Is Evolution Accelerating?

Richard Dawkins Illustrates the Scale of the Geological Timeline

Richard Dawkins, at the end of this video illustrates the span of geological time by holding out his arm.

He explains: if the whole of time from the development of the first life form (primitive bacteria) were his tie, multi-cellular creatures developed around his wrist, dinosaurs (65 million years ago) in his palm, and mankind would be at his fingertips.

The whole of recorded human history would be the dust created by a single stroke from a nail-file on his fingernail.

This timeline, to me at least, indicates that the rate of evolutionary change (simple becoming more complex) is accelerating. It is taking less and less time for organisms to become more complex.

Why is that? And does that mean that we are aproaching a time when the time-frame for evolutionary change will be observable in a human lifetime?


Software developer by day, scale model builder and wargamer by night.

Posted in Evolution
3 comments on “Is Evolution Accelerating?
  1. Darmok says:

    Not quite. In the first place, evolution does not necessarily proceed from simple to complex; simple may remain simple, complex may remain complex, and complex may become simple. Of course, much has happened in the span of recorded history, but that is all cultural “evolution,” not biological. And aside from having brains more complex than those of other primates, we’re otherwise not any more biologically complex, really. Also, we tend to judge by what’s familiar, lumping all unicellular organisms into a big pile. The difference between modern bacteria or even those when the first multicellular life forms originated and the primordial cells would be absolutely astonishing.

    Also, it would be practically impossible to observe human evolution within a human lifetime, since evolution proceeds by generations, and even with long lifespans, one could only observe a few generations. Of course, we can easily observe evolution of organisms with shorter lifespans, like bacteria or some insects.

  2. Richard@Home says:

    Hi Darkmok, thanks for clarifying that.

    I should have been more clear when I said “And does that mean that we are approaching a time when the time-frame for evolutionary change will be observable in a human lifetime?”

    I of course meant other lifeforms other than humans (for the reasons you mentioned).

    We would still be able to observe changes in humans too because (unlike observing changes in pre-history) we have methods to record and catalog the changes. So in effect we could observe many generations by passing on those records to those that come after us.

    Interesting times ahead I think 🙂

  3. Darmok says:

    You’re absolutely right: it will be very interesting for future generations to look back at our times and before to see how humans have changed! In fact, we can even do this now, in a limited way; for instance, the origin and spread of at least one of the lactose-tolerance mutations (humans, by “default,” are lactose intolerant) has been pretty well documented.

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