Wednesday,  February 13, 2002
Chronicle Herald

Evolution is dead; long live evolution

By Brian Lee Crowley

YOU HADN’T heard? Evolution, at least according to some scientific opinion, is dead. Not for everybody, of course. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection still seems to apply to lemurs and blowfish, flu bugs and baobab trees. But where people are concerned, things are getting a bit murky.

On the one hand, there are those biologists who argued recently before the British Royal Society that evolution is dead, at least for homo sapiens living in Western society. In the West, differences in lifespan and fecundity have narrowed. People with all kinds of genetic endowments are living longer and having children. Once upon a time, disease and poverty would have wiped out many, thus increasing the chances that those who reproduced were people whose genetic makeup was more resistant to illness and other risks.

Now, according to Professor Steve Jones of University College, London, “children’s chances of reaching the age of 25 have reached 98 per cent. Nothing is changing. We have reached stagnation.” Moreover, we are moving around much more and marrying more frequently outside our ethnic and national groups, mixing genetic endowments that have evolved to meet very different circumstances. Evolution has trouble, according to Dr. Jones, picking its way through this jumble.

Others disagree, pointing to the essentially unpredictable course that natural selection can take over relatively short periods of time. In fact, the fossil record and other sources suggest that the course of evolution is not a smooth, constant one, but is rather “punctuated”: There are long periods of stability followed by flowerings of wild genetic experimentation, probably during periods of great stress, such as major climate change.

Neither of these views has it quite right, however. Natural selection has not ceased to operate, although its effects are doubtless more muted than at any time in human history. And the reason that these natural biological processes are receding slowly into the background is that their main role has been superseded by human institutions. As in so many other fields, the things human beings have made are crowding out nature, with results that are, on balance, positive for humanity.

Remember that biological evolution is indifferent to the moral worth of each human being. It is the ultimate collectivist: Individual human beings have no intrinsic value; they can carelessly be swept aside through illness and wretchedness for the greater long-term good of the human race. It matters not if the child who dies from preventable illness might go on to be Mozart or Shakespeare or Pericles, or someone less exalted but no less valuable to their friends and families and colleagues.

The efforts of humanity, and particularly Western civilization, have allowed us to shelter one another from the ravages of natural selection, through education, vaccination, sanitation, redistribution of wealth, labour laws, agricultural innovation, and a whole host of other institutions that have softened the pitiless rigours of the natural world.

Today, multitudes of people survive whom nature would have discarded. They survive to pass on to their offspring and the larger society the fruits of their experience, their thoughts, their hopes and their creativity.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing is changing. Natural selection was driven by the constant need of species to adjust to new circumstances: heat, cold, famine, drought, disease, predators, invaders and more. Whatever else characterizes our modern societies, change on a grand scale is a huge constant. But that change is so vast, and happening so quickly, that natural biological selection, which works over millennia, cannot possibly keep up.

That is why the brunt of adjustment to changing circumstances is no longer borne by biological evolution, but rather by the evolution of our human institutions. In the not-so-distant past, something like the AIDS virus would simply have devastated populations across the world over generations, until homo sapiens was purged of people without a genetic resistance to the illness. Instead, within a few short years, we in the West have learned to control, albeit imperfectly, this scourge of humanity. Ultimately, we will learn to defeat it. And it will all be due to the application of human knowledge and energy to mastering our rapidly changing circumstances, through institutions such as research labs, charities, universities, pharmaceutical companies, governments and others.

One can go further: The natural selection that matters in the world today is not of individuals for their genetic endowment, but rather the selection of social institutions for the benefits they confer on us. The long Cold War was such a struggle, a struggle ultimately won by institutions that were built on the foundations of individual freedom and moral worth. Across the globe, similar struggles go on every day, and the institutions that seem to emerge and spread, however fitfully, are those based on values such as the primacy of the individual, universal education, and equality before the law.

Biological evolution isn’t over. But increasingly, human intelligence is countering its attempts to weed out the genetically maladapted. And we are the richer for it.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: bcrowley@herald.ns.ca