The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
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Resistance to malaria. Blue eyes. Lactose tolerance. What do all of these traits have in common? Every one of them has emerged in the last 10,000 years.


Scientists have long believed that the ˇ°great leap forwardˇ± that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews' rise to intellectual prominence. In each of these cases, the key was recent genetic change: adult milk tolerance in the early Indo-Europeans that allowed for a new way of life, increased disease resistance among the Europeans settling America, and new versions of neurological genes among European Jews.


Ranging across subjects as diverse as human domestication, Neanderthal hybridization, and IQ tests, Cochran and Harpending's analysis demonstrates convincingly that human genetics have changed and can continue to change much more rapidly than scientists have previously believed. A provocative and fascinating new look at human evolution that turns conventional wisdom on its head, The 10,000 Year Explosion reveals the ongoing interplay between culture and biology in the making of the human race.
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Customer Reviews:

  • Poor choice of tone
    The content is researched well and the book is an easy read. However, I have trouble with the overall tone of the book. It is laced racial undertones that made me cringe. It doesn't help that John Derbyshire, who admits to being a racist and homophobe, wrote the review for the book either.
    [...] "I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one"

    While it is scientifically valid to assert that evolution hasn't stopped, and that agriculture accelerated human evolution, it is the tone that is one again disturbing. The implication once again is asserting that "they" are a more evolved people. It's ironic that they contend that many linguists had tried to place the origin of Indo-European in their own back yard, when their whole book seems to have the very same biases.
    Overall some of the science behind their writing is valid, it is however disappointing that such smart people can't shake off their own bigotry. Had they struck a different tone, with the same science, the book would have been more palatable to a wider audience.

    The authors are very confident that the Neanderthals interbred with Europeans, and that this interbreeding is what kick-started the European Upper Paleolithic. However this view is hardly supported by, geneticists,anthropologists and archeologists. The latest study by Svante Paabo done in 2009 sequenced A draft Neanderthal Genome. According to their preliminary results, there is no evidence of Neanderthals and modern humans interbreeding. The following articles discuss the current findings
    The BBC article "Neanderthals 'distinct from us' "
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7886477.stm
    and a New York Times article "Scientists in Germany Draft Neanderthal Genome"
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/13/science/13neanderthal.html

    In short a lot of speculative information is portrayed as factual...more info
  • Excellent argument for modern evolution
    This book presents a well argued and studiously documented case for evolution of human beings in the modern era (8,000 BC up to the present day). The writing is fluid and very engaging. I highly recommend this book, and note that the excellent notes and bibliography enable further exploration for interested readers....more info
  • An entertaining and informative book
    Although I must admit to some bias since I know one of the authors personally, I found this to be an excellently written and engaging book. Where else can one find quotations from both Joseph Stalin and the American Dairy Council in one book? The explanations of the relevant facts are clear, with sufficient detail to que experts interested in further research, but not so technical as to be intimidating to an average reader. The books thesis is clear and the case is compellingly argued, the most obvious counterarguments are addressed and convinicingly disposed of. Although many in the PC crowd may find the subject uncomfortable, the truth should never be hidden for political reasons. On the whole I highly recommend this book....more info
  • Fun
    This is a fun book written by authors with a lively intelligence. Their main thesis is obvious and controversial at the same time: the human race has evolved significantly over the last 10,000 years. They cite both the introduction of agriculture, and the accompanying explosion in population which increases the number of random mutations. Their other important thesis is that the leap forward in human cognitive abilities which others have remarked on, and which took place sometime during the last 100,000 years ago (date is highly controversial), was due to acquisition of some beneficial Neanderthal alleles. While not mentioned, 60% of the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced [...], but it will be a long time before the Neanderthal hypothesis can be confirmed, since we do not even have definitive knowledge as to which genes are most important in distinguishing our cognitive capabilities from chimpanzees, and we haven't sequenced genomes from our distant ancestors.

    The discussion of possible Jewish intellectual superiority was particularly good. A small increase in average IQ, e.g. 10 points, can result in a lot more individuals in what were the tails of the distribution. As with many other evolutionary changes discussed, it is simply a matter of selecting for favorable alleles rather than a new mutation; in the Jewish case, circumstances were such that selection only worked on Ashkenazi Jews, not all Jews, and just during the last several centuries. The best example of selection making dramatic changes was the breeding of tame foxes.

