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Other scientists urge great caution in interpreting the research.
That the genetic changes have anything to do with brain size or intelligence "is totally unproven and potentially dangerous territory to get into with such sketchy data," stressed Dr.
"There's a sense we as humans have kind of peaked," agreed Greg Wray, director of Duke University's Center for Evolutionary Genomics.
"The genetic evolution of humans in the very recent past might in some ways be linked to the cultural evolution," he said.
Scientists attempt to date genetic changes by tracing back to such spread, using a statistical model that assumes genes have a certain mutation rate over time.
For the microcephalin gene, the variation arose about 37,000 years ago, about the time period when art, music and tool-making were emerging, Lahn said.
Lahn's own calculations acknowledge that the microcephalin variant could have arisen anywhere from 14,000 to 60,000 years ago, and that the uncertainty about the ASPM variant ranged from 500 to 14,000 years ago.
Those criticisms are particularly important, Collins said, because Lahn's testing did find geographic differences in populations harboring the gene variants today.
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Lahn offers an analogy: Medieval monks would copy manuscripts and each copy would inevitably contain errors — accidental mutations.