This was the question posed by the BBC’s Horizon on Tuesday night (apologies to my non-UK readers). I don’t often watch Horizon but I did this week because, as you will have surmised by the many posts on this subject that I have published on this ‘ere blog, our evolution as a species is a subject that regularly keeps me awake at night and had nothing at all whatsoever to do with the fact that this week’s show was presented by flame-haired, curvy, science ingénue, Alice Roberts who, according to my wife, I have a “thing” for.
Ha! As if. Ahem.
So are we still evolving?
Well, then we look at the behaviour exhibited by Wayne Rooney, Colonel Gaddafi and Bible bashers in the mid-west of the USA, it would be fair to assume that no, we are not. If anything we have entered an evolutionary cul-de-sac or, quite possibly, are returning to single celled amoebas one brain cell at a time.
But this, of course, is just the cynical blog writer in me talking and isn’t factually true. The gorgeously honey-voiced, Dr Alice said so. More or less.
We are still evolving as a species. In fact we are changing completely as a species. Us folk today are technically a different form of human being than our ancestors were a thousand years ago.
With the amazing advances in technology that have revolutionized our existence and affected the existence of practically every other living thing on the planet some have posited the theory that natural selection as a process is dead. It has stopped. We have somehow removed ourselves from its melting pot.
This is not true. Natural selection is still occurring – just perhaps not at the life or death, cutting edge of evolution that it once inhabited. Our species is no longer being shaped by the “survival of the fittest”. The weak not only survive in our society now but also survive long enough and ably enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. We also, through our grasp of genetics and embryo manipulation, can select the traits of our future generations ourselves and not leave it up to the good old fashioned Darwinian process we’ve all come to know and love.
But this does not mean that evolution has stopped or that we have freed ourselves from its reins. Evolution is driven by the dialogue all species unconsciously have with their environment and each other. Sure we have changed our own environment, made it more comfortable and almost dove-tailed it to our needs – mauled it almost into an image of our own likeness – but that does not mean that the environment is still not working on us in ways that we cannot yet perceive.
And also, perhaps more pertinently, we have the evolution of other life forms on this planet to consider. They impinge on us very directly sometimes and the effects of this may well drive our own evolution in ways that could be sudden, drastic and unimaginable in their end results. Viruses evolve a lot quicker than we do. No sooner do we come up with a vaccine against them than they evolve in response and we find ourselves dealing with a virus that has suddenly become highly resistant to human control.
It is not beyond the bounds of reason that a particularly nasty pandemic could one day make a good stab at wiping us all out. But as the programme posits, should such an event occur, there may well be some survivors. Some survivors whose genetic make-up contains a previously useless and overlooked genetic anomaly which suddenly renders them immune from the new virus. It is these survivors whose genetic code would be carried forth into the future generations of our species and change its course forever. The evolutionary process – the survival of the fittest – would once again claim ascendency over our arrogant attempts to control our own destiny.
So. In short: we are all of us still evolving. Even Wayne Rooney.
And that single fact just blows my mind.
Just like Dr Alice.