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For centuries, man has been curious about his origins and the origins of the life surrounding him. Countless explanations have been formulated using “evidence” that “proves” the story to be true. However, in 1859, Charles Darwin published a monumental theory in his book called The Origin of Species. In his book, Darwin outlined his theory of evolution by natural selection (Darwin, 1859). Although complex, this story is extremely useful in explaining the origins and history of life as we know it. Today, however, man questions not only his past, but also his future. Based on Darwin’s theories of evolution, man can actively postulate his existence in the upcoming centuries. Do complex civilizations and advancing technologies give man the ability to outsmart evolution? Or will our technological advances doom us in the end?
In order to begin to answer these questions, it is important to understand the basics about Darwin’s theories on evolution. First, Darwin stressed that populations and organisms are variable (Darwin, 1859). Without variation, evolution would not be a viable explanation for the progress of life. Although Darwin was aware that variation occurred because of his extensive observations of different populations, he was never able to pinpoint where this variation came from. The answer lies in genetic material; heritable genes play a huge role in the evolutionary process. Genes are the medium through which variation is passed down through generations and can be affected by several different forces. Mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, non-random mating, and genetic recombination are all ways in which genes can be altered within a population (Mayr, 2001).
Darwin understood that organisms are variable, but for a long time he lacked a mechanism, or a driving force, of evolution. Natural selection, or a complex natural process of elimination, turned out to be one of Darwin’s most ingenious contributions to evolutionary thought (Mayr, 2001). Natural selection is the process by which genetic variation is sorted through and selected for through the organism’s ability to survive. Selection may be due to environmental conditions, competition with other species, or reproductive success. Those organisms that survive can then go on to reproduce, and their offspring then carry the successful traits.
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Understanding this widely accepted view of evolution, one can begin to ask questions about the future of man’s existence. For millions of years, man has been subject to these evolutionary mechanisms and has succeeded in evolving from ancient primates to modern day homo-sapiens (Palme 2006). However, man has also succeeded in developing technologies and creating civilizations unlike any other creature on the earth. Although we retain some animalistic qualities, some scientists would argue that we are so different from other species on earth, that we are no longer subject to the natural laws that have governed our existence for so long (Palme 2006).
Are we really exempt from the laws of natural selection? In many ways, one could argue yes. Our complex civilizations and modern amenities have allowed the softening of the orginal laws of natural selection. It is possible that many humans today would not be considered “fit” by the laws of nature (Conklin, 1922). Among other things, technology has allowed us to create false climates for those that would not survive in the raw elements, miracle cures for those that are born with genetic deficiencies, and medical practices for those that cannot reproduce efficiently (Pearson, 2000). An entire field of science called eugenetics is dedicated to genetic manipulation and the artificial selection of “favorable” genes. This branch of research is becoming more and more popular among those that believe that the human genome can be perfected and who believe that this is a desirable goal (Glad, 2006).
Is this in fact a desirable goal? One must consider the consequences of man’s tinkering with natural evolutionary mechanisms. To some, artificial selection means the inevitable deterioration of the human race over a long period of time. By sparing the “weak” and promoting reproduction of the “unfit,” it can be argued that genes that should be selected against are being wrongly promoted (Conklin, 1922). To others, artificial selection is one of man’s greatest achievements and will allow humans to develop past the constraints of natural evolution. This involves pinpointing specific genes in the human genome, selecting for the “best” gene, and creating “perfect” humans (Pearson, 2000).
Man’s future evolution then becomes an ethical topic, because much of this discussion is based on personal opinion. Who is to decide who is “fit” and who is not? Who is to decide what is “right” and what is “wrong” for man’s future? Does man’s future then lie at the end of a power struggle between those that wish to decide our fate? Frighteningly, it may be (Conklin, 1922).
In conclusion, it is hard to make a conclusion. Darwin’s theory of evolution is easily applicable to other species, but is becoming increasing harder to apply to humankind. Man’s advances in civilization and technology have put us in a spot where we are able to decide our future, for we are no longer at the mercy of true natural selection in the Darwinian sense. Ethical complications lie in the background of every question of modern human evolution. The future of man is then indeterminable, despite our knowledge of our evolutionary past. The path that societies take within the future years of scientific development and moral arguments will play a large role in the direction of man’s evolution.
Mayr, Ernst What Evolution Is New York, NY. Basic Books, 2001.
Palme, Jacob “The Future of Human Evolution” May 2006.
Darwin, Charles The Origin of Species New York, NY. Penguin Books, 1959.
Conklin, Edwin Grant The Direction of Human Evolution New York, NY. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.
Glad, John Future Human Evolution: Eugenetics in the 21st Century Schuylkill, PA. Hermitage Publishers, 2006.
Pearson, Ian “The Future of Human Evolution” March 2000.