Darwin…Is Our Big Brain The End of Us All?

Charles Darwin

Is humanity an evolutionary dead end on the tree of life?

All creationist ego and vanity aside, if we can accept Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection to be true, can we sit in awe of our own magnificence and contemplate our singular ability to so drastically change the entire environment in which we live, including our own biology, with an innocent reverence, and not face that we are violating possibly the most fundamental posit made in The Origin of the Species.

Higher intelligence is the gift of our evolutionary past, it’s wrapped in a struggle for competitive dominance over all other species, and tied with the elegant little bow of our unending egocentric attitude toward life and the entire universe.

I use the term “higher intelligence” loosely, as I sit in a hotel room, surrounded by the products of the most recent manifestations of that gift, a state of the art lap top computer, my ever needy Blackberry personal data device, and the often underappreciated and always over watched hotel television.  Streaming across the screen of this TV, in bright, true to life colours, fed by digital cable signals, broadcast over satellite radio signals and all fed into my brain almost as directly as an IV drip, are the images of big money programming; drama, comedy and most disturbing, news.

It strikes me that our collective arrow of achievement has landed somewhat low of the target.  We’ve not only allowed our minds to become obsessed with popular culture (though I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s popular), but we’ve devoted the potential of our future to leisure, and all subsequent pass-times are a means to that end.

War, medical advance and business immediately come to mind, though, maybe not to yours; in my mind they comingle and underscore the heart of the issue.  Mankind has become petty -stated as though we weren’t always so- but I hereby claim that the vain pursuit of pleasure used to be offset by the competition for survival.  Once upon a time not so long ago, Darwin’s pigeons were cooped and fed by a creature whose life was not so easy.  These days however, as the so-called “baby boomers” swell into the ranks of the nearly departed, medical science works feverishly to find ways, any ways, to increase their life expectancy, and ultimately, their burden on the resources of our environment.

I know, I know, the last thing you want to read is another eco-argument, well, that’s not what you’re reading.  This argument reaches far deeper than that.

Charles Darwin contended that: Natural Selection may only operate where no conscious intentions are at work at the same time.

When I first contemplated that statement through a peripheral study of our great historical scientists, my mood was akin to both the excitement of a ‘eureka’ moment and the disappointment of lunch-bag-let-down.  I mean, really…evolution only works on those too dim to understand it?  Maybe that’s oversimplified, and if it is, that’s admittedly unfair.  So in turn I’ll be generous.  Higher intelligence in-and-of-itself does not necessarily negate the effectiveness of natural selection, but (and this is a big but), the various manifestations of our ‘gift’ just might.

Now, the last thing I want to do is play my cards into the hands of the religious fundamentalists who are ever ready to pounce on any spec of evidence to support their argument against the (possibly) valuable Stem Cell Research of recent news, but sometimes reason and logic are a slippery slope.

6101medical_scienceIf we ardently ignore the medical benefits that have been realised since the acceptance of Germ Theory, and then compare the runaway and breakthrough developments that have steadily come about in the medical community since that time, to the notion that conscious intention interrupts natural selection, one might begin to sense that our higher intelligence has not only removed us from the competition, it’s ejected us from the stadium.

The point I am carefully dancing around here is that we are medically engineering ourselves beyond the reach of evolution.  To some, this might seem both inevitable and ultimately encouraging for our chances of ensuring the longevity of the human species, though careful examination of these concepts could lead one to believe quite the opposite.

As most everyone understands (whether they accept it or not is for another argument), evolution is the process of organisms passing on beneficial genetic material -and therefore beneficial biological characteristics- down through their progeny, and ultimately eliminating undesirable or unsuccessful traits through the eventual demise of those not capable of survival through reproduction because of those faults.

