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Darwinian selection continues to influence human evolution

New evidence proves humans are continuing to evolve and that significant natural and sexual selection is still taking place in our species in the modern world.

Despite advancements in medicine and technology, as well as an increased prevalence of monogamy, research reveals humans are continuing to evolve just like other species.

Scientists in an international collaboration, which includes the University of Sheffield, analysed church records of about 6,000 Finnish people born between 1760-1849 to determine whether the demographic, cultural and technological changes of the agricultural revolution affected natural and sexual selection in our species.

Project leader Dr Virpi Lummaa, of the University's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: "We have shown advances have not challenged the fact that our species is still evolving, just like all the other species 'in the wild'. It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans."

Dr Lummaa added: "We have shown significant selection has been taking place in very recent populations, and likely still occurs, so humans continue to be affected by both natural and sexual selection. Although the specific pressures, the factors making some individuals able to survive better, or have better success at finding partners and produce more kids, have changed across time and differ in different populations."

As for most animal species, the authors found that men and women are not equal concerning Darwinian selection.

Principal investigator Dr Alexandre Courtiol, of the Wissenschftskolleg zu Berlin, added: "Characteristics increasing the mating success of men are likely to evolve faster than those increasing the mating success of women. This is because mating with more partners was shown to increase reproductive success more in men than in women. Surprisingly, however, selection affected wealthy and poor people in the society to the same extent."

The experts needed detailed information on large numbers of study subjects to be able to study selection over the entire life cycle of individuals: survival to adulthood, mate access, mating success, and fertility per mate.

Genealogy is very popular in Finland and the country has some of the best available data for such research thanks to detailed church records of births, deaths, marriages and wealth status which were kept for tax purposes. Movement in the country was also very limited until the 20th century.

"Studying evolution requires large sample sizes with individual-based data covering the entire lifespan of each born person," said Dr Lummaa. "We need unbiased datasets that report the life events for everyone born. Because natural and sexual selection acts differently on different classes of individuals and across the life cycle, we needed to study selection with respect to these characteristics in order to understand how our species evolves."

The project was funded by the European Research Council and the Kone Foundation (Finland) and was carried out with Wissenschftskolleg zu Berlin and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, University of Turku in Finland, University of Helsinki in Finland, and the Population Research Institute in Finland.

Notes for Editors: With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK's leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen's Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom's intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University's research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.

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Animal and Plant Sciences

For further information please contact: Paul Mannion, Media Relations Officer, on 0114 2229851 or email p.f.mannion@sheffield.ac.uk