BEHAVIOR AND EVOLUTION
By Roland Watson
At the beginning of the series, I contrasted physical form with behavior. The usual view is that our form drives our behavior. We behave the way we do because, physically, we are humans.
This is the generally accepted theory of evolution, of natural selection, and survival of the fittest. Chance mutations to genes, or chance patterns of inherited genes, lead to advantages in appearance and other attributes. Individuals with these attributes are, so-to-speak, selected by nature as the fittest to survive.
However, this is also a deterministic view. First we mutate, and then we behave as the mutation allows.
Alternative evolutionary processes
There is an alternative. It is based on the idea that life doesn't exist to survive, but to live.
Here's another quote from the book, Jurassic Park. It was even included in the movie.
"The history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously, but life finds a way."
In this view, we use our will, our life force, to make decisions about how to behave. Through doing this it is even possible to adapt, to compete, and to win, against people who have greater natural advantages.
In other words, you are not destined to be a loser if your genes don't program you to be the smartest, strongest, or most beautiful person around.
Said another way, this is the proposition that life is more than a series of chance mutations. I can add, the view of evolution that it is wholly a function of genetic mutations does nothing to explain the first mutation, the creation or origination of the first life.
Does will lead evolution?
Personally, I believe that the individual who has the strongest life force, the strongest will to live, is the best adapted - the fittest - to survive. I also recognize that this is a radical idea, and not only because it departs from what people have been thinking since Charles Darwin sailed around the world on the Beagle in the 1830s. The deeper reason is that if we adopt it, we also have to apply it to other species. Can a bird will itself to grow a longer beak, to reach the nectar in a particular type of flower? How does a plant develop a seed that will fly with the wind? And what about single-celled organisms? They are alive, too. How do they manifest will?
I don't believe that in any of these specific cases will plays much of a role in evolution. Instead, the relative effects of selection driven by genetic mutations, and the exercise of will, vary by species.
Capabilities not derived from the genes
Evolution is based on genetic mutations for most species. But, as one species evolved into another, and then another, certain capabilities were established which in turn led to what you might call unintended consequences. The mutations let to abilities that served clear roles, but these changes in turn had dramatic and unexpected follow-on effects.
Our primate ancestors, for example, evolved an increasingly sophisticated opposable thumb. This development in turn allowed the use of primitive tools.
The use of tools, mainly to satisfy hunger, in turn triggered changes in personal consciousness. Species that used tools learned to anticipate and even plan for opportunities to do so.
But, an unintended consequence of this is that these species started to think in a new way. They developed an ability to stand outside of themselves: to think of themselves with objectivity.
They learned not only to recognize themselves in mirrored objects, but, for people, to understand that lots of different things could be tools, and also that you could make tools, better tools, not only pick up what you found on the ground. And, you could use these new tools to satisfy many different needs, not only hunger.
This development, advanced self-consciousness and the use of manufactured tools, is evolutionary. But, it does not derive directly or at least solely from genetic mutations. Furthermore, our use of tools - this behavior - is now leading to even more dramatic changes in the human species, and which I believe are evolutionary as well.
The multitude of things that we now make with tools, and which in turn become tools themselves, up to and including computers, the Internet, social media, jets, and robots, is a basic aspect of our evolution. The volume of the tools that we use is analogous to the multitude of genetic mutations - the number of individuals that inherit a specific set of mutations - that are usually required to achieve species evolution.
Of course, the contra or traditional view is that these types of changes, however profound they may appear to be, are not evolutionary because they didn't start with a mutation. Also, they can all, conceivably, be reversed. Humans could degrade - somehow - all the way back to the characteristics and educational level that we had during the Stone Age.
I don't think so. Even if society does collapse, the survivors won't forget everything that we have learned. There has been fundamental and irreversible change.
What this means is that our behavior is now driving our form, and this extends to physical characteristics, starting with the structure and capability of our brains.
However, I want to make it clear that I am not repeating the discredited idea of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who thought that we could influence our genes through our behavior, in other words, that acquired traits become hereditary.
If you learn a foreign language, your son or daughter will have to learn it, too. As another example, if you are born weak and thin, while you can work out and drink protein shakes for years, and become extremely strong, your children will not inherit this. They will not be born with the genes of a professional athlete.
On the other hand, there is a way that you can influence the genes of the next generation, and in a direct way. Through your behavior, you can insure that your genes, instead of those of other individuals, are passed on. You can attract not only a mate, but the person that you desire.
Indeed, while the inheritance of acquired characteristics does not occur, it no longer seems unlikely that there is a feedback mechanism, at least one, in play between our genes and free will.
Our genes give rise to our willpower, and they may even have a say in its relative strength. Our will in turn affects the genes, certainly in subsequent generations, but perhaps even in our own set as well, and in a way that is distinct from what Lamarck proposed.
Scientists have already shown that child abuse affects gene expression. Perhaps education that enhances a young child's ability to recognize and develop his or her willpower, does so as well. An open question is if you start out life with this type of education, and undergo this specific genetic expression, if this acquired trait will be inheritable by your children. Can patterns of gene expression be inherited?
In fact, it turns out that gene expression is more than a function of non-coding DNA. Another process relates to what is known as "epigenetics," which field analyzes chemical tags that attach to DNA, associated proteins, and RNA, and which also affect gene behavior. Scientists thought that every new embryo started life free of these tags - that they were created in the developmental process - but this has been disproven. Some markers can be inherited from parents, and even earlier ancestors, and moreover they may have been created in response to the earlier generations' behavior. For example, if a grandparent is a heavy smoker, it has been shown that the grandchildren have a higher risk of cancer. The grandparent's smoking created tags in them that generated an increased predisposition to cancer, which tags were passed onto their children, and their children's children, and perhaps even farther down the line.
Quoting an article from the April 6, 2013, Science News, by Tina Hesman Saey, and titled From Greatgrandma to You, and with reference to the ideas of Michael Skinner:
"Epigenetics offers an organism a way to adjust the activity of genes rapidly in response to environmental clues. Epigenetic marks prepare future generations for the environment that they are likely to encounter."
Furthermore, the tags that perpetuate are not necessarily limited to negative factors. In other words, through a healthy lifestyle you might be able to boost the health of your offspring.
I'll have a lot more to say about the interplay of will and genetics in the series in Part 4 on human evolution.
Finally, I would also note that if these processes occur for people, they may also exist for other species that have advanced self-consciousness.
I will conclude my explanation of human nature in the next and final article.