Anthropologists sometimes speak in terms of generations (25 years) and in those terms, our species (homo) has been around some 240,000 generations (6,000,000 years), This is plenty of time for us to evolve a la Mr. Darwin. But we did not have the advantage of stone tools until the Paleolithic period which began about 100,000 generations (2.5 million years) ago – 140,000 generations with no tools, probably no fire, definitely no athletic shoes, roaming the land in small groups (probably extended families )for our food and shelter, but plenty of time to evolve into tool users.
The Neolithic Revolution, when we discovered agriculture and began living in fixed areas, was about 500 generations ago (12,500 years). This period of time since we began farming and building towns and cities is a bit shorter, and we are obviously still involved in working the wrinkles out of such activities.
But think of what we have done to ourselves since the industrial revolution which occurred in Europe only about 10 generations (250 years) ago—or for that matter since transistors were invented some 70 years ago (three generations)—a major change in our life style with little opportunity to evolve to match it.
I have been expecting a back lash against the recent high rate of changes in our lives, much of it resulting from developments in science and technology, over the past few years, but so far it has not happened. In fact, we seem to be fascinated and entertained by these changes, providing that they don’t inconvenience us too much as individuals. But there are signs that a backlash is beginning, ranging from mutterings of people being forced into “upgrading” their computer software, to the increasing worry about job loss, traffic, scarcity, and environmental degradation, to the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the loss of the essential middle class.
An example is an angry article in the October 25th issue of the New York Times written by Mark Lynas, and entitled Europe Turns Against Science. It is here. The article criticizes the 17 countries in Europe that have announced bans on the cultivation of genetically modified(G.M.) crops. The author feels that this will not only be extremely costly, but even though the bans do not include research, will cause these countries to fall behind those who are including genetically modified plants in their agriculture (the U.S.?). These European countries have great influence in the world, and apparently much of sub-Saharan Africa is also forbidding the growing of G.M. foods. This is in spite of a great amount of research showing that G.M. foods are safe, and strange inconsistencies, such as the importing of some 30 million tons per years of soy and corn based animal feeds by these European countries, much genetically modified, and much from the U.S. And since many G.M. foods are designed to be immune to many pests and diseases, the use of pesticides and other polluting and expensive chemical agents will continue to increase in these countries.
And then there is the problem of sufficient food production in the world. G.M. crops often are more productive. The United Nations, which keeps track of population trends in the world, has for some time predicted that the world population would peak at 9 million by the end of this century. We are now at 7.3 billion (the last billion of which happened in only 12 years). The U.N. has now upped its prediction for the end of the century to 11 million, a large portion of which will be in Africa. In fact, one prediction is that by 2050, Nigeria will have a larger population than the U.S. Where is the food going to come from to feed everyone? Lynas has a couple of quotes in his article to back up his argument about some extreme African attitudes toward G.M.foods. One is by Tobaiwa Mudede, described as a crony of Robert Mugabe, who singles out G.M. food as the cause of the “huge problem of sexual dysfunction in the U.S”. , where “males become impotent around the age of 24, at the prime of life”. The author also mentions being interrupted while giving a talk in Tanzania by a farmer who said he would never grow biotech crops because “they would turn my children into homosexuals”.
I blame resistances such as these on changes happening too fast for the comfort zones of our species. We don’t seem to be that bothered by the much slower ongoing activities in “improving” plants through cross-breeding. There is some value in this typical human resistance to change, because it results in thorough study of secondary effects of new developments. And I am expecting the next resistance to appear either in the area of associated with computers and the internet, or to extreme and very expensive developments in medicine oriented toward immortality . But the downside is that many people who could benefit from these developments are deprived of them. The undernourished in Africa?