The Standing Invitation

The End of Evolution

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The problem, I am told, is that we are no longer evolving.

In the good old days of the African savannah, imperfections in body and mind were weeded out by harsh winters and community-spirited sabre-toothed tigers. The weak and the stupid were killed off. Only the smart and healthy survived, only they reproduced.

Now that is no longer the case. We are now able to keep alive people who would normally not have gone on to pass on their bad genes. We are being outbred by idiots. We see violence and stupidity all around us: blame modern medicine.

These thoughts are as old as H G Wells, who thought it necessary to sterilise inferior races for the good of mankind. Although rarely taken to such extremes, the notion that society will collapse because we have stopped evolving is still something you hear from time to time. And this is surprising, because it is totally wrong in every important respect.

Fortunately we do not need to discuss the barbarity of seriously trying to reintroduce natural selection in the modern world to see that the above concerns are misplaced in the extreme. The thesis is simply not factually accurate. In fact, that the exact opposite is true should be, well, blindingly obvious.

In the last two thousand years, people’s average height has increased dramatically. So has longevity. But a thousand years is nothing on an evolutionary timescale. We are genetically indistinguishable from people two thousand years ago. Evolution has had nothing whatsoever to do with us being taller or living longer. But if not evolution, then what?

The answer is obvious: nutrition, medicine, hygiene, housing. These are not evolutionary changes, but cultural ones. They are exactly the product of a societies that pass on knowledge from one mind to another, improving it as it goes, with the goal of keeping alive people who would otherwise die.

The idea that technological advancement, coupled with human compassion, leads to some kind of genetically-determined societal decline should be too silly to comment on; and yet it is something I have often heard repeated, in mournful tones, by concerned, intelligent people who have nothing but the wellbeing of humanity on their minds. History has shown us what can happen when this misunderstanding comes to dictate policy.

The unravelling subtleties of genetic evolution and cultural development continue to shape our ideas of where we stand in the world, as well they should. It is important to ensure that people understand these things in all their nuances, because when this understanding is only partial, great harm can result.


Written by The S I

July 10, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with ,

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