units at just 40 sites along the genome.
If a detectable degree of local genetic differentiation has developed in Iceland in a mere 1,000 years, much greater differences are likely to have arisen among populations in the rest of the world, much of which has been settled for 40 times longer and where there have been many social and geographic impediments to the free flow of genes. Genetic differentiation would certainly have started to act on the human populations of the Upper Paleolithic era. Bruce Lahn, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, has made a striking discovery about the evolution of two genes involved in the construction of the human brain. Each gene has several alternative versions, or alleles, but in each case one specific allele has become much more widespread than the others in certain populations. For an allele to rise to high frequency very quickly is a signature of natural selection hard at work. So presumably each allele conferred some very strong selective advantage.
One of the alleles is an alternative version of a gene known as microcephalin. The allele appeared around 37,000 years ago (though anytime between 60,000 and 14,000 years is possible) and is now carried by some 70% of many populations of Europe and East Asia. The allele is much less common in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is typically carried by from zero to about 25% of the population.
Just some 6,000 years ago a new allele of another brain gene, known as ASPM, appeared in the Middle East or Europe and rapidly rose to prominence, being carried by about 50% of people in these populations. The allele is less common in East Asia and occurs hardly at all in sub-Saharan
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