Enjoyed a pleasant and stimulating evening today listening to a public lecture given by Steve Jones (Professor of Genetics) on the subject of the End of Evolution.
The lecture was essentially a light canter through some of the basic theories as to the main factors that drive evolution, causing changes in the genes passing from one generation to the next, and causing some people to have children and others not; and how those factors now have reduced in effect in our crowded and highly mobile world.
Fundamentally, his measure of evolution seemed to be about how easy it is for a given new mutation (e.g. some gene that gives twice as much intelligence or better eye-sight) to take hold and come to spread throughout and be the norm in the gene pool.
These factors (as far as I can recall) included:-
- Medicine and technology. Many more people (something like 99% now) survive to have children than did in the past. This means that instead of, say, only people with good eyesight surviving, everyone survives, whatever the state of your eye sight, which in turn means that any person with 20-20 vision, or even better, is unlikely to spread that gene, so that it dominates future generations, because those people with worse eyesight are surviving as well (aided by glasses and contact lenses).
- Many more men are becoming fathers. Historically there would be a few men with many wives, and the rest would not reproduce at all. This would mean that those few men had lots of children, and the genes of those few men (together with their wives) would come to dominate the next generation of the gene pool. This would mean that any "useful" features of their genes would become the norm. Today, almost every man finds a wife and has children (no offence to the gay community), so that any specially "useful" new features that a particular couple might produce in their children, will have much less of a chance of, and take longer to become the norm, because that couple will not have any more children, and everyone else is having children.
- Men are having children earlier. As we grow older, our genes mutate through copying errors, and those mutated genes are passed on in sperm. In historical times, and in older societies, the few men having children would continue to have them well into old age. In modern times, we tend to stop around 40-45. So the spread of ages for having children has shifted strongly to 20-45, and so fewer copying errors have accumulated by that time, and so fewer mutated children. Ironically we stop earlier because of the risk of defects, but from evolution's perspective, yes, some will be deffective, and die, but some will have interesting new changes, which may have survival use in the future.
- We live in much larger communities with strong right to life and reproduction cultures. In the past, we were much more isolated, and a hunter gatherer population sustainable by the natural environment was only about the "population of birmingham". As a result, there was more in-breeding, and more chance that specific combinations of genes would come to dominate and be the norm within those isolated small communities, as there was more of a chance of other genes in the pool not surviving to have chidren. Today, with vast, mixing populations, there is little scope again for any interesting mutations to gain much traction in the gene pool, as they cannot hope for other genetic combinations to die before having children. Everyone has a right to have children, and monogamous culture prevents men having lots of wives, thus depriving other men.
He dotted his lecture with some though provoking comments, including:-
- The fact that you have a greater chance of being here today with a pretty good body, is down to the fact that others, with less well functioning bodies, died without reproducing.
- "Intelligent Design" is an ironic title.
- Evolution has only stopped to the extent that we can sustain our current societies. That got me thinking of when Britain had its fuel crisis: supermarkets were stripped, and people cared nothing for their neighbour or self-restraint. Clearly, if we meet any larger crisis, most of us are going to die, and the rest will descend into fighting, and pretty rapidly back to the low-technology, isolated, farmer / hunter lifetsyle of the past. Evolution will then come back.
I was lucky enough to have a few words with Mr Jones afterwards, and I asked him why he thought the end of evolution was interesting enough to speak about; what implications he thought it had.
He was quick-witted, and simply said, it doesn't really matter at all, quoting Francis Bacon (see end). I.e. why do you care about the future?
This led into a short discussion about morality, and evolution's role in developing behaviours we might lable as "moral". Assuming evolution did have a role, I tried to advance a point that, with evolution ceasing, the opportunities for the "human gene" to develop further (more advanced?) moral traits would be much reduced - i.e. morally speaking, we would develop no further as a gene pool than we are right now. Interestingly he was much more sceptical than I about the role of evolution in the development of moral belief, but we did not get on to discussing any alternative for the source of our moral beliefs (e.g. random, culture, etc). At this point I realised I was out-staying my welcome, and took up no more of his time.
Afterwards, I wondered to myself (these are just wild thoughts of course):-
- Is the current situation (no more evolution) a bad one. Who can tell, as who can say what direction evolution might take next. There are some who see a tale of human progress and increasing sophiscation, but is that just illusory?
- Is evolution now past it, so that we are into the much quicker world of knowledge creation and growth, of which evolution is only one tool. I.e. we have evolved sufficiently far to have brains capable of sustaining complex societies, capable of creating computers, and engaging in pretty deep investigation into the universe, so that we need evolve no further?
- Given that we are in a world of unsustainable life-styles and massive over-population, such that a huge crash is more than likely at some point, without an unprecedented degree of co-operation and self-restraint at a world and personal level, we could equally say that there is scope for evolution to find a vesion of the human gene without some of these destructive instincts, but that is probably flying in the face of reality.
- If evolution is also responsible for behaviours (e.g. helping others), which we loosely associate with the wider concept of morality, then we needed eons of creatures fighting and murdering each other in order to get to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill"! I.e. religion needs evolution, and all its infinite capacity for behaviours we call "ruthless" and behaviours we call "good", in order to have a context and reason for its morality.
WHAT DID POSTERITY EVER DO FOR ME?
WHAT DO I CARE? I have engendered no hostages to fortune, no prisoners of time unclocked. I bestow no burden of deoxyribonucleic acid, as heavy as its name is long, to tote for generations yet unborn into the far and indecipherable future. Why should I not lead a gay and carefree life, heedless of consequence, regardless of cost? It's nothing to me. When I die, the world dies with me. Though, for some odd reason I do care. I worry about those little eggs and sperms ununited, those embryo citizens of a dismal future without the stars. What can I do to make it better for them? I don't know. It seems that everything we try to do to make things better ends up making things worse, and that the preferable course if we do not know what's going on is to do nothing. But, that's not an option. So we do the best we can, and maybe it's improving in some ways and worsening in others; but we have no vantage from which to view the big picture, and perhaps there is none. So, posterity, here's to you. I'll do my best, however clumsy it may be, to leave you a world that's inhabitable if nothing else, and in return I ask you to honor my shade and forgive my mistakes. Shake, it's a deal.
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
- Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626),
Essays, Of Marriage and Single Life (1625).