(The following are a few
of the observations made on the prospects for human evolution in the final two
chapters of Freedom From Form.)
Evolution is the changing of a species to a new form. While there is dispute whether this process occurs gradually or in fits and starts, one thing is clear: the old form is left behind. Species, once they have successfully evolved, cannot revert.
The underlying mechanism of evolution is called natural selection, or survival of the fittest. (There are many distinct selection processes.) Individuals compete, within the constraints of their environment, both with other species and with members of their own. The most competitive individuals, the winners, survive and lead life forward. (Symbiotic species, though, evolve through cooperation.)
Evolution is traditionally viewed as a physical process, driven by random genetic changes (some of which improve competitiveness). It is not believed that behavior has a role, that it can cause genetic mutations. Said another way, acquired traits are not inheritable. For example, if you are genetically predisposed to be quite thin, you can counter this with years of hard training and end up large and extremely strong. But your children, subject also to the genes of your mate, will not be born inherently more athletic that you were (i.e., with a substantially larger skeletal structure).
However, genes do affect behavior. It is now well documented that genes help shape our personality, and also other behavioral traits.
This is a curious phenomenon. If behavioral traits have genetic links, then how were they encoded? If behavior cannot affect the genes, then how can the reverse occur? Is it the case that genetic mutations have chance behavioral effects as well as physical ones, and some of the former have been selected just as occurs with the latter? Well, this is one possible explanation, but it is worth noting that it represents a one-way process. There is no feedback loop involved.
The universe is filled with feedback loops, which can be summarized as: as you change it, it changes you. This reflects the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. It is surprising, then, to have a one-way system: genes affect behavior, but not the other way around.
Behavior does influence the genes, though, in at least one way, through what is known as sexual selection. The choice of a mate determines the genes of the offspring. Further, it is not only physical attributes, such things as colorful feathers, which are involved. Individuals choose their mates on the basis of behavioral attributes as well (e.g., for humans, how much money you make!).
The picture apparently is not as clear as traditional evolutionary theorists would have us believe. For example, consider education. Undergoing a multi-year period of education restructures the brain; it dramatically increases the complexity of the neuron/synapse connections. And, you can arrange for this for your children as well. However, there is no genetic link or consequence. Even if you become well educated, your childrens brains at birth will be no different than they would have been (absent your education). The question is: what happens if this continues generation after generation? Will the human brain change; will it be genetically improved in some way?
There is now evidence that the environment can directly affect genetic mutations, that the process is not always random as was originally thought. Further, there is also the possibility that the genome is able to decide which genes to mutate. Can a genome somehow sense what will work better and then mutate to achieve it?
The general level of education in human society is also an environmental condition. If we all strive to be well educated, this could signal to our genome that it is a high priority, with the result that genetic changes occur to support it. Through this, the structure and performance of our brains would improve, and this in turn would likely lead to all manner of derivative consequences, including both on individuals and society.
Can evolution be driven by behavior, not though the inheritance of acquired traits, or even via sexual selection, but involving some other mechanism? Further, can it be purposeful? Can we premeditatively shape our redesign into a new, successor species?
Even more, can we escape from competition, the need to compete? Indeed, if there were no competition, would evolution even continue? The answer to both questions is: yes! Symbiotic species have proven that evolution can follow a path involving greater and greater cooperation. Humanity, if it chooses to do so, can follow this path as well.
We have a bias where we try to fit all evolution, of every characteristic, into a natural selection model. (This is known as the Economic Principle.) But this is looking backward, not forward. Such a perspective may apply only to species that have limited self-consciousness. The development of advanced self-consciousness, via genetic mutations, may trigger the operation of new evolutionary processes, even, conceivably, of processes for which such mutations are not required.
© Roland O. Watson 2005