• Question: In the future how do you think the human body will adapt and change to our environment? Eg our brain? Will we develop immunity to some diseases or is this not possible?

    Asked by kaitlinwilson on 20 Jun 2019. This question was also asked by thiru1.
    • Photo: Kate Timms

      Kate Timms answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      Evolution happens pretty slowly, but I think that given enough time we will definitely change. People whose bodies are more suited to the changing environment will likely be more able to pass on their genes to the next generation. And so evolution slowly happens. BUT with all of our medicine, technologies and assisted reproduction, we are probably losing a lot of natural selection that would otherwise ‘weed out’ bloodlines which are less healthy or less able to reproduce and survive. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. If we can adapt the world to us instead of the other way around, then we can give everyone an equal shot in life. However, we may be making problems for the future of humanity. It’s a real conundrum between ethics and people’s human rights, and what is best for the species.

      However, historically people who wanted ‘what is best for the species’ like the eugenicists in the Nazi party and the USA during WW2, have done some horrific things to try to ‘improve’ humanity. So eugenics or anything like it is seen as a taboo in science.

    • Photo: Matthew Bareford

      Matthew Bareford answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      Personally I can see much more integration of technology with our own bodies. Not to the extent of Terminator, but certainly to that of better health and longer lives without all the health issues. The longer we have to study diseases, the better our understanding and treatment of them becomes. In terms of immunity, there will always be some new genetic variations which are better adapted, and these will then be passed on. It just usually takes an awful long time!

    • Photo: Rebecca Moon

      Rebecca Moon answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      We already know that the human body adapts to our environment. Darwin first proposed the “survival of the fittest” theory which suggests positive selection of traits which are beneficial to survival. We already know that sickle cell anaemia, which is seen in Afro-Caribbean individuals, and can lead to painful crises and severe anaemia confers resistance against malaria, and this is probably why the sickle-cell anaemia genes managed to persist through evolution. However on the whole, I think vaccination is more likely to result in the eradication of diseases due to infection as evolutionary changes take a long while to happen – smallpox was eradicated by vaccination.
      We also know that the body can adapt to the in utero environment, but these changes are not always positive. For example smoking in pregnancy results in damage to the placenta which reduces the transfer of nutrients to the baby. As a result, infants of smokers are usually much smaller at birth. But these children typically go on to be much fatter and more likely to be obese by early childhood, as there body had adapted to being nutritionally depleted, but once out of the womb they are not nutritionally depleted – we call this a mismatch between the expected environment to which the fetus had adapted and the actual environment. It is likely the nutritional depletion in utero leads to epigenetic changes in the DNA – these are small changes in non-coding elements of the DNA which switch on and off the DNA, which is why these effects persist into childhood.

    • Photo: Shobhana Nagraj

      Shobhana Nagraj answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      It is possible for our bodies to adapt to the environment. There is a field called epigenetic which looks at how the environment influences our genes, it is fascinating – you can read more about it here: https://www.lindau-nobel.org/epigenetics-how-the-environment-influences-our-genes/

    • Photo: Kaitlin Wade

      Kaitlin Wade answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      I think our bodies will adapt to our environment very much in the same way as we do now in the near future. It’ll take quite some time I think in order for our bodies to evolve differently – likely, millenia until we would expect to see massive differences I expect.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 21 Jun 2019: last edited 20 Jun 2019 11:45 pm

      Our adaptive immune system relies on being exposed to a potential pathogen in order for us to develop immunity to it – so our environment is ‘teaching’ our immune system all the time about things it needs to protect us against. Over the course of your life, either through vaccination, or through exposure and recovery to a pathogen, you will develop immunity to a whole range of things. One argument for the apparent rise in immune-mediated disease such as allergies, is that our environment has become ‘too clean’; this is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and it proposes that because our immune system is not occupied with tackling real invaders, it starts to over-react to things that carry no risk at all. So the way we influence our environment may have some drawbacks for our own health, not just because of climate change or deforestation, but because of reduced exposure to things that can ‘train’ our immune system.
      When it comes to the brain, the rise of AI and robotics reduces the selection pressure on us to have powerful processors of our own – so one worry is that whilst the bots get smarter, humanity becomes ‘more stupid’. That might be ok for a while if the robots can do all our thinking for us – but why would they need humans to survive if they can manage just fine on their own?…..Beware the attraction of a seemingly ‘easy life’, our survival as a species depends on our ability to adapt to environmental changes that could be fast or slow; if we have no struggles, no infections, no need to learn or develop our brains or immune systems we leave ourselves very vulnerable to new threats – whether they be pathogens, climate changes, or more intelligent entities than us.

    • Photo: Ettie Unwin

      Ettie Unwin answered on 25 Jun 2019:

      Thats a good question – evidence shows that we do evolve but as Kate says it’s really slow. I think it will be really interesting to see where we will develop.