Humans: Are We Still Evolving?
Well, it depends how you look at it and which theory of evolution you subscribe to, if you subscribe to one at all.
If you’re a creationist then no, we’re not evolving because we never evolved in the first place, we just appeared in the Garden of Eden and all humans come from those first two (minus the snake).
If you’re a Lamarckist then yes, perhaps we’re evolving but we’re evolving in individual ways — through characteristics each of us pick up during our lifetimes and pass down to the next generation. Maybe like craned-forward necks and shorter attention spans from looking at our phones too much.
If you’re a Darwinist then it’s a big ‘maybe we’re evolving, but probably not’.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the most widespread and accepted of all evolutionary theory, the old ‘survival of the fittest’.
In his theory, which I must admit I do like, species evolve through random genetic mutations which make them more adept to survive in the environment they inhabit.
For example, in Manchester, UK in the 1840’s, there lived a species of white moth. Its color meant it was fairly well camouflaged against the white of the snow in the winters and the dreary Manchester skies. As a result predatory birds couldn’t see these moths that much and therefore couldn’t eat them.
In the industrial revolution, black soot from factories covered much of Manchester and these white moths became very easy to spot against the black background of the landscape. Many more of them were seen and gobbled up by birds and far less of these white moths had the chance to reproduce.
A random mutation in the moths lineage turned a few of their offspring black, and because these black ones were near impossible to spot against the black-soot backdrop of the area, birds couldn’t see them (and were too busy eating the white moths) so many more of these black moths had the chance to reproduce and make more and more blacks moth babies.
The black moths propagated almost unencumbered whilst the white moth population very nearly died out because they were no longer adapted for survival in their environment.
This is the essence of Darwinian evolution, the survival of the fittest, and it requires two things;
A species successful adaptation to its environment and the dying out of its lesser evolved kin.
Now, if we apply this to humanity, we come to some interesting results.
Firstly, humanity has reached a point, and we reached it a long time ago, where we longer need to adapt ourselves to our environments. We adapt our environments to ourselves.
It’s too cold? Turn the heating up. It’s too hot? Turn the AC up. You’re thirsty, hungry? Turn on the faucet for some fresh water and head down the shops for some snacks.
This is actually amazing when you think about it. We are the ONLY species on this entire planet to have done this and as a result we have literally changed the face of the Earth.
It’s because we’re conscious beings. We can separate out individuality from each other and other species and we can build on knowledge that has come generations before us.
No other species can do that. Bee hives and spiders webs are beautiful and intricate things, but they don’t evolve over time. They’ve been the same for millennia, and this is where one of the big differences between humans and other species lie.
We also have the advantage of having no natural predators so we are at the top of the food chain. Even any potential predator couldn’t appear because we can just lock them all up.
We’re changing the face of the Earth, and not always for the better.
Natural habitats for countless other species are sharply declining because we keep building, the toxicity levels in the air are worsening because we keep pumping fumes into the atmosphere, the ice caps are melting and sea levels rising because we’re contributing to the warming up of the Earth.
We don’t adapt to our environments so any mutation we have, positive or negative, has no effect on our survival.
We usually correct large mutations through medicine. An extra finger or webbed toes are swiftly dealt with at birth, even though webbed toes would probably make you a better swimmer.
But what about the second thing that evolution requires, what about death?
This is where things get a bit ethically and morally grey.
We’ve seen that for a species to truly evolve, the lesser evolved kin need to die out for the further evolved to propagate and for the species to evolve as a whole.
But how does this work with humans? Our population numbers are insane, there are over 7 billion and counting. We don’t adapt to environments and we have no natural predators, are we stuck in the same state of evolution we have been for thousands of years since caveman times?
If we’re not evolving, are there ‘less evolved’ portions of our species? If there are would they die out? Especially if we have no environmental survival issues or predators and most humans have a fair chance of propagating?
Do we even need to evolve?
Our current state of evolution was fine-tuned when we were still living in tribes in caves — covering ourselves with animals fur, moving from place to place to find food and warring with rival tribes for resources.
This is still the state of evolution we are currently in psychologically (by default), but it’s no longer adapted for our times.
For example, in caveman times being part of a social group was key to survival. Not being part of one or being outcast could literally mean death. A predator could eat you up, you could freeze out in the cold or a rival tribe could capture or kill you.
Our brains evolved to ensure we did our utmost to be part of a group for survival purposes. Practically that translates into a hit of feel good chemicals pumped through our brains when we are part of a social group and being punished by a lack of them when we’re not.
It’s all in the name of survival, or so our primitive psyches think.
The thing is, being part of a group in today’s age is no longer a matter of life and death, but our brains still think it is.
We can learn individually that it’s not a life and death situation, but that comes with practice and reflection on the individual level (the skills of which don’t seem to be passed down much to next generation individually — sorry Lamarck).
This is only one such example of an instinct we retain from our caveman times. We’re mostly all born with these instincts inbuilt, even though they’re no longer appropriate for the times in which we live.
We haven’t evolved out of it.
We no longer evolve mutations to adapt to our environments because we adapt our environments to ourselves, our brains and instincts are stuck where they were thousands of years ago.
Even if we did mutate beneficially and move forward evolutionarily, the ‘lesser evolved’ humans would not die out before they had a chance to reproduce (and this is where it gets incredibly grey ethically — who is lesser evolved? Who has the authority to make that call?), so we would never move forward as a species as a whole.
Our numbers will keep rising and we’ll keep swallowing up planetary resources at an unsustainable rate (fresh water is going to become hard to come by later on, but still in our lifetimes, which is scary as hell) while still having an evolutionary mental state stuck in the past, where we try and hoard and use for ourselves as many natural resources as possible in the interests of more conveniences and easier lives.
We have to make the conscious effort to evolve psychologically as a species, and it’ll take all of us.