I seem to only be able to manage a post a week, or at least to post in flurries on weekends, so I might as well make my posts count. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of evolution within the human species, where it almost seems as though we may have stalled in our own evolutionary tracks, because we’ve reached the pinnacle of intellect where we have gained a mastery over the dark art of “science”, and therefore can overcome most otherwise evolutionary influences like predators or environmental hazards usually within a lifetime or two, thus short-circuiting the whole natural selection process. After thinking a good deal more about it, I’m convinced that evolution is still happening, but its effects, like a river that’s been dammed, will simply route around the dampening effort.
As an example, Clifton has informed me that his unborn son (who is, admittedly, possibly fictitious, as Clifton’s known for the “long con”) is suspected to have spina bifida, which is a very common congenital defect wherein the baby’s neural tube, what will become the spinal column, and what protects the spinal cord ultimately, fails to fully form. This condition affects one out of a thousand babies in North America. Most originally-explored environmental links to its cause have proven spurious at best, and there’s a mounting pile of evidence suggesting that the condition is genetic, with a specific gene suspected as being responsible should that particular gene mutate in a certain way.
The fact that this mutation is both common and disadvantageous is interesting, but not as interesting as the fact that now that we have access to medical science well beyond that of our predecessors of even a mere hundred years ago, it is possible to dampen the effects of spina bifida through open-fetal surgery by repairing the condition as soon as possible and protecting the spinal cord from the amniotic fluid — risking both the mother and the baby at present, but such is the case for every experimental procedure until the medical community has gained some measure of experience with the condition. While I don’t advocate the use of this technique in this particular case (given that the sum of my knowledge of the situation is derived from The Intertubes, and dammit Jim I’m a geek not a doctor), I do have to wonder as to how long this disadvantageous gene mutation will be disadvantageous and thus selected against. We as a species consider it a virtue to attempt to lift up the least and most disadvantaged of us to a level playing field, by repairing what genetic defects we can. On a smaller scale, for instance, I have glasses, correcting a genetic nearsightedness that otherwise in another time period might have prevented me from hunting successfully or noticing predators, thus causing a selection bias against my survival.
So, why do I still think human evolution exists, despite the fact that science itself seems to have curtailed and dampened most of the otherwise genetically disadvantageous mutations that happen daily? Well, for one, these mutations are being corrected against with medicine, and what if that new mutation then, in the next generation or fifty generations down the track, mutates again into something more advantageous or otherwise awesome, like having a prehensile head or being able to shoot venom from your salivary glands? Or what if, as suggested in this article, we continue to grow in intellectual capacity because our species is no longer selecting against large heads by virtue of the small pelvises that they have to pass through in childbirth?
The very fact that we’re using science to dampen or eliminate certain hazards in our environment means we’re widening the scope of viable human genomes, giving us as a species a way better shot at surviving any kind of cataclysm because of the breadth of genes out there that may have a specific advantage conferred upon it by virtue of its otherwise mutated genes in the post-cataclysm environment. And that’s damn cool. Now if only we could select out the social factors that cause certain groups to be selected against by virtue of some arbitrary and otherwise inoffensive genetic trait like their skin color or sexual preference, we’d be better off as a species. (The latter of which by the way is a big selection bias itself without intolerant asshats stepping in and killing these people, given that the whole concept of natural selection is that one set of genes allows for self-propagation to the next generation where another set might not, or at least might make this propagation more difficult.)
Now, I’m just finishing up some overnight work I had to do — I might as well post this and go to bed, since the automated processes have run and I no longer need to oversee things.