Humankind, in all our arrogance, have always told ourselves that we were different from our animal relatives– that we were stronger, more intelligent, superior. Even the father of Evolution himself, Charles Darwin, talked extensively of how we may and should use the principle of natural selection to further our acts of domestication and agriculture. So much so, that in the last few decades, the viewpoint has been increasingly expressed that we now exist outside evolution; that, through medicine and technology, we have transcended simple natural selection. People who would otherwise die before reproduction don’t, and thus pass on their genes – breaking the very mechanism that the principle depends on. Gould said it, so did Attenborough – this is the end of evolution… But I will say this, as we sit in the Summer of 2020, hiding from an invisible enemy that is tearing through our populations like a hurricane, trying to fight injustices that we ourselves have created, all while getting TikTok famous – I really hope it isn’t.
The argument that we have completed evolution is somewhat convincing. As our societal structures have developed through history, we have found ways to cheat death: medicine, social security, compassion. For us, life is not about just surviving and breeding, we seek out enjoyment and fulfilment. These things often even come hand in hand with detriment to our health. In the traditional evolutionary system so much of what we do is pointless: art and culture, even seeking to understand the universe through philosophy and science yields no immediate reproductive benefit. These are activities that (it seems) are only pursued by humankind and have helped us become a dominant presence on this planet. So, the argument is that these activities are evidence that we have broken free from evolution.
The argument is fair, but I think it falls flat in many areas. Firstly, while the word “evolution” has become synonymous with “improvement” or “adaptation” or any other word or phrase that implies “change for the better”, this was not the intention. In fact, evolution is simply the process through which genes change frequency in a population via means of sexual reproduction. In sexually reproducing beings, such as ourselves, this is impossible to avoid. It is a simple fact that, regardless of social structures, the frequencies of genes in our population are changing. Additionally, the concept of “devolution” (evolving in the negative direction) is sometimes used to describe our current state [see the “Go Back” evolution meme]. The idea centres around the notion that our increasingly urbanised environment has resulted in a less able physical body. This is paradoxical, as evolution is not change with respect to some arbitrary measure of worth, it is change with respect to time – something which would be impossible in the negative direction.
Furthermore, while structural changes in our physiology are not so obvious, there is much evidence for changes in genetic patterns across populations in the modern era. Most notably in the case of lactose intolerance. Dairy products are more commonly consumed in the Western diet, and cases of lactose intolerance are much less common in Caucasian populations than in Asian populations. This is due to the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, being more commonly expressed in Caucasian populations, allowing them to consume dairy products without the gastrointestinal consequences.
The issue of modern medicine is an interesting one, it must be acknowledged that medicine has changed our evolutionary tract, but it has not made us immune to evolution. While it is true that in the past, those suffering from certain diseases would’ve died and are now more likely to survive, this does not mean that the rule of evolution has been lifted. Rather, it reflects a shift in selection pressure. This is something that happens naturally all the time.
For an example, take two populations that live in the same area that compete for two resources: food and space. When there is less food, those individuals with mutations that make them better hunter-gatherers are more likely to survive and thrive. However, after some time, it is possible that all individuals will carry these “hunter-gatherer” mutations, or that food supplies have increased due to environmental changes. Competition for space then becomes the prevailing selection pressure. Individuals who can use space better or compete more effectively for the space, rather than the food, are more likely to survive and pass on their genes.
In the human population, it is no longer the ability to cope with diseases like smallpox that is the prevailing selection pressure. It has been hypothesised that a more relevant selection pressure is the number of children an individual has. Individuals often have more children to increase the likelihood of their offspring surviving into adulthood. This is less common in the Western World as the availability of healthcare means that, statistically, more children survive into adulthood. However, it is a simple fact that those reproducing more pass their genes on at a greater frequency than those who have fewer children, therefore contributing more to the human gene pool. Thus, evolution may be favouring those who have more children.
