Evolving Before Our Eyes

Watching the recent film Gangster Squad, my thoughts went something like this:

What is it about the Ryan Gosling’s character that doesn’t quite work? The Josh Brolin and Sean Penn characters—they work. And it’s not that Gosling’s a bad actor and that his looks are unappealing. But somehow, he just doesn’t quite fit 1949. What is it?

Even his suit doesn’t seem right. But it can’t be that—Hollywood must have experts in costuming working on style and tailoring. And I can suspend disbelief on Gosling’s perfect dentition; almost no one had perfect teeth in 1949, but now the entire middle class does. No, it’s no one feature, but the gestalt. I just don’t feel cops looked like Gosling in 1949.’

I’ve had a similar thought watching many period movies: times are changing in fundamental ways.

In Chapter Four of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending discuss the astonishing speed of genetic diffusion for skin lightening in Caucasians. The single most important gene is Solute Carrier 24A5, and the authors state that the skin lightening variant arose only about 5,800 years ago, yet now has a frequency of 99 percent in Europe and is found at significant levels as far away as Ceylon. Subsequent research has shown that it’s probably a little older, but as Cochrane and Harpending suggest, either way, the variant must have had a huge selective advantage and might have spread so rapidly that, at the most accelerated stage, a particularly old farmer could have noticed the change in appearance in his own village within his lifetime.

The Gangster Squad is set in 1949—not so long ago, but over a decade before I was born, so I’m not quite the equivalent of that long-lived farmer. Also, there’s the time-travel aspect of film: I suspect a long-lived Bronze Age farmer could have noticed the skin change, but in reality I doubt he would have, because he was brought to the boil too gradually in a pot of lightening skin. But in a film set in 1949 and released in 2013, I can erase those 64 intervening years all at once. It’s as if that farmer, dreaming of his youth and the dusky charms of his maiden field companions, woke to find the fair-haired son of the local warlord showing a particular interest in his great-granddaughter.

It all got me to thinking, once again, about the evolution taking place within our lifetimes. There are a few items people wonder about.

First are the trends that “everyone knows”—those that, like Darwinism itself, we all think we understand. Increased race-mixing may be the most obvious. Whenever I get “race-realist” with my scientist wife, her reaction: ‘It’s all going toward one mixed brown race and there’s nothing anyone can do.’ And if I take that to my scientist father, his reaction boils down to ‘Whites deserve it in the end.’ 

That’s how it is with scientists; they are self-selected for incredible patience; the key segment of any experiment, no matter how creative, is one of passive observation of external nature; and scientists tend to orient to the geological scale of time. All this leaves them with little faith in the long-term power of will.

I doubt modern race-mixing is quantitatively so different from past upheavals, say, with the great migrations in the wake of Rome’s decline. For that matter, the Roman expansion must have spurred a lot of miscegenation, and the rise of sailing before that. To genes, planes are no faster than boats. Sure, migrants can now get to a new country within hours instead of months. But any descendants they have there will still require several generations, at least, to become truly comfortable. Geographic determinism got a bad rap under race-denying Jared Diamond, but that’s because he left a step out. Diamond believes geography determines culture, but it clearly should be geography determines genes determine culture. Race-realists should note the primacy of geography either way. Mountains and plains are not going away any time soon, are still important, and will re-assert themselves still more if the jet and the air conditioner run their course.

Something else race-realists all think we know is the dysgenic aspect of demographic transition theory. Leading edge dogma now is that a group of gene-based qualities, basically those that select for a prosperous farmer, have been favored reproductively since the dawn of agriculture; but with the maturation of the Industrial Age, they no longer are. Among these were relatively high intelligence, more patience through delayed gratification and impulse control, the capacity for hard, sustained work, and relatively low aggression. Essentially, high paternal investment. For 10,000 years in the earth’s temperate zones, these qualities led to having more children on average; but they no longer do. That change is the basis of demographic transition theory, with much speculation about widening IQ gaps, smaller elites and benighted mobs.

But I want the personal touch. Here’s one: I confess to being occasionally so masochistic that I listen to NPR. And the morning of this writing, I was tuned in to an interview with a blogger well-known in “popular genetics.” I’d never heard his voice before. My immediate impression was how feminine it sounded, not to the degree of the overt gay accents commonly heard on NPR, but very different from the deep, reassuring voices that were the rule among male radio personalities until very recently. The topic of the conversation was the genetics of the fetus his wife and he were expecting. Not absolute proof of heterosexuality, but good enough for me.

I see the “metrosexual” voice as something of a milder version of the gay accent. A portmanteau for the ability to pick out distinctions like the latter is “gaydar.” It’s interesting that the validity of gaydar (and its nearly instantaneous, gestalt aspects) have been scientifically validated, though mostly visually. (It’s even more interesting that the original research into gaydar failed to validate it and subsequently, more careful research did—one wonders whether the first group had an ideological motivation.) Yet auditory recognition is typically more implicit and indescribable, more gestalt, than visual. If you find it hard to describe a friend’s face in detail, trying to describe his voice is really dancing about architecture. Yet you can instantly recognize both. And some kinds of 10,000-hour people, like old-school sonar operators, find that even when they have simultaneous video and audio versions of the signals they are trying to distinguish from background noise, it is the audio that tells them the most, but in ways that are almost impossible to describe, ways in which there is no substitute for experience.

Seeing Ryan Gosling in a period movie and wondering whether faces really looked like that only seven decades ago is fraught with all kinds of bias. So is concluding that the metrosexual voice is evidence of a feminization that is partly genetic. Nevertheless, I think it is. Mike Judge nailed it in Idiocracy: the 100-point IQ of Joe Bauers, the definitively ordinary hero, becomes ingenious in the idiocy of the future, and his middle-of-the-road voice becomes correspondingly “faggy.” 

If I’m right, then evolution toward more pliant husband material, originally reflecting higher paternal investment, is not over in the developed world. Women are continuing to choose softer men, or at least men who are far from being natural masters, to breed with. Many will argue that the metrosexual voice must be all cultural, that it burst far too quickly on the scene to reflect anything genetic. Maybe they’re right, but I like my version. I bet that old farmer’s wife tried to convince him the young folk of the day were just spoiled by a soft new culture, and didn’t spend enough time out working in the sun.