Humans: A Work in Progress

By William J. Furney

Wisdom teeth are on the way out. We no longer need these large and troublesome molars to grind up rough and fibrous food because, it’s believed, most of what we now eat is, for better or worse, processed and almost effortless to chew. 

So the remarkable human body is increasingly appearing without wisdom teeth — as in babies being born minus them, and this is great (albeit late) news for anyone who has suffered the agony of impacted wisdom teeth or — like me — endured excruciation having them removed at the dentist (my attempt failed and I was hospitalised for the procedure, which was performed under general anaesthetic). Our jaws are becoming smaller and so our genetics are deciding to jettison teeth that either take up unnecessary space or are surplus to requirements. 

They’re called wisdom teeth, by the way, because they’re the last set of pearly whites to erupt, typically coming in the late teenage years or even the early 20s, and it’s presumed we have a bit more intelligence by that stage — although that is definitely not always the case. 

There are other human-evolution developments taking place too, and we know this thanks to the good folk at the University of Adelaide and Flinders University, also in Adelaide, South Australia. So just when you thought we had reached our peak in terms of evolutionary development — the great design and creation of God! — it’s steadily being proven that we are very much a work in progress. Who knows what we’ll look like in 100 years or even a millenium, if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves and our planet long before then. 

It’s almost as if our bodies and our DNA have a mind of their own. 

During research into how the human body has changed over recent generations, the scientists discovered that the human body is evolving at a more rapid pace now than at any time in the last quarter of a century. Another of their findings, published in the Journal of Anatomy, is that more people now have an additional artery running down the middle of the arm to the hand, with the effect of providing greater blood supply to the hand. (Because we’re doing so much typing and texting?)

“Since the 18th century, anatomists have been studying the prevalence of this artery in adults and our study shows it’s clearly increasing,” said Dr Teghan Lucas of Flinders University. “The prevalence was around 10% in people born in the mid-1880s compared to 30% in those born in the late 20th century, so that’s a significant increase in a fairly short period of time, when it comes to evolution.”

He speculated that the extra-arterial appearance — which develops in the womb but disappears after around eight weeks, as two other, permanent ones develop on the left and right of the arm and take over — could be due to mutations in genes responsible for its development or mothers could have had health issues in pregnancy that gave rise to it, or it could be the result of both. Either way, if it keeps up, said the doctor, most people will have a Median artery by 2100.

Professor Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide is calling it a “micro evolution”. 

“This is micro evolution in modern humans and the median artery is a perfect example of how we’re still evolving because people born more recently have a higher prevalence of this artery when compared to humans from previous generations,” he said.

“We’ve collected all the data published in anatomical literature and continued to dissect cadavers donated for studies in Adelaide and we found about one third of Australians have the median artery in their forearm and everyone will have it by the end of the century if this process continues.”

There are other clues to our ongoing evolution, the researchers found. They include the prevalence of spina bifida, strange connections between bones in the feet, the rare and decreasing presence of an artery that supplies the thyroid gland and the increasing prevalence of a bone in the back of the knee called the fabella. 

Religious zealots won’t accept any of this, of course, just as they dismiss the seminal work of Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution that so scandalised a delicate world that believed humans were made in the image of a creator and certainly couldn’t have evolved from low-life creatures and apes. 

Just as many believe planet Earth is only 10,000 years old when we can scientifically pinpoint its birth at around 4.5 billion years ago. And those who flat-out reject our planet as a sphere, when the evidence is in plain sight every time you glimpse the curved horizon from an airplane or mountain — or view the incredible live stream from the International Space Station. 

When you consider that our brains have around 100 billion neurons alone, a kind of cerebral internet connecting everything in and around us, it’s not a stretch to assume we may be the most complex structures in the vast expanse of the universe. It’s truly humbling. Someone of my weight, 70kg, contains seven billion billion billion atoms comprising two-thirds hydrogen, a quarter oxygen and one-tenth carbon. If you deployed Einstein’s E=MC2 and unleashed the energy potential, you’d blow the world away. 

Who knows what people will look like as we continue our exciting odyssey of evolution and our genes morph us into different beings more capable of existing on Earth, or even elsewhere, like Mars. Hopefully they won’t leave our brains behind.

  • Main image is of my body, doing yoga under the sun, and by me. 

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