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Just How Big a Deal Is Milk Drinking?

The evolution of the ability to digest lactose conferred such an advantage it probably spread through populations within a few dozen generations. Steve Mirsky reports

“The ability to digest milk as adults, and as infants, actually, is due to the expression of an enzyme called lactase.” That’s the University of Pennsylvania’s Sarah Tishkoff at the AAAS conference in Washington, D.C., on February 20th, talking about the recent evolution of lactose tolerance in different human populations within the past 9,000 years. “Individuals who don’t express this enzyme can’t digest that complex sugar.”

Can we put a number on the evolutionary importance of lactose tolerance? “The selective pressure was quite remarkable. We actually estimated it to be about 10 percent. So you’re more likely to have 10 percent more offspring essentially.”

How strong is that? Look at population genetics to see how fast a trait will spread that develops in one individual in a population and that confers a 10 percent reproductive advantage. A mathematical analysis reveals that in just 100 generations, such a trait can be found in 95 percent of the individuals in the population.

That time period could be less than 2,000 years for humans. “I’m often asked the question, are humans still evolving? I would say the answer is absolutely yes.”

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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