Here’s my problem though, our sometimes subtle, often deliberate and usually obtuse meddling with the health and life span of our species has had the effect of passing along traits that would normally have led to the elimination of certain unsuitable characteristics from our collective genome (i.e. eliminating disease through vaccination rather than natural immunity).  In the span of our lives, this may seem not only inconsequential, but noble and desirable.  Who thinks saving lives through medical research is immoral?  But over the long term advancement of our species, we will be guilty of propagating undesirable, ineffective and potentially retarding genetic characteristics, which in turn, may lead to our removal from the proverbial tree of life.

It is conceivable that technological advancement, which is far outrunning our own development, will be the answer to our long term dilemma.  Though that hotel TV I mentioned earlier has suggested that the prospect of technological integration is a less than glamorous solution.  Our imaginations are rife with visions of the possible marriage of technology and biology, most of which are littered with our historically proven penchant for unparalleled violence.

The question still remains; is our higher intelligence capable of taking over for Mother Nature?  Those who would argue semantics in the face the above questions cannot avoid the weight of this one.  There are few among us who do not see the precipice on which we are perched, though there seem to be equally few who question whether or not we are capable of flight before we collectively jump into the chasm.

human_brainThere are blatant and undeniable facts that need be considered, not the least of which is our total and utter lack of understanding toward the residual or collateral effects of manipulating biology.  Within the human body, there are countless chemical processes conducting a precision ballet that keeps us hurtling forward through time.  The basis of all medical science is the manipulation of those chemical processes.  Though herein lies the problem; all drugs have side effects.  Well duh!  It seems a moronically silly idea, but it has far reaching consequences.  The reason all drugs have side effects, is because of the way they work.

All drug therapies are based on the manipulation of chemicals in the body, chemicals that typically have more than one function in more than one system of the biological machine that is our body.  Some would say that often the side effects are tolerable, when weighed against the benefits of the alleviated illness or affliction.  Though, not all side effects manifest themselves in any visible or measurable way; which presents us with unseen and completely incomprehensible consequences of our medical manipulation.

That higher intellect of yours is probably telling you…“we’re human, we’re at the top of the food chain, we’re the dominant species on earth, and we’re special enough in the universe to take control of our own destiny and edge out Mother Nature’s influence.”  Though, what would your higher intellect tell you if I said that maybe we’re not supposed to carry the evolutionary torch into the distant future?

Besides the indignant accusation that we’ve squandered our ‘gift’ and are no longer worthy of an evolutionary leg up on everyone else in our biological community, there is a crude egotistical wring to the idea that we were ever worthy of such advantage.  Some view our big brains as an evolutionary inevitability, the product of selection at its pinnacle and therefore the crowning achievement of mankind (as though we really had any choice).  Though when one begins to explore the vast empty spaces of our universe, or the crowded and intensely overpopulated biosphere that is our earth (and that overpopulation isn’t a reflection of our prevalence, but that of microbial life around the planet), one must begin to bring our place in the evolutionary process of life into perspective.

We are not the most dominant form of life on this planet.

It may be cruel to make such an assertion and then leave you to ponder it without discussion, but that is what I’ll do.  Instead, consider the following, with the former in mind.

The higher intellect of the species homo-sapien is an abhorrent anomaly; a mutation that, in evolutionary terms, provided an environmental advantage to our distant ancestors, which, oddly enough has become, or rather, holds the potential to become the very undesirable genetic characteristic that could lead to our naturally selective elimination from the tree of life.

If higher intelligence were the inevitable outcome of evolution within our environmental habitat, we would not be the only species of mammal on the planet to have found that adaptation and carried it to the degree of our current state.

Believe me when I say, the above idea is more than sobering to my limited understanding, such as it is, of the evolutionary process, and our place in it.  Where ever we might be headed as a species, it is clear that we are treading a path that has not been walked before.  Each step we take could be the next on our road to extinction or the first on the journey to immortality; either way, the choices we make today will have far reaching and drastic consequences in the future.

…Whether we realise it or not, whether we like it or not, we are about to witness a paradigm shift in our role as the caretakers of this little corner of the universe.

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