By Roland Watson

In this series, I am going to discuss evolution, which is one of our fundamental discoveries. For the most part, I will talk about it in the abstract - the processes that are involved and their underlying goals. Then, in the next series, I will consider the idea of human evolution.

To begin, I want to continue with my comments on the future of our society. I concluded that humanity, to adapt to circumstances of its own making, must evolve. The question is: will it, and if so into what, and when? Also, to what degree will this occur outside our control, versus through our conscious efforts? How do we want, or would we like, to change?

Evolution as a system

As I have said once or twice already, in the universe nothing is constant - with a very few exceptions, such as the speed of light. Everything changes - this condition is itself a constant, and evolution is one such type of change. Specifically, it is one of the changes that living organisms may experience. In this sense evolution itself is a system, a system of change that other systems - living entities - undergo.

Evolution in general, as a system, has many characteristics. First, like all forms of organization, it presumably occurs for some reason, purpose or goal. The apparent end of evolution is that the system that is subject to it may survive as a species. Evolution is the competitive arena in which different species fight it out.

However, a question arises: does life achieve its evolutionary goals collectively through species, or through the efforts of individuals? The answer is: both! If enough individuals develop a physical or behavioral advantage, and this enhances the survival of their lifelines, then the species itself may survive.

Different members of a species fight to perpetuate their lines both with members of their own species and of others. Indeed, it is an interesting question which is more important: developing advantages for intra- or inter-species competition. But here it is worth noting that survival is not the only motivation. As we have seen, there are in fact two drives: to survive, which is dominant in challenging circumstances; and to live, to experience fully all aspects of being alive, when the survival pressure eases. The purpose of life has two dimensions, like the two faces of a coin. Trying to survive, to avoid death, is the "negative" side. But life is "positive." We strive, ultimately, not "not to die," but to live.

Development of variation

The first part of the evolutionary process is that different individuals of a species develop variations in their personal characteristics, through a number of mechanisms. And, the first of these in turn are characteristics that derive from chance genetic mutations, although the only mutations that are relevant are those that affect the DNA in a parent's sex cells - what are called germ-line mutations, since they can be passed on to its offspring.

Also, genetic mutations are a "stochastic" phenomenon. Their occurrence is purely the subject of chance, absent modern environmental causes; hence, they follow no fixed pattern or periodicity.

However, such mutations, including from the modern causes of chemical and radiation mutagens, may not be beneficial. Evolution is only led forward by beneficial mutations, and at the time the mutations occur it is impossible to determine if they will be beneficial or not. Many mutations clearly are harmful, but even those that seem to favor an individual, including to the extent that were they passed on they would appear to enhance the entire species, may not. Only the evolutionary test, the test of time, can reveal this.

The second source of variation is chance patterns of inherited genes, from one's parents. These combinations can be statistically estimated, including, for people:

- Which specific chromosomes, from each of the twenty-three pairs available from each parent, are incorporated into that parent's sex cells. Sex cells have only one set of the twenty-three chromosomes.

- How some genes "cross over" from one of these chromosomes to the other in the pair, via "recombination," just prior to the creation of the sex cells, effectively breaking up gene "linkages." Indeed, an interesting question is how the body decides which chromosomes, some from one of its sets and others from the other, including with recombined genes, to pass on.

- And, how of the two genes for each trait which exist after the parents' sex cells are combined - these are known as the "alleles," the two versions of the same gene which every individual has for any given genetic trait, one is chosen to be dominant, such that it is or may be activated, and the other becomes recessive, such that it is not. How is the actual determination which gene will be dominant and which will be recessive made? Also, these mechanisms of course apply only to sexual species.

Thirdly, variation also arises from behavioral choices, which result in changes to both behavioral and physical characteristics, and which choices in turn derive from free will and also form. These types of changes may be stochastic as well, or the result of other factors.

And finally, there are variations that occur at the group level, including from "genetic drift," where, through the accumulated results of the above effects - the last from breeding choices, the frequencies of the alleles for various traits vary from generation to generation; and also through "gene flow," where through interbreeding the genes of different populations are introduced into each other.

Is diversity the ultimate goal?

The sources of variation - of differences between individuals - are so many and so effective that one wonders if the quest for diversity is itself an underlying evolutionary goal. I will examine this in more detail later, although it is worth noting here that the process of "stabilizing selection" would appear to argue against it. This process occurs in a well-adapted population: between a species and its environment. It is the means by which individuals with extreme characteristics tend to be weeded-out. As an aside, great intelligence and even "genius" appears to be an extreme characteristic that is not weeded-out by stabilizing selection for humans. One wonders if it is the only one?

The survival of variation

For the second part of the evolutionary process, the characteristics that are generated via these mechanisms must survive in individuals long enough to be passed on through procreation, for traits affected by germ-line mutations, and child-rearing for behavioral traits, for many successive generations, such that they become widely ingrained. Or, they must be manifested, for behavior, in many, many individuals, in a relatively short period of time - even, hypothetically, within one generation, if they are also passed on, meaning taught.

Furthermore, they are characteristics that either enhance the chances of physical survival, or of mating, or of the appreciation and enjoyment of life.

Finally, what history has demonstrated is that in a species at some point a large enough number of individuals with a new characteristic is reached, a critical mass is attained or threshold passed, and a new direction is entrenched. At this point, laggards who have not demonstrated the necessary characteristic are soon finished off.

Indeed, it is arguable that all of the common physical characteristics and behavioral traits of any species have been so selected. However, this view is disputed by the idea of "neutral evolution," which says that some mutations, or behavioral characteristics, may accumulate randomly in a species without being eliminated by the survival of the fittest process. Neutral evolution says that much change is a function of chance, and does not serve to enhance species survival.

Evolution from behavior?

It is important for me to point out that this presentation of evolution constitutes a radical departure from accepted theory. First, it grants a role to will. Secondly, it focuses on the enjoyment of life as well as the goal of survival. And thirdly, it considers evolution from a larger perspective than that limited to the genes. Lamarck, in effect, suggested that patterns of behavior could become genetically programmed, such that they were inherited, but this has been disproved. I am suggesting that patterns of behavior can be evolutionary, but not because they are so programmed; rather, because they do not revert.

Development versus evolution

Here, it is useful to consider the difference between development and evolution. Both development and evolution involve change: the creation of something new. A basic distinction between them is whether or not the change reverts. Developmental change may revert; evolutionary change cannot. It endures. However, developmental change also may not revert, in which case it forms part of a broader evolutionary process.

If a species evolves into a new form, if it becomes a new species, then the characteristics that led it there were evolutionary. Of note, this is an after-the-fact test: the only one possible. Simply because a species develops new characteristics, and tries new things, does not mean that they are evolutionary. Also, the individuals who lead a species' evolution are by definition non-conformists, since evolution is the changing of a form: leaving the old form, and the old conformists, behind.

This is one more reason why I encourage you to rebel from institutionally dictated social conditioning. Not only is it the only way to be original, to be yourself; it is also the only way to bring about the evolution of our species. Be a non-conformist, and lead the way!

Human developments

Of course, all new developments are led by non-conformists. Therefore, one must be selective. Many developments do not work. For example, human society over the last three hundred years has undergone numerous developments, and some of these will endure, but others will not.

One expects that "commercial development," and all of the "society" that is associated with it, will revert, when we run out of the natural resources that are required to support it. Hence, it is not part of our evolution, at least not part of its core.

More generally for people, we have seen false development - which only gives the appearance of positive change; and also, particularly with land and buildings, poor development, meaning an inappropriate selection from among the choices that are available; wrongful development - the choice taken is completely at odds with the underlying harmony of the property in question; and overdevelopment - involving too much construction - sometimes way, way too much. You do not want to be a non-conformist if your efforts produce these types of effects.

Failure of developments

Furthermore, when we say that development may constitute real evolution, or that it may revert, we need to consider the dimensions of the latter. A development that reverts may not only mark the non-conformists who pursued it as failures; it could have much greater consequences as well.

Characteristics can revert, when they are found lacking and are then discarded, but they can also lead the individuals involved down a blind alley, all the way to death. At the species level, mass following of such a development could even lead to extinction.

Once again, though, it is an after-the-fact test. Only time will tell if human commercial development, and its false, poor, wrongful and overdevelopment of the planet's resources, and also through its inadequate consideration of the negative consequences of technology, will lead to our extinction. However, for many, many species, it is now after-the-fact. They have become extinct, and we caused it.

In the next article, I will focus more closely on the goals of evolution.

© Roland Watson 2015