Several years ago, I participated in an online discussion about how Man had influenced the evolutionary process. The premise was that since no other animal has ever had the capability to do this, it must be the result of a gift from God. Here are some excerpts:
“I now realize that while Darwinian evolution might have been the single predominant force for change during the almost 3 billion year history of life on Earth, this is no longer true, and it is likely that it will never be true again.”
There is no doubt that man has influenced the Natural Selection process profoundly. Of course, every animal on the planet that kills another for food or any other reason affects the Natural Selection process. I pointed this out. The degree of influence by humans is greater, but it is still a matter of degree. Aniko and others responded that even though it was a matter of degree, it was still “relevant.”
Relevant to what, I asked. To the idea that Man was “gifted” by God with these special powers? Why do you draw that conclusion?
“We have filled the globe, but our technological revolution in transportation has made it impossible for any group of humans to remain isolated long enough to form a new species, so further speciation of H. Sapiens is impossible.”
I replied that speciation requires reproductive isolation, not geographic isolation. So, even though people travel all over the planet, if they don’t have sex with people in foreign lands, speciation can still happen. I’m not saying it will or won’t. That question will not be answered for a few million years. Human mobility is likely to decrease in the future as we use up the abundant cheap energy in fossil fuels. Without oil, jet airliners aren’t going anywhere except to a desert boneyard. I see no reason to rule out pockets of genetic isolation in future millennia.
Sy pointed out that humans have altered the environment much more rapidly than it changed through “natural” processes. I will not get into the argument that ensued about whether human-caused changes are “natural” or not. That is equivalent to arguing about how many angels can sit on a pinhead. But Sy is absolutely right that Man, through his technology, has vastly greater powers to influence both the environment and the species that will survive. Nobody can deny that. The evidence is all around us. Climate change, ecosystem destruction, “dead zones” in the ocean, drawdown of aquifers causing desertification, over-fishing and over-hunting driving species to extinction…everywhere you look you will find the mostly catastrophic effects of Man’s habitation. A debate over whether these effects are “natural” or not is pointless in my opinion.
“If we ourselves are the product of evolution, then how can it be that we are able to supplant what has worked since the origin of life? Does this mean that evolution included the seed of its own demise…?”
Evolution will continue…even if it is influenced by man’s actions, I replied. I would also argue that man does not control all evolutionary processes, and that if we continue on our present path of ecosphere destruction, we may well cause our own extinction, and then whatever life forms remain on the planet will resume the evolutionary processes that proceeded for billions of years before we arrived on the scene. The earth…nature…doesn’t care if we are here or not.
And then, comes the final little tweak, the one that set me off:
“We are animals. But we also have some spark of divinity, given to us as a gift. I believe this is the reason we have been able to rise above and leave behind the rules of natural selection, and make blind directionless evolution, a thing of the past.”
In my initial response to this, I pointed out that there was no evidence that any divine spark was provided, and that if it were, it was “vastly irresponsible” in giving us that power but not the wisdom to control it. Aniko asked if I considered the existence of such a deity impossible. Of course it is not impossible, I replied, any more than the presence of little green men on a planet circling Proxima Centauri is impossible. Dave adds that God can’t be irresponsible because I (among others) see the errors of the present human course, so if God created me, he created the wisdom…in some of us, at least…to act responsibly. But what about the others? Why did a wise god create them? Just to make life “interesting” for the wise ones?
Dave argued that Sy wasn’t trying to “prove” divine intervention, and while that’s true, he certainly was suggesting it in the paragraph above.
But then things got confusing. When I suggested that Sy considered evolution to be a “brutal impersonal process,” he claimed I was misinterpreting his characterization of “blind, directionless evolution.” But again, that argument is irrelevant. It is what it is.
Sy then says that his only point was that Man has “introduced a new way for biological organisms to change…” How so? Organisms change to adapt to their environment. That’s the whole basis of the theory of natural selection. So the only real point here is that Man is changing the environment faster than it changed in pre-human times.
Then he asks…what does that mean? And he accuses “some folks who don’t think it means anything” of having not thought about it enough! And he poses the false dichotomy that either mankind has evolved to the point where they have “taken over” evolution…or that we are “blessed with divine gifts.”
Couldn’t the answer be that we have evolved to the point where we influence the earth’s environment more than other species? This doesn’t require any speculation about Man repealing the laws of nature or possessing some divine gift.
I think my initial suspicions were correct. This was a sly attempt by a believer to insinuate that Man was somehow treated specially; “blessed with a gift.” It’s a common religious argument, here carefully sugar coated with scientific jargon.
But in the end, it is just religious propaganda.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.