 50% chance of being so, too. That observation, though, raises a worrying evolutionary question: how could a trait so at odds with reproductive success survive the ruthless imperatives of natural selection?”

One idea proposed in the past is that the genes for gayness bring reproductive advantage to those who have them but are not actually gay themselves: “Originally, the thought was that whichever genes make men gay might make women more fecund, and possibly vice versa.”

In a paper to be published soon in EVOLUTION AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR, Brendan Zietsch of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues suggest there IS an advantage to family members, but to relatives of the same sex – for example, to the brother of a gay man or to the sister of a lesbian.

Dr Zietsch and his colleagues tested their idea by doing a study of twins:

“They asked 4,904 individual twins, not all of them identical, to fill out anonymous questionnaires about their sexual orientation, their gender self-identification and the number of opposite-sex partners they had had during the course of their lives. (They used this figure as a proxy for reproductive fitness, since modern birth-control techniques mask actual reproductive fitness.)”

Their study revealed that a heterosexual male with a gay twin tended to have more sexual partners than a heterosexual with a heterosexual twin.

The full article can be found here:

These articles illustrate how evolution is portrayed sometimes incorrectly (something that "happens moment by moment" ) as well as how it is used to explain the human experience.

Does this mean that evolution is part of our consciouness? Our shared understanding? Has it become a meme?

Marta Cervantes

1 comment:

nickysam said...

Media plays an influential role in our student’s lives. But as we have noted with the media today critical thinking about the issue of origin seems to be ignored. Until people realize that what is presented in the media is only interpretations of evidence and not evidence the media will continue to present these programs and articles unchallenged

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