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Will we survive innovation?

Mar 25 2018 09:54
Sophia Liu

‘Natural selection is random.’  ‘Now we are taking matters into our own hands.’ These are some of the thoughts which I have recently come across with regards to the topic of human evolution. However, if we take a closer look at our scientific history, it may prove that we have severely underestimated our role in shaping our own genetic evolution.

It is generally understood that the theory of ‘survival of the fittest through natural selection’ from Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species’ is nature’s way of driving genetic change in all living organisms to adapt to changing environments and to ensure the species’ survival. In this context, then consider how this history has unfolded: At some point in time, the human species appeared. The creation of tools as well as the harnessing of fire led to changed behaviours in hunting and diet, which in turn boosted more genetic change. The development of agriculture led to large-scale migrations, the rapid spread and homogenisation of languages and culture as well as more advanced technology.

Our muscles grew weaker as our brains grew bigger to accommodate these developments. In short, our ancestors and their uncanny ability to drive innovation, may have already had a profound influence on their own evolution right from the beginning.

This innovation has led to advanced technology which can increasingly control and modify our natural environment, fuelling some theories that evolution in humans has become irrelevant. Medical advances, for instance, mean that Darwin’s theory no longer carries weight, and that the weakest will still survive to pass their genes to next generations.

Yet, research has yielded some surprising results to say otherwise. Blue eyes, for example, came from a mutation in a single ancestor only 10,000 – 6,000 years ago. A mutation was discovered in Hungary about 7,500 years ago, which enabled humans to be the first species on Earth to digest milk after infancy. Indigenous Tibetans were discovered to be genetically predisposed to be able withstand lower-oxygen levels due to living in higher altitudes – a mutation which is estimated to have occurred only 3000 years ago. In our evolutionary road to become present-day humans, our bigger brains expanded our skulls and narrowed our jaws, leading to missing wisdom teeth in as many as one in four people. Now, our brains are shrinking. Fast.

So, what is precipitating this ominous change? One hypothesis is that we are becoming less aggressive in response to more social support as urbanisation increases. Another is that while we were building cities and structures with tremendous manual precision 4000 years ago, our technology today has rendered our skills and need of memory storage redundant. Maybe it is neither. 

Perhaps what we are experiencing is the transition of our brains in an environmentally-pressured response to big data. With the rapid changes in how we process information, for example, from the industrial revolution to the explosion of the internet, maybe our brains are evolving and rewiring to adapt to the onslaught of data. After all, the amount of data which we consume is exceeding exponentially to that of generations before us. 

And what if as natural evolution occurs, some individuals gain extraordinary intelligence or near-eidetic memory, whilst others succumb to depression, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses? This may be one of many possibilities to explain why we are seeing a drastic rise in mental health issues and even brain disorders, over the past few decades.

One thing seems increasingly certain: humanity’s evolution is inextricably tied to the rate of our innovation.
As we race into the era of transhumanism, we will become more capable of transcending our own biological limitations via technologies such as cloning, nanotechnology, genetic enhancement and artificial intelligence. With this knowledge, we are basking more than ever in the glory of what we perceive as ‘God-like intellect’. But with this enormous capacity to shape our evolution, as well as all lives and ecosystems around us, comes a crucial responsibility to remind ourselves how fragile misused pedestals of power can be.

*Sophia Liu is a Johannesburg-based brand communications specialist and media strategist.

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