What is amazing to me is that these same geneticists embrace hypotheses of population history that cannot possibly have happened. The other geneticists quoted in the article, Carlos Bustamante and his graduate student Kirk Lohmueller, wrote a paper earlier this spring arguing that deleterious mutations have reached high frequency in Europeans (moreso than Africans) because of a bottleneck during European history. The press reported this work as "Whites genetically weaker than blacks, study finds." The hypothesis in the paper is that protein-coding sites otherwise conserved in most mammals may differ among humans because of relaxed selection in a bottleneck.
Here's why they're wrong: their bottleneck is impossible. They propose that the European population was a small, isolated population of 5,700 effective individuals from 214,000 years ago up to the Last Glacial Maximum. I suppose I should take some encouragement that they believe Neandertals were European ancestors (because otherwise, where exactly would this small, isolated population of Europeans have lived). But it's still quite impossible -- it implies no gene flow between Africans and Europeans across that entire span. You see, that is the only way that genetic drift can lead to this kind of result -- large differences in frequencies between continents for hundreds of deleterious alleles. It takes a bottleneck of exceptional length, along with complete isolation.
In what has become a troubling trend, these details were hidden away in the online supplementary information of the paper. It is no surprise that most people read only the paper's conclusions, without critically evaluating the methods. But when the assumptions are hidden so that it takes an effort to look at them, you can understand that the paper does not receive the kind of scrutiny that it deserves. These are not obscure laboratory techniques; they are the basic evidence on which the conclusions were based.
Now, Bustamante knows that positive selection has been very important in recent human evolution, because he wrote an important paper on the subject in 2005. I wrote about the paper at the time -- it was one of the works that really got us thinking about acceleration in the first place. So why in the world did their more recent paper adopt such a ridiculous model of population history?
In any event, I don't think that either of these studies from earlier this year are relevant to our acceleration results. They address different aspects of genetic variation. However, acceleration may help to explain the high frequencies of some gene variants conserved in other mammals -- the results explained by Lohmueller and colleagues as relaxed selection under a bottleneck.
The acceleration of recent positive selection would predict that many otherwise conserved gene variants may be segregating in humans, because they are the targets of positive selection. These conserved sites are among those most likely to show a strong sign of recent selection, because adaptive changes on them are necessarily rare (we know they're rare, because they haven't happened very often among other species). Most such sites are still conserved in humans -- it's just not possible to change their function in adaptive ways. But the massive ecological changes of recent human history have created the opportunity for adaptive responses that are not present in other mammalian lineages. We shouldn't be surprised to see that some such changes are currently underway.
Europeans more highly evolved, not "genetically weaker"
This part of John Hawks' most recent post is worth pointing out: