The 10,000 Year Explosion

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The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
The 10,000 Year Explosion (Cover).jpg
Authors Gregory Cochran
Henry Harpending
Publisher Basic Books
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 304
ISBN 0-465-00221-8
LC Class GN281.4.c632 2009

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution is a 2009 book by anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Starting with their own take on the conventional wisdom that the evolutionary process stopped when modern humans appeared, the authors explain the genetic basis of their view that human evolution is accelerating, illustrating it with some examples.[1]

Opinions in book[edit]

Cochran and Harpending put forward the idea that the development of agriculture has caused an enormous increase in the rate of human evolution, including numerous evolutionary adaptations to the different challenges and lifestyles that resulted. Moreover, they argue that these adaptations have varied across different human populations, depending on factors such as when the various groups developed agriculture, and the extent to which they mixed genetically with other population groups.[2]

Such changes, they argue, include not just well-known physical and biological adaptations such as skin colour, disease resistance, and lactose tolerance, but also personality and cognitive adaptations that are starting to emerge from genetic research. These may include tendencies towards (for example) reduced physical strength, enhanced long-term planning, or increased docility, all of which may have been counter-productive in hunter-gatherer societies, but become favoured adaptations in a world of agriculture and its resulting trade, governments and urbanization. These adaptations are even more important in the modern world, and have helped shape today's nation states, the authors speculate that the scientific and Industrial Revolutions came about in part due to genetic changes in Europe over the past millennium, the absence of which had limited the progress of science in Ancient Greece. The authors suggest we would expect to see fewer adaptive changes among the Amerindians and sub-Saharan Africans, who have farmed for the shortest times and were genetically isolated from older civilizations by geographical barriers; in groups that had remained foragers, such as the Australian Aborigines, there would presumably be no such adaptations at all. This may explain why Indigenous Australians and many Native Americans have characteristic health problems when exposed to modern Western diets. Similarly, Amerindians, Aboriginals, and Polynesians, for example, had experienced very little infectious disease, they had not evolved immunities as did many Old World dwellers, and were decimated upon contact with the wider world.[2]


The book's main thesis is that human civilisation greatly accelerated increases in the rates of evolution, the authors begin their discussion by providing two quotes they feel portray the conventional wisdom on this topic. First, they quote Ernst Mayr as stating in 1963: "Something must have happened to weaken the selective pressure drastically. We cannot escape the conclusion that man's evolution towards manness suddenly came to a halt." Second, they quote Stephen J. Gould as stating in 2000: "There's been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we've built with the same body and brain."

This had become the established viewpoint—when modern humans appeared, evolution was essentially over, the received wisdom is based on the doctrine that human minds are the same, everywhere: Bastian's Psychic Unity of Mankind. Unfortunately, the authors find, this is no more than wishful thinking. Were it true, human bodies would also be the same worldwide, which clearly they are not. Finns cannot be mistaken for Zulus, nor Zulus for Finns.[2] Not only are there strong reasons to believe that significant human evolution is theoretically possible, or even likely; it is completely obvious that it has taken place, since people are different from one another.

The first four of the book’s seven chapters serve as a preamble to the final three. First, Cochran and Harpending present evidence for recent, accelerated human evolution after the invention of agriculture; in itself, this argument represents a paradigm shift, albeit one that now has clear data to back it up.[3] The International HapMap Project and other studies have shown that selection is ongoing and has accelerated over time, this has been a key discovery in human biology, and Cochran and Harpending, building on their own work and that of others such as John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison,[4] tie the advent of agriculture—and the selection pressures resulting from the new diets, new modes of habitation, new animal neighbors, and new modes of living that agriculture made possible—to this accelerating evolution.


Wolpoff writes that Cochran and Harpending continue to refute conventional wisdom in their discussion of the Neanderthals. For natural selection to have a chance, they argue, there need to be favourable mutations, or favourable combinations of existing alleles such as genes for blue eyes or pale skin. Cochran and Harpending concentrate on the Neolithic farming revolution as the beginning of major population expansions that provided enough mutations to accelerate genetic change. Infectious diseases were another consequence of the early urban populations and soon became a new source of selection pressures, the origins of many recently adapted genes have now been traced to this period, creating effects such as regional differences in skin colour and skeletal gracility. Adaptations may have sacrificed muscle strength for higher intelligence[2] and less aggressive human behaviours. By 5000 years ago, the authors estimate that adaptive alleles were coming into existence at a rate about 100 times faster than during the Pleistocene, this is the ‘‘explosion’’ of the book’s title.[1]