Additionally, while medicine has greatly improved, disease is far from an issue of the past. Individuals who have increased tolerance to certain diseases are more likely to survive and pass on their genes than susceptible individuals. We are unlikely to immediately notice this in populations, as it is such a slow process that involves many generations, but the theory suggests that it is still happening today. For example, individuals who are heterozygous for sickle cell disease, a group of blood disorders, are less affected by malaria. In malaria endemic areas, the disease is actually selected for. This notion of taking on one disease to escape another demonstrates the flaw in assigning “worth” to the products of evolution. The only aim of evolution is to increase survival.
The issue of culture is also interesting, why is it that we partake in such pointless acts? Afterall, being a proficient painter or an expert in the subject of literature does not help you survive and breed. It has been argued that the ability to produce and appreciate art and culture is a marker for intelligence, both academic and emotional, and those individuals who exhibit this ability are more likely to appear appealing to mates and thus pass on their genes. Why then did some of the greats, for example Van Gogh, die alone and childless?
Evolution is not absolute, and it is unavoidable that some individuals with the selected-for genes will not succeed in passing them on. Instead of looking at individuals, observe the tract of society, now valuing the artist immensely: reverence of the Beatles or their modern-day counterpart the Jonas Brothers has far surpassed that of the politician or the academic. I would say that the appreciation of art is not something that sets us apart from evolution, rather it is something that we have evolved to value. Our social structures are much larger and communistic than those of most animals, so other than disease and appearance, there are very few selection pressures that determine our breeding. Thus, qualities like intelligence and “interestingness” have become the things that are evolutionarily selected for.
A part of the “broken free from evolution” argument, that is particularly persuasive, is the idea that through the fruits of evolution, we have become increasingly different from other animals. This can be traced all the way back to primitive humans making cave art and can be reasserted by the development of the schools of philosophy, science, and politics.
The crux of all of this is the development of thought. We have organised ourselves into countries, governments, universities, and friendships, almost purely through our own means. For most members of the animal kingdom these kinds of macro and micro organisational systems are completely meaningless. It is only ones’ family that matters, and sometimes even they are not relevant. Is the development of our consciousness, therefore, evidence that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, which is still subject to evolution? I think this is a bit too far, as all of the counterevidence still holds, but why we seem to be the only ones that have evolved in this way is curious.
There is not much debate on the idea that most animals exhibit some level of consciousness, but it certainly appears that the level of analytic and communicative thinking that we have developed supersedes theirs. In this, a degree of human-centrism comes into play. While it may seem obvious to us that we have developed superior intelligence to other animals, this is largely due to us measuring their intelligence by our own standards. Yes, the average human may be better at crosswords than the average wolf, but the average wolf will be better at analytically stalking their prey and applying capture tactics than the average human.
Furthermore, we say we are the dominant species on the Earth, but this may be far from the truth. We are nowhere near the most abundant species, which is the cyanobacterium, Prochlorococcus, which we didn’t even know existed until 1988. True, the Prochlorococcus can’t solve riddles or even think at all (probably), but it doesn’t need to. If it could think, then it would probably see us as inferior, simply by the matter of population. We must understand that the ideals that are brought about by evolution have no inherent worth, otherwise they would be universal. Thus, our perceived superiority and dominance is arbitrary and fatally stained with bias.
The arbitration of everything that has ever happened to our species and everything that ever will is somewhat of a dangerous concept, but the morals that we hold and the values that we impose upon ourselves are built into our evolutionary tract. As we have evolved to have these traits, it is inevitable that we think they are the best ones, and thus we will continue in the evolutionary direction that they make up. Additionally, the notion of “evolutionary tracts” is interesting as it seems to allude to some kind of purpose that every species on the planet has, maybe even something akin to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory.
In his Epic “The Emperor’s New Mind” Roger Penrose alludes to his ranking of scientific theory, splitting everything up into TENTATIVE, USEFUL and SUPERB. The only theory of biology that achieved the highest rank of SUPERB was evolution. Debate of whether or not that is correct aside, evolution is far too fundamental a mechanism to be something we can simply break free from; it is found everywhere from the coding of our DNA, to the development of our politics, to the kind of music that is popular. I think it is somewhat humbling that we as humans are reminded of our minute place in the world. Regardless of metatheories of simulations and hard determinism, we still run as we are programmed, and that program will continue to rewrite itself, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Written by Harin Wijayathunga and edited by Tara Gamble.