Crazy Origin Story | Yu L.

How did we get here … and where do we come from?

You probably guessed (correctly) that we come from all over the place – different continents, countries, cities, cultural backgrounds, the list goes on. However, putting these differences aside, we’re all just a part of the same species sharing nearly identical genetic code. So, the real question is – where does our species come from?

This was one topic we explored in today’s lecture covering the driving forces behind evolution and natural selection. 

In order to fully understand mankind’s origin story, we have to go way back up the phylogenetic tree encompassing all life. Humans descend from a long line of ancestral species, which, through analyzing genetic characteristics, can be traced back to a single common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. Over time, changes to the genetic code within multi-cellular organisms paired with the process of natural selection resulted in the favorability of certain traits for survival. These changes to the genetic code occur in various ways including errors during DNA replication, random mutations, and the recombination of genes during reproduction. All of these are relatively slow processes, which is why the emergence of new and diverse species occurs on a timescale of millions and even billions of years. However, in comparison to the timeline of earth, evolution is quite speedy – it might be hard to imagine that the last dinosaurs were still fighting each other 65 million years ago and scientists estimate that humans evolved from primates just over the last few million years.

While this may all seem like pretty common knowledge, the lecture went in depth into the mechanisms behind the process of evolution and covered many more specific topics. In general, if I were to describe lectures at SSP, I would say that they are packed with eye-opening content and knowledge and there is something to learn from each lecture. And on that note, something I really appreciate about SSP lectures is that they always encourage us to think critically about what we have learned. The questions posed in corresponding lecture assignments also open the door for us to further explore the topics covered on our own.

So, what’s next for the human race? Are we still evolving? I discussed this question with my teammates, Henry and Belle, during the TA block and we came up with some interesting points. While it may be true that natural selection has largely been eliminated in modern society, humans are still adapting to their surroundings, which may lead to evolutionary changes in the long term.  Something Belle brought up during our casual discussion was something I found interesting. Take a look at both of your hands (palm facing up). If you look at the hand you usually hold your phone with, you may notice that the gap between your pinky and ring finger is much larger on that hand than your other hand. Now, try moving your pinky towards the ring finger without moving any other finger. You may also notice it’s harder to do this on the hand you hold your phone with relative to the other. Or maybe none of these apply to you and I sound really stupid right now. In any case, this may be a consequence of our dependence on phones as our bodies to adapt make the use of certain technology more convenient. While an adaptation like this is nowhere near significant or established enough to be considered an evolutionary change, it suggests that technology may induce long-term adaptations among future generations of humans.

If you’re a sci-fi fan like me – particularly Rick and Morty (which actually has evolution as a relevant theme) – having the power to control evolutionary processes sounds kind of exciting, and dangerous too. Perhaps advanced gene editing technology could help out with this and possibly eliminate evolution altogether. In any case, it’s interesting to see how our species, which came from humble origins, has evolved to become the master of evolution.

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Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine that SSP ends next week and, to be honest, it feels like the program has just begun. But in retrospect, I realize I’ve gained more knowledge and experience in the last several weeks than I could have imagined at the start of the program. Each day at SSP is a new and unique adventure. Every lecture and class activity teaches me something new – from comparing protein sequences in MOE to designing assay protocols to learning about COVID-19 and much more. 

Personally, the most satisfying moments in SSP occur when I solve a task that is particularly challenging, whether from a lecture quiz, team project, or something else. I have these moments all the time when I work with other SSPers, especially my incredible groupmates (shoutout to Henry and Belle). Sharing these realizations and epiphanies with others makes for a truly special experience that is unique to SSP.

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Also, this is off-topic, but I can’t be the only one who made this parallel…

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(Dr. Sverdrup under infrared)