    The reader should be aware that what the authors portray as facts about human history are often just theories with counter-arguments. I include: that war was the primary check on hunter-gatherer population size; that the first immigrants to North America were responsible for the extermination of the large mammals; that syphilis originated in North America. (For a discussion of pre-European America, Charles C Mann's book is terrific). Also, the authors don't take a lot of time in elaborating on the biology underpinning their efforts, so some general readers may have to take some things on faith.
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  • You've got to be kidding
    This book was fun to read just because much of the speculation in it is so ridiculous. And it is rife with speculation. Bushmen have a hard time adapting to life as shepherds - it must be genetic. Odd, I have the same problem learning Mandarin: Is that genetic too? Tay-Sachs and Gaucher's exist at such high frequencies amongst Jews and everyone knows Jews are smart; heterozygous Jews must be smarter than the rest of us. Oddly, Tay-Sachs heterozygosity hasn't had the same impact on French-Canadians and Cajun populations, which also have high frequencies of the disease alleles, or among the Irish who have very high levels of phenotypic heterzygousity (half the normal enzymatic activity as typical homozygotes). Gaucher's heterozygousity is likely to be advantageous in environments that have frequent outbreaks of influenza and TB (if you're familiar with Pubmed, do some searches to find out how Gaucher's affects the immune system). Just a few years ago the author's of the book were hailing the discovery of a new allele for the microencephlin gene that emerged around 40,000 yrs ago. Since microencephlin is known to have an impact on brain size the emergence of this allele must be one of the reasons Europeans are so smart. Unfortunately, it's now been clearly demonstrated that the allele has no impact on IQ. It's also strange that the authors never mention the Flynn effect (raw IQ scores among populations tend to increase with each passing generation; the Flynn effect has been correlated with urbanization and family literacy). The book is worth reading if you're reasonably well-informed and don't just accept the authors' take on something when they express an opinion. Finally, I've been a biologist for 20 years (with a reasonably extensive background in microbiology, developmental biology and evolutionary biology) and I can't recall a single colleague every suggesting that human evolution came to a grinding halt thousands of years ago. Suggesting such a thing would be silly....more info
  • This book describes an important explanation for historical events
    Darwin believed that there were (on average) behavioral differences between the races. Although such a viewpoint is politically incorrect this book indicates that such differences should be expected.

    The enviornment of the cold and desolate Gobi Desert differs so dramatically from that of the tropics that it would be surprising that two groups of peoples, each exposed for 10,000 years to these differing enviornments, would not have some differences in the distribution of genes underlying behavioral responses.

    PC may hide the truth from the general public, but thank goodness that the truth is out there to be found, thanks to researchers like the authors of this book.
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  • Where are the peasants with their torches?
    Cochran and Harpending have given us a serious intellectual commentary that is brightened with entertaining humor and is refreshingly unmarred by the graffiti of political correctness and squirming apologies.

    Their agenda appears simply to tell the truth insofar as science now grants room for it to be told. They are so cleanly dedicated to the truth that I am astonished that the usual mob of retarded and incendiary villagers has not yet appeared, torches in hand, to attack them on these Amazon reviews. I suppose they will show up sooner or later.

    As for me, it is always a pleasure to read a book that agrees with my own opinions. Because I was once taught that human evolution ceased with the advent of civilization, and that all varieties of humanity were essentially identical, that is what I once believed.

    What shook--and then destroyed--that belief was learning about evolutionary processes on other animals. At some point many years ago it seemed blindingly obvious to me that the enormous evolutionary challenges posed to our own species by migrating out of Africa into new environments, and then by the implementation of agriculture, followed by the rise of cities had to impose many strong selective pressures on at least some of our species and cause relatively recent evolution.

    I was not long in discovering that this was not equally obvious to everyone. In time, I began to enjoy needling my more liberal friends when they ridiculed the religious right for not believing in evolution. I usually pointed out that they were only giving evolution lip service themselves since they did not accept that evolution was still at work on our own species.

    It seems fairly clear that if evolution has had time to create distinct varieties of our species, with variation in every determinable characteristic, from hair, dentition, bone structure and density, metabolism, etc., etc., the only way that one can believe with certainty that mental aptitudes have miraculously remained the same across all varieties of our species (and contrary to the evidence) is, in fact, by the introduction of a miracle, by embracing something like the same supernatural agency that tofu-snacking, hot-tub liberals ridicule the religious right for accepting.

    Evolution is truly a beautiful marvel, but it is never supernatural. And it is time to recognize and accept that it is far from finished with us. Cochran and Harpending have done us good service by writing such a clear and forceful commentary on recent human evolution.



