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What is Evolution?

  • Jan 7, 2013 · 7:00 PM
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What is Evolution?

"Humans are bipedal creatures from Earth, and the third most intelligent species on that planet, surpassed only by mice and dolphins. Originally thought to have evolved from proto-apes, humans may in fact be descendants of Golgafrinchan telephone sanitizers, account executives, and marketing analysts who were tricked out of leaving their home planet to arrive on the planet ca. two million BC. These Golgafrinchans apparently displaced the indigenous cavemen as the organic components in the computer designed by Deep Thought."

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

We can acknowledge that there is a theory of evolution. However, we may wish to debate whether the theory of evolution is the same class of theory as the theory that there is gravity or whether it is more similar to the theory that smoking causes cancer, or more similar to the theory that chemical additives are affecting fertility, or more similar to the theory that aliens have been living amongst us for hundreds of years.

 

There are several interpretations of what evolution means:

• Some of our species have concluded that Homo sapiens (if that is who we are) represent the pinnacle of all evolutionary processes to date. We are the ‘higher life form’; other species are inferior - merely developmental stepping stones to the creation of human beings. This human hubris is ‘validated’ by certain religions through which the deity gives special status to ‘man’ (and lesser status to ‘woman’).

• Some interpret Homo sapiens as the result of the evolutionary precept ‘survival of the fittest’. ‘Fittest’ does not need to imply that humans are more sentient, conscious, intelligent or morally superior, just the ‘fittest’.

• With still less hubris one might make a more basic assertion that Homo sapiens is at one end of one twig on one branch of a tree of evolution. We have animal and other organic ‘predecessors’, but we cannot yet assert that our twig will survive or propagate. This assertion is consistent with the view that humans might well render themselves extinct, in a bewilderingly large number of ways.

• A more hard-edged (and less triumphalistic than the religious) view is offered by Richard Dawkins. It is the genes which survive, is various expressions of life. We humans (along with other life forms) are, at the core, mere means for survival of genes.

 

What are the grounds to conclude, or at least to argue, that humans are (a) an efficient organism for the replication and transfer of genes; (b) the latest version of one expression of an evolutionary line; or (c) a particularly successful organism; or (d) the best of the process to date? Each possible answer to that question has implications for our own moral, spiritual and cultural view of ourselves. We could interpret human behaviour and history is the light of whatever answer we apply.

 

Our view on what evolution is will also determine our view on where evolution is ‘going’. Are we humans different in any significant (evolutionary) way than our forbearers 10,000 years ago, or 30,000? If there are differences, do they tell us where we will go over the next 50,000 to 100,000 years?

 

Aspects of human culture have changed human behaviour more rapidly in the last 5,000 years than in any comparable early period (as far as we can tell). Human behaviour is now in a strong position to influence the outcome of a whole global species with, as examples, virus transmission through travel, climate change, nuclear war, genetic engineering. Should changes in human social/cultural/technological development be considered as a current or future factor in the genetic development of our species? Clearly human behaviour affects the survival of other species, and influences their genetic development. Why not our own?

 

If human behaviour can indeed influence our genetic evolution, or if we become capable of manipulating the human genome, is it possible that humans could self-direct (over millennia) their own evolutionary development? Through artificial selection, we have influenced the evolution of cattle and dogs; there is no scientific argument (as opposed to an ethical one) which says we could not do this with humans. Would such be desirable?

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