Research cited by Cochran and Harpending provides evidence of genetic mixing between modern humans and an ancient Homo lineage such as the Neanderthals, it supports the idea that modern humans could have benefited by acquiring adaptive alleles evolved by our Neanderthal relatives - in this case, microcephalin, an adaptive allele associated with brain development. Microcephalin (MCPH1) regulates brain size, and has evolved under strong positive selection in the human evolutionary lineage.[5] One genetic variant of Microcephalin, which arose about 37,000 years ago, increased its frequency in modern humans too rapidly to be compatible with neutral genetic drift, as anatomically modern humans emerged from Africa and spread across the globe, the "indigenous" Homo populations they encountered had already inhabited their respective regions for long periods of time and might have been better adapted to the local environments than the colonizers. It follows that modern humans, although probably superior in their own way, could have benefited from adaptive alleles gained by interbreeding with the populations they replaced, as appears to be the case for the brain-size-determining gene microcephalin.[6]


Farming, which, the authors note, produces 10 to 100 times more calories per acre than foraging, carried this trend further, over the period from 10,000 BC to AD 1, the world population increased about a hundredfold - estimates range from 40 to 170 times. An accelerated rate of evolution is a direct result of the larger human population. More people will have more mutations, thereby increasing opportunity for evolutionary change under natural selection, the spread of rapidly expanding populations eventually outpaced the spread of favourable mutations under selection in those populations, so for the first time in human history favourable mutations could not fully disperse throughout the human species. In addition, of course, selection pressures changed once farming was adopted, favouring distinctive adaptations in different geographic areas.[2]

Farming, rather than just reduced sunlight, may have helped trigger pale skin in Europeans; in a 2007 study, almost all Africans and East Asians have one allele of the SLC24A5 gene, whereas 98% of the Europeans studied had the other.[7] These data suggest that a selective sweep occurred as recently as 5,300 to 6,000 years ago, replacing darker skins with light skins at astonishing speed, it implies that Europeans had been dark-skinned for tens of thousands of years. Several decades ago, Stanford's Cavalli-Sforza had argued that European hunter-gatherers, herders and fishers could have survived from the vitamin D content of their diet alone. Only when farming took hold did Europeans—replacing meat and fish with grain—need to absorb more sunlight to produce vitamin D in their skin.[8] Other writers, including Darwin,[citation needed] Miller,[9] and Dawkins,[10] have proposed that skin-colour changes were driven by sexual selection. Cochran and Harpending reject the sexual-selection idea when used to imply that race is no more than skin deep ("perhaps little more than a fad"),[11] pointing out that experts can easily determine race from skeletal evidence alone.

Gene flow[edit]

About halfway through the book, Cochran and Harpending pause to consider two different ways of looking at the information found in gene variants.[3] Researchers commonly see them merely as markers of human migration, ignoring their functions, the authors support such research, but argue for a more complete understanding of the geographic distributions of genes. Where the usual geographical analysis treats the distribution of genes as an effect of history, in the authors' view, the genes themselves are a major cause: Two variants in the same gene do not necessarily have the same effect, and their relative, selective benefits will control the spread of genes through populations in both space and time.


From that platform the authors discuss ideas that range from the possible origins of the Arthurian legend in Britain to the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Others have attempted this, for example in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.[12] But, according to Kelleher,[3] Cochran and Harpending go one better than Diamond, he goes on to state that where Diamond was content with environmental determinism, at times opposing the roles of human biology and population differences, Cochran and Harpending embrace them both. Their discussion of gene flow becomes the core of an argument for biology as central to history, and the backdrop for the book's two major hypotheses.

The first seeks to resolve a longstanding debate in historical linguistics by making a case for the Kurgan hypothesis on the origins of the Indo-European language group, the Kurgan theory holds that Indo-European speakers came from lands between the Black and Caspian seas before spreading their language by conquest. The authors suggest that dairy farming and a complementary adaptation - the ability to digest lactose in adulthood - lie behind their conquests, with a walking food source, the milk-drinking warriors defeated their plant-growing neighbours. Drinking milk, from cows, horses, or camels, is a behavior shared by many of history’s greatest conquering peoples, whether Kurgans, Scythians, Arabs, or Mongols. Without continuing evolution, the ability to digest milk could never have arisen; in fact, it has done so several times, in different ways, in various places, and it has helped shape human history. Kelleher comments that the authors’ argument makes it difficult to imagine the language in which their book would have been written, were it not for the ability to digest milk.[3]

Ashkenazi Jews[edit]

The second major argument, which takes up the final chapter, sets out to explain why Ashkenazi Jews have a mean IQ so much higher than that of the population in general. This argument had been published previously in an earlier paper[13] that attracted wide media coverage, generating extensive criticism and praise, this final chapter prior to the book's conclusion has been described as "a consistent, thorough, biological history—or perhaps, better, a consistent biological hypothesis of a specific history, and a falsifiable one to boot".[3]


The paleoanthropologist Milford H. Wolpoff criticized aspects of the book but considered that the scientific community should not "throw the baby out with the bath. The thesis of this book, its central hypothesis, is quite insightful and most probably correct, it presents a revolutionary explanation for recent human evolution and biological variation, based on an exploding genetic data set that will provide a continued means of testing it.[1]

