Putting the ‘fit’ back into ‘survival of the fittest’: environments, landscapes and mutliscalar evolution in the human lineage.

Authors: Coward, F.

Start date: 5 December 2017

Evolution is often glossed as ‘survival of the fittest’. However, Darwin intended the concept of ‘fitness’ to refer not to being the strongest, fastest or biggest, but to how an individual ‘fits’ into its environment. Such a perspective frames evolution as an ongoing process of interaction and mutual adaptation between individuals and their worlds. Furthermore, the ‘environments’ into which individuals must fit are not simply reducible to ‘natural’ physical and biotic environments, but also include elements more usually thought of as ‘artificial’ or ‘cultural’, as well as the social environments that must successfully be negotiated for individuals to pass on their genes. A significant issue here is the tension between the variable temporal and geographical scales over which the processes of biological, cultural and social adaptation and evolution take place. At the macro-scale, lineages’ and species’ genotypes evolve in response to selection by long-term processes such as climatic and environmental variability. However, species-wide biological adaptations to such macro-scale hominin/environment interaction counter-intuitively manifest at the micro-scale as highly variable (extended) phenotypes: despite a near-universal human biology and perceptual apparatus, an evolved reliance on developmental plasticity (both cognitive and physiological, if the two can be distinguished) produces not only physiological variation but also culturally and historically specific conceptualizations of and modes of engagement with local landscapes and environments. In this talk, then, I will discuss the potential for the study of human evolution for a perspective in which hominin and human development and evolution is viewed as an ongoing and multiscalar process of developmental interaction with ‘environment’ in its broadest sense: from biome, habitat and topography, to cultural conceptualizations of landscape, to individuals’ and groups’ social worlds.

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