Saturday, February 21, 2009

Who You Calling a Homo (Evolvutis) ?

It's a funny thing about scientists and scholars these days -- especially those in fields like biology, anthopology, philosophy, sociology, and the like -- the ones concerned with the human condition and the nature of man. On the one hand, they will tell you that the human race is the worst thing that ever happened to planet Earth -- that before we came along, all was well. Dinosaurs were peacefully grazing in primordial swamps, like in Disney's "Fantasia"... the air was clean... the water was clear... there were no landfills, strip mines, nuclear waste dumps, subway restrooms, etc. But then "homo sapiens" evolved from some relatively benign primate -- think: Australian Aborigines before the convict ships arrived -- and things went downhill fast.

They will also tell you that mankind -- the human race -- is "no different" from any other animal species, with which we share an overwhelming proportion of our DNA... and that man's alleged "spiritual side" is nothing more than an epiphenomenon -- i.e., it's nothing more than a product of our hypertrophied cerebral cortex -- i.e., it's just in our imagination, and is nothing real.

The latter allegation is extremely comforting to liberals, since it lets them off the moral hook. But the former allegation is a source of much consternation, worry, and hand-wringing. Whatever shall we do about this horrible thing called "humanity" that we're all a part of? It's ruining the environment! It's causing "global warming"! It's going to destroy the Earth! The proposed solutions run the gamut from the relatively-benign "green" movement to radical environmentalism, zero population growth, negative population growth, and "let's just all drink some cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and end the suspense". And in fact, the population issue is a very interesting one, which I intend to deal with at some point. But for now, let's stick to the topic at hand, which is that we're on the verge of evolving -- totally through our own efforts -- into a new species, namely "Homo Evolvutis" (or "Evolutis", depending on whether you take the headline or the text as authoritative), which is intended to mean "self-evolving man". Yeah, I know, it's kind of redundant since aren't we evolving anyway? But here's the difference. Now that we can penetrate the innermost fastnesses of cells with tiny tweezers and slice and dice our own DNA, we can accomplish in just a few generations what natural selection has to have eons to accomplish. At least that is the contention in a recent news item which described a presentation at a conference in California (surprise!). Now, this next stage in the human saga will not be accomplished only with DNA manipulation. It will also involve tissue regeneration (which will easily morph into tissue improvement -- you know, turning Woody Allen into Arnold Schwartzenegger through surgery) and robotics (like, turning everyone into Robocop or the Six Million Dollar Man -- with adjustments for inflation, of course). But on the DNA side, we can expect to "take some of the best aspects of the animal kingdom and make them our own" -- which calls up images of the Island of Dr. Moreau, except with splicing DNA rather than body parts.

So OK -- we can be made faster, stronger, healthier... maybe even smarter! Now that would be a bonus! Not only that, but the old Lamarckian dilemma might be solved. You may recall from biology class that he's the guy who advocated a model whereby acquired characteristics could be passed on to the next generation. This idea was especially attractive to the Bolsheviks, who funded an enormous program in this area with the hopes that the "New Soviet Man" could actually be developed as a permanent, stable type. (They were at least half right, if you take American liberals into account.) But gosh, think -- if you really could get into the DNA and change it, it would indeed be the basis for future generations in that line. Do it enough times the same way (easy, right?) and you really could develop a new species, in a way, I guess. Or would it be more like a new "breed", like with dogs or sheep or something? Hard to tell.

Well... all alleged good intentions notwithstanding, this looks to me like just