In New Scientist, Christopher Willis wrote that the "evidence the authors present an overwhelming case that natural selection has recently acted strongly on us". However, Willis criticizes the authors for not discussing what the "recent and continuing evolution means for our species as a whole". Willis concludes by saying that "the book offers a limited and biased interpretation of some very exciting research".[14]

In Evolution and Human Behavior, anthropologist Edward Hagen wrote that the book makes "many unsupported and often questionable assertions", but it is nevertheless valuable in raising "bold questions about major historical encounters between populations — Neanderthal and modern humans, German tribes and Romans, Europeans and Native Americans — in light of formidable (but not unassailable) arguments from population genetics". Hagen considered that it "should also be on the summer reading list of all evolutionary social scientists".[15]

Anthropologist Cadell Last wrote that by using race as a natural fact, the book "undermines the attempt to find a legitimate scientific approach to understanding recent human evolution and conceptualizing human genetic diversity" and that is was "unfortunate" that it had received "praise from prominent, influential well-established biological anthropologists" such as John D. Hawks.[16]

According to a review in the Financial Times, "Interestingly, the authors make no predictions for our future. And accordingly, biologists – as opposed to social scientists – may not find their thesis all that novel, but it is an engaging book with valuable information about how advantageous genes spread through a population."[17]

In Seed, T.J. Kelleher wrote that "The strength and sheer number of the book’s best sections, however, more than overshadow the wanness and paucity of its worst. Even with its flaws, Cochran and Harpending’s book has provided the best example to date of what E.O. Wilson would recognize as consilient history".[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Milford H. Wolpoff (2010). Book Review: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilizations Accelerated Human Evolution. Edited by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. xiii 1 288 pp. New York: Basic Books. 2009. $27.00 (cloth). American Journal of Human Biology. 22:137–142. Wolpoff, M. H. (2010). "Book review: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilizations Accelerated Human Evolution". American Journal of Human Biology. 22: 137. doi:10.1002/ajhb.21004. 
  2. ^ a b c d e The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilizations Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Basic Books, New York, NY, USA
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kelleher, T.J. Be Fruitful and Multiply. Darwin 200. Seed Magazine, February 12, 2009.
  4. ^ John Hawks, Eric T. Wang, Gregory M. Cochran, Henry C. Harpending, and Robert K. Moyzis. Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Published online before print December 17, 2007, doi:10.1073/pnas.0707650104. PNAS December 26, 2007 vol. 104 no. 52 20753-20758.
  5. ^ Patrick D. Evans, Sandra L. Gilbert, Nitzan Mekel-Bobrov, Eric J. Vallender, Jeffrey R. Anderson, Leila M. Vaez-Azizi, Sarah A. Tishkoff, Richard R. Hudson and Bruce T. Lahn. Microcephalin, a Gene Regulating Brain Size, Continues to Evolve Adaptively in Humans (2005). Science 9 September 2005: Vol. 309, no. 5741, pp. 1717-1720. doi:10.1126/science.1113722.
  6. ^ Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage (2005). Patrick D. Evans, Nitzan Mekel-Bobrov, Eric J. Vallender, Richard R. Hudson, and Bruce T. Lahn. Published online before print November 7, 2006, doi:10.1073/pnas.0606966103. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) November 28, 2006 vol. 103 no. 48 18178-18183.
  7. ^ Science magazine. European Skin Turned Pale Only Recently, Gene Suggest. 20 April 2007. Science, Vol. 316.
  8. ^ Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. and W. F. Bodmer (1971), the Genetics of Human Populations. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco (reprinted 1999 by Dover Publications)
  9. ^ Miller G (2000) The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, London, Heineman, ISBN 0-434-00741-2 (also Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-49516-1)
  10. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2004). A Devil's Chaplain (p. 77). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  11. ^ Chuck Lemme (2005). "Race and Sexual Selection," Skeptic, Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005. (accessed May 16, 2011).
  12. ^ Jared Diamond (1997), Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London: Vintage, 2005 [1997], ISBN 0-09-930278-0
  13. ^ Cochran, G., J. Hardy, H. Harpending (2006). "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence". Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659–693. doi:10.1017/S0021932005027069
  14. ^ Wills, Christopher (2009). "Review: The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending". New Scientist. 201 (2695): 46–47. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(09)60457-7. ISSN 0262-4079. 
  15. ^ Hagen, Edward H. (2009). "Human natures - A review of The 10,000 Year Explosion". Evolution and Human Behavior. 30 (6): 453–455. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.07.006. ISSN 1090-5138. 
  16. ^ Last, Cadell Nicholas (2013). Book Review: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. 
  17. ^ Cane, Alan (7 Jan 2011). "The 10,000 Year Explosion". Financial Times. 

External links[edit]