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  • The Past Is A Foreign Country
    Despite the complexity of the subject, "The 10,000 Year Explosion" is clearly written and compellingly argued. The book is devoted to refuting the idea that human evolution stopped 10,000 or 50,000 years ago, as some have argued. Rather, humans are constantly adapting to diseases, cultural innovations, and myriad other changes in the environment. As Cochran and Harpending point out in the Overview to their book, "humans have changed significantly in body and mind over recorded history. Sargon and Imhotep were different from you genetically as well as culturally."

    At some level, the idea is plainly correct. Sickle cell anemia, for example, results from an adaptation to malaria. Those who had the gene were more likely to live long enough to have offspring, so the genes that code for malaria resistance are much more frequent in populations originating from areas where malaria has been historically common.

    The same principle explains why the New World's inhabitants were almost completely wiped out by diseases imported from the Old World--by some estimates, mortality approached 90% of the pre-1492 population of North America and South America. The denizens of the Old World had been pastoralists and farmers much longer than their New World counterparts, and so had been exposed to a host of nasty diseases that originate from domesticated animals (e.g., smallpox). The farmers who were lucky enough to have a genetic adaptation that could resist the diseases passed the adaptation along to their offspring, and over hundreds or thousands of years the genetic defense swept through the whole population. By the time Columbus reached the New World, he and has compatriots had evolved to resist the Old World's diseases. In the New World, the Native American population had turned to agriculture relatively recently and didn't have the same suite of domesticated animals as the inhabitants of the Old World. Native Americans had evolved no genetic defenses against the diseases brought by the Europeans, and millions died in the space of a few decades. (The tables were turned on the Europeans who ventured into Africa, who were genetically ill-equipped to deal with tropical diseases like malaria.)

    Cochran and Harpending's discussion of the Ashkenazim is bound to be more controverial and disturbing. The authors argue that, during the Middle Ages, the Ashkenazi Jews were, for various cultural reasons, a genetically isolated population that could make a living only in certain demanding careers, such as money lending and asset management. All of these occupations rewarded great intellectual ability, so over a period of hundreds of years, the Ashkenazi Jews became smarter on average than other Europeans. (According to the authors, the average IQ of the Ashkenazi Jews is 112, about three quarters of a standard deviation above the European mean.) This pushed the normal distribution of IQ scores among the Ashkenazi to the right, so the Ashkenazi were rewarded with a disproportionate number of geniuses relative to the size of their population. As further support for their hypothesis, the authors point out that the genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs that are associated with the Ashkenazi population seem to be errant expressions of genes that enhance the performance of the brain and central nervous system.

    Of course, many of us become very uncomfortable when genetics seems to suggest that one human population might, on average, be more intelligent than another. Arguments about the alleged superiority of one group over another have been used to horrible effect in human history. But the authors are optimists, not racists. Pointing out that there is a unique genetic adaptation among the inhabitants of the village of Limone sul Garda that greatly reduces the risk of coronary disease, the authors argue that "some of the results of history's experiments may even aid us in more ambitious efforts aimed at increasing human life spans and cognitive abilities." Fine up to a point, but we must always be wary of the enthusiasms of those who would twist such hopeful conclusions into an argument for a new form of eugenics.

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  • Evolution As An Ongoing Process
    The authors of this book are professors of anthropology, which might signal to some doubtful potential purchasers that the book will be dry as dust. Nothing could be further from the truth. In about 225 pages, plus extensive notes, glossary, and bibliography, this is a fascinating study of how the development of civilization led to further evolutionary development among human beings.

    Most of the time people think of civilization as an end result of evolution, and assume that human beings today are the same as human beings ten or twenty thousand years ago. Not so, according to Cochran and Harpending, who have amassed a wealth of fascinating material to bolster their belief that human evolution has been an ongoing process that was actually intensified by the development of civilization. Among the fascinating stories and examples provided here are an explanation of the spread of lactose-tolerance and its connection to the peopling of the Northern Hemisphere, the development of malaria resistance and of blue eyes, and the different ways Tibetans and Andeans deal with the thin air of their high altitude homes.

    The book is written in a light, entertaining style which does not undercut the solid scholarship which supports it. Readers of Jared Diamond will recognize some similar themes, and indeed the authors often mention their indebtedness to some of his ideas, but there is also much fascinating new speculation to enjoy and ponder....more info
  • Outstanding
    One of the most thought-provoking and interesting books I have read in many years, casts a new light on modern human history. Highly recommended....more info