Darwin vs. technology: are science and engineering altering the evolution of the human race?

Classic evolutionary theory holds that genes are passed from one generation to the next. Some genes confer certain advantages on the host, and holders of these genes go on to flourish. Other genes may be detrimental, and holders of these genes may not survive; or at least not long enough to reproduce and carry these genes on to the next generation.

Intriguingly, there are some genes that seem to offer advantages in later years, long passed reproductive age and the assumed point of biological selection. The logic behind this appears to be that in some species (including our own), genes that select for healthier, older members can support the younger generation. Obviously, family groups who share this support are more likely to flourish, so there is a greater likelihood of these genes being passed on.

Survival therefore requires maintaining the existence of advantageous genes. But it also requires an element of genetic adaptation to provide a competitive edge and response to changes in the environment. From time to time, genes mutate and provide hitherto unrealised advantages to the carriers and their offspring. Over the course of a number of generations, these new genes can come to be abundant in the population and in extreme cases lead to speciation: the evolution of a whole new species.

Organisms like bacteria are notorious for introducing mutations frequently during reproduction. Bacteria survive by continually mutating and evolving to meet the demands of an ever-changing environment. Some of the future generations will not be viable, but others will be. And as long as the species survives, it doesn’t matter if a large number die. This ability to mutate, and for viable generations to rapidly develop, is the main cause of drug-resistance in bacteria.

It’s slightly unsettling to think of human survival in the same way as bacterial survival, but that’s essentially what our evolutionary instinct is designed to do: although individually we may be attracted to certain qualities in a mate that we wish for our children, ultimately we have been biologically programmed to produce offspring with the genes to help the species live on. As genetic fidelity is important for the survival of humans, the introduction of new, advantageous genetic mutations is rarer; and given the length of time it takes for humans to reproduce, it takes many, many years (possibly thousands) for these genetic advantages to percolate through the human race. Humans are slow to adapt genetically.

However, part of me wonders if mankind has now managed to transcend genetics. I’m not talking test tube babies, I’m referring to the appliance of science, engineering and technology more broadly, and how this affects us for the better and worse.

There are countless examples of mankind’s innovation and ingenuity solving some of the worst and most troubling problems we’ve faced in the past: we’ve eliminated small pox; we’ve developed varieties of wheat that have prevented whole nations from starving to death; we live longer; we can treat more diseases. Even the relatively small and unassuming technologies that we (in the West) all take for granted have been small building blocks to where we are today: paper, pens, light bulbs, electricity, batteries, mobile phones…

But scientific and technological advances have occasionally had numerous, and often large, unforeseen negative consequences. For instance, the discovery of oil has undoubtedly fuelled human progress over the last two centuries, but has brought with it air pollutants, cancer, damage to the climate, which have all had incalculable costs on human life. CFCs were a boon for refrigeration, helping us keep food for longer without succumbing to food poisoning, but did huge damage to the ozone layer. Lead-based additives in petrol got into the atmosphere and retarded human development. As we live longer and grow richer, the demand for food has led to deforestation. Nuclear power offers clean and long-lasting electricity generation but when it goes wrong, like with Chernobyl, it can be deadly and have far- and long-reaching consequences that we don’t fully understand.

And even those small things I said we take for granted could have an impact: what are the effects of the chemicals leaching from old pens, batteries and phones into local habitats and food chains?

Human ingenuity, and the use of science, engineering and technology, will help to solve some of the most pressing issues we face on this planet. GM crops and nanomaterials are two growing industries that will help shape this future, but these are still so relatively new that we do not fully understand their longer-term impacts. Earth is a complex ecosystem, which we do not fully understand either. And it seems dangerous to mix two unknowns without some appreciation and respect of problems that may result. We need look no further than the financial crisis: we don’t really understand how the markets work; nobody seemed to understand how financial derivatives worked. It was the perfect storm.

This isn’t an argument against technological innovation (when India was starving in the mid-twentieth century, could the people have afforded to wait for five years of safety trials?), but it is an argument for prudence, minimising our impact on the environment, and appreciating that some of those annoying regulations have a purpose.

I’m a huge proponent of using science and technology to improve our lives and the world around us. I think there’s a lot to be said for trying new things and making evolutionary jumps in these fields, learning from our mistakes and adapting. But some mistakes are more costly than others. Do we just go for it and invent new tools, chemicals and materials, fixing mistakes afterwards, hopefully providing a net-benefit to mankind but sacrificing human lives in the meantime while we fix our errors? Or do we act more wisely, actively trying to minimise damage at both ends of the spectrum?

Ultimately, technology is evolving at a far faster pace than humankind ever can. Should we live in a world shaped by the Darwinian character of human innovation, or do we want to live in a world where we try and treat every human life as precious? I honestly don’t know.

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