A Continuation of the Story of Evolution
Many of us can name our grand-parents, great-grand-parents and perhaps some of our great-great-grandparents. Beyond that our historical past, the beginnings of our lineage are a dark and mysterious path. Man has been in search of his beginnings for centuries. Many scientists, historians and theologians have attempted to identify our humble beginnings but none so aptly as Charles Darwin. Through decades of observing more simple organisms like beetles and finches, Darwin developed his theory of evolution based on variation and natural selection. The observations, postulations and hypotheses, published in his book On the Origin of Species (1859), were monumentally significant to the scientific world. Today in addition to studying and identifying the origins of the more simplistic organisms, the greatest controversy and questions are over the complex origin of man. The dialogue that Darwin started some 150 years ago has itself evolved. New technologies, new theories and new findings have emerged to further the explanation of our existence. Today, man questions not only his past, but also his future. Heretofore, based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, man could postulate his future existence. However, technological advances aren’t always positive for the world nor are they in alignment with a healthy environment. Is man creating his own extinction by tampering with a natural course of evolution through sophisticated technological advancements?
In order to begin answering these questions, it is important to understand the basics about Darwin’s theories on evolution. Darwin stresses that “all the individuals of the same species are cast in the very same mould” (Darwin, 1859). However, he also points out that populations and organisms are all variable. Without variation there would be no way to explain the development and progress of life. Darwin struggled with understanding how these variations or mutations came into being, hence his theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest was birthed. Natural selection is the process by which genetic variation takes place so that the organism has the ability to survive. Natural selection may be due to environmental conditions, competition with other species, or reproductive success. Darwin postulated “allied species have descended from a common parent; and during the process of modification, each has become adapted to the conditions of life of its own region, and have supplanted and exterminated its original parent and all the transitional varieties between its past and present states” (Darwin, 1859). Darwin’s theory of evolution by way of natural selection opened the flood gates for science’s further exploration. One of the most important things to remember is that Darwin’s theory was based on natural selection due to natural causes.
Making use of the theory of evolution through natural selection and applying it to human existence is quite complex as we have tampered extensively with what Darwin described as a natural process. For millions of years, man has been subjected to evolutionary mechanisms and has succeeded in evolving. But man has also succeeded in developing technological advancements which have altered the ‘natural’ development of human existence and the world in which they live. 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). However, these natural laws were the beginning point for many scientists to take Darwin’s theories even further.
Darwin did not have the scientific knowledge or tools to take his theory of evolution any further. Post Darwin research has turned to the theory of genetics. Scientists postulate that the questions about our origin can be found in our genetic code, which makes us uniquely human – but also makes us unique individuals. Our DNA carries a historical document stretching back to the origin of life and the first self-replicating molecules, through our amoebic ancestors, and down to the present day. Spencer Wells writes “We are the end result of over a billion years of evolutionary tinkering, and our genes carry the seams and spot-welds that reveal the story” (Wells, 2002). Princeton scientist, Herschel Rabitz, working tirelessly to understand the genetic evolutionary contribution states “What we have found is that certain kinds of biological structures exist that are able to steer the process of evolution toward improved fitness” (Biotech Law Weekly, 2008). The data is solid and leads them to postulate that humans all have genetic structures that are independently responding to the pressures of evolution. The researchers believe that they have the first quantifiable experimental evidence that nature employs evolutionary control strategies to maximize the fitness of biological networks; thus the control theory is born.
I do not believe that man is creating his own extinction through technological advances but rather coming closer to unraveling the mystery of the origins of life. Recent findings suggest that this new theory, control theory, builds upon Darwin’s model of evolution. “[Control theory] extends Darwin’s model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness” (Biotech Law Weekly, 2008). This team of scientists has discovered that chains of proteins found in most living organisms act like adaptive machines, possessing the ability to control their own evolution. According to these scientists by way of technological advancement, this new theory “confirms an idea first floated in an 1858 essay by Alfred Wallace, who along with Charles Darwin co-discovered the theory of evolution”(Biotech Law Weekly, 2008). Alfred Wallace suspected, but was unable to prove, that certain systems undergoing natural selection can adjust their own evolutionary course. This new discovery certainly changes our perception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by viewing it as an integral puzzle piece in the puzzle of the origin of the species.
Prior to researching this topic, I would have concluded that man was engineering his own extinction however in light of the recent and exciting data – control theory – I believe man is engineering the mechanisms by which we will all have a greater understanding of who we are, where we have come from and most importantly, where we are going – as a human species.
So perhaps in the end this is just another story – but I think it’s a good one because it allows us to hope that we are not dooming ourselves to extinction. I would venture to say, that humans have many life lessons to learn and many more mysteries to unravel before we get to the truth of the origin of the species.
Works Consulted and Cited:
Biotech Law Weekly. Princenton University; Evolution’s new wrinkle. Atlanta: Dec 12,
2008. pg 3207.
Darwin, Charles. 2003. On the Origin of Species. Broadview Press. Canada.
Friedman, William. 2009. The meaning of Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’. American
Journal of Botany. Columbus: Vol. 96. Iss. 1: pg.5.Palme, Jacob. 2006. The Future of Human Evolution.
Perkins, Sid. 2009. Step-by-step Evolution. Science News. Washington. Vol. 175, Iss.3:
Wells, Spencer. 2002. The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.
Random House Publisher. New York, N.Y.