Has The Process Of Human Evolution Been Disrupted?
I’ve been thinking pretty deeply about evolution quite a bit the last week or so after watching the second episode of Cosmos. It really got me pondering a lot about how we got to where we are currently at as a species. I’ve also caught myself daydreaming about what might be in store for the human race in the way of evolution in the future. During all that thinking something dawned on me…
With the huge number of new amazing technological and medical breakthroughs the last hundred years or so, are we dramatically altering or maybe even freezing the process of human evolution? It seems like we are committing the future of humanity to a new and totally different non-natural evolutionary path that happened when we as humans systematically removed the legs from the body of natural selection. There is no denying that we’re allowing weak genes to be passed on that naturally would not have been and actually physically changing the course of the natural evolutionary process.
Can evolution still occur when natural selection isn’t allowed to commence with its dark duties of purging out carriers of faulty and weak DNA? The answer is yes it does, but it could have a vastly different outcome with results that would not have happened naturally. Should the molding that natural selection would provide of only allowing the strongest most fit of the human species to thrive and pass on there genes be the path we should be on? Well, there is your million dollar question. There are a couple different ways of approaching this topic and tons of questions that come up, but before we can all discuss it, it’s helpful for everyone to be on the same page as how the process of evolution naturally works.
Here’s A Little Evolution 101 For Ya!
Cosmos did an excellent job of explaining the process of evolution using the examples of the eye, the domestication of dogs and the brown bear evolving into a polar bear. If you didn’t catch that episode and are unsure exactly how evolution works here it is in a nutshell with my own little twist. There are two main components or factors to evolution. One is the species that is doing the evolving and the other is the environment. The environmental component also consists of two separate parts, one being the environment itself, the other being the effects of the environment on a species which we call natural selection. We’ll get to that in a bit.
The species play their part in evolution in the following way. Every now and then, when DNA is being created for an offspring, changes or mutations randomly occur and are passed to the newborn. Sometimes they are good and other times not so much. If the change gives you an advantage over others in your species, you’ll do better, and pass that gene on. If it sucks, you won’t and sooner or later you’ll die. Eventually, over the course of many generations as that new better gene spreads, the stronger individuals that possess it beat the weaker without it in the game of life. After some time, those that don’t have the advantage die off and become extinct.
It’s not a systematic process however. It’s not just one change at a time. Every organ and function in the body is constantly evolving over time. Other mutations simultaneously happen that might affect speed, color, vision, sense of smell, amounts of hair, size, sensitivity to your immediate climate… Everything. Any and all components that make up life are all constantly evolving. Some are better improved versions, some are new versions, and some end up being lousy. Some even end up creating a brand new subspecies. To make it a bit easier to understand, let’s take a look at and break down the evolution of cats for a moment as an example.
The Evolution Of The Cat
I chose to use cats because they seem to be so damn popular lately on the Internet. The 41 known cat species alive in the world today unsurprisingly all descend from the same ancient ancestor. Felids of all types from lions, tigers, and jaguars, to cheetahs, leopards, and even the grungy tabby cat roaming your neighborhood eating from the trash all share the same ancestral lineage. Tens of millions of years ago the original cats migrated all over the planet with small groups breaking off and settling into different areas as they moved along. When these groups broke off evolution did its thing. What started as one group following instinct and wandering around the planet eventually became what we have today with unique cats of all different shapes, sizes and colors being found all over the world! Some are wild and some domesticated. Some will kill and eat you while others make you say, “Awww” and feel compelled to take pictures with your phone to post online.
Once a split off group of these cats settled an area, those fluke mutations I mentioned earlier would randomly happen to some of the newborns. The mutations that made the species better were passed on to new generations. The cats that had that new DNA survived and thrived better than ones that didn’t have that new trait. Cats in the region we know as Africa today became bigger as large prey was in abundance. Those cats born bigger by a fluke mutated gene had an easier time taking down the larger game. Smaller ones that couldn’t simply died off. We now call those specific group of cats lions.
Another group found that super speeds were the key to a successful hunt, so enter the cheetah stage left. The smaller and slower ones did not do as well, and natural selection took care of them leaving them for us to find in the fossil record. Cats that found themselves in the region of China sporting stripes did better then ones without them and we got tigers. Cats in the jungle did better with spots or by being black as night when they hunted resulting in pumas, leopards, and jaguars. Cats in the mountain regions of the United States became more adept at climbing and leaping giving us mountain lions. Eventually with human intervention, smaller cats were domesticated through selective breeding and turned into the free roaming independent and fascinating pets people keep today.
Nature In The Evolutionary Process
So how did nature play its part in all of this? As I mentioned earlier that part nature plays in evolution is two fold. The first is how a species reacts to a certain climate. If an animal settles in a cold climate, evolution will eventually provide thick fur or layers of fat that help them to stay warm. Camouflages that aid in hunting and are region specific eventually evolve. Enhanced abilities to help take on obstacles in the immediate region materialize over millions of years to help an animal tackle the harshest shit mother nature has to throw at them. A species will always evolve to best suit its environment.
The other part of the nature equation is the effects of that nature on the species. This is what we all know as natural selection. Nature and natural selection are a mother-fucker without an ounce of compassion. In nature, if you are weak you’re not going to make it. You’ll be out hunted by the stronger in your species, and find it more difficult to find a mate as again, the stronger will beat you too it. Without food or a mate, your genes die with you. The ones with the best genes not only survive, but thrive, and ones with weaker genes die off. The effects of this over millions and millions of years molds a species, and this molding and sculpting never stops or ends, as long as nature is allowed to take its course.
The Salad Is Gone… Time For The Meat & Potatoes!
Now that we are all synced up as to how evolution works and what it is the question, “Aren’t most of these medical advancements actually a detriment to the overall evolution of the human race?” arises. Some of these advancements have allowed people to live who without their aid would not have been able to. We have intervened with the course of natural selection. The human brain itself though has evolved to a point where we are able to imagine, blueprint, and build amazing life altering technology. Our ability to learn and expand on known knowledge over the course of hundreds of generations has brought on amazing technological and medical improvements, which we all unanimously view as good for the human race. We even have the ability to control our personal environments with buildings and clothing. What really then does evolution still have left to accomplish? What would naturally be the next step?
Now don’t get me wrong, quite frankly if someone close to me was sick or born with some sort of defect, I would do almost anything and everything to try and save or fix them. There is no argument that morally or ethically we should do all in our power to help save lives any way we can. But with an understanding of how it works, and the overall big picture of human evolution have we setup a roadblock of sorts with this mindset? There are currently 314 million people living in the United States. How many would be alive today without taking some sort of medication or using some sort of machine to assist them in living? In the overall big picture of things, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it what’s best for the human race as a whole centuries from now?
You can look at the human eye as an example of a stalled evolution. The eye in general has evolved over millions of years to an amazing level, a level so complex with all of mans knowledge and technology we have still not yet been able to reproduce its capabilities in a machine to that level of sophistication. Look at an animal such as an eagle, and how sharply their vision has evolved for them. So with all the evolution, why then are humans still born with 75% of Americans needing to wear glasses or contacts to achieve perfect or near perfect vision? It’s because during our evolutionary process, natural selection didn’t have a chance to completely eradicate people with the gene of eyes containing the “bug” of being near or farsighted. With the aid of glasses and assistance from others, people with bad vision have been able to get by throughout history and reproduce keeping the gene alive. This will most likely never change in future human evolution. What will evolve though is the level at which we can repair poor vision. So do they wash each other out then?
One could argue that medicine itself has evolved as part of human evolution. Or perhaps our ability to create the tools and machines evolved to help the sick live. But without it over a span of ten thousand years, if only truly the strong survived, how different a path would human evolution have taken? Are we harming our own species long term evolution by allowing weaker gene pools to continue? Or by allowing the sick to live, do we open up new even better possibilities to a future evolution that may not have been there originally? It’s conflicting because I can see it from both ways. Morals and ethics aside though, there is no doubt we have changed our evolutionary course. Have we “ruined” the chance of having a disease free He-Man looking super human? Probably… But you never know!
Regardless Of Personal Feelings It’s An Interesting Debate
Is there such a thing as a peak in a species evolution or do they just always keep improving and evolving? Are we as a species at an evolutionary peak? Personally I don’t think so. What if our next step in evolution naturally is supposed to be our ability to be able to take and guide evolution in our own hands? Doing things like trying to achieve immortality… It sort of seems that way. But, so many different perplexing questions come up with this subject. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not any sort of expert on the subject. Just some dude with a few thoughts and millions of questions. These were just how my thoughts on evolution sort of morphed or evolved… (Seriously, no pun intended) The whole debate about this doesn’t really matter anyway because we have already done what we’ve done, and are going to continue on the path because it is the right choice from a moral standpoint. It is an intriguing debate though.
As seen in the title, the use of the word halted is probably wrong. Evolution is adaptable. Animals born and bred in captivity will start to evolve differently over time than their own species living in the wild. Look at domesticated dogs… They were all at one time a ferocious wolf. That cute little pug that sat on your lap the other day and let you pet it tens of thousands of years ago would have hunted you in a pack and devoured you for dinner. (It would have looked quite different too!) Over the next few centuries, you’ll start to see zoo animals with a lineage of captivity start to evolve differently than free range versions of their species by suffering from the same altered state of evolution that humans are in. Animals we use as a food source have been manipulated through selective breeding evolving them into better edible treats then they were in the past. Maybe as I said earlier though, the manipulation of evolution is our evolution, as twisted as that concept may be. However you want to view it, we may not have suspended evolution, but we have for sure altered its trajectory.
Only time will tell if we’ve done a service or disservice to ourselves. We as a species have shown the value we put on a human life outweighs any detriment we are causing and we’re committed to the evolutionary course we’ve set. As humans we intervene in almost everything we have the ability to mess around with. It is a result of our curiosity and desire to improve whatever it is. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just who we are. So all we can really do is say to our future ancestors either, “You’re welcome” or, “Sorry, we fucked up!”. Until then it’s always fun to break down hypothetical subjects such as this.
What do you think? We’d love to hear you sound off with your thoughts in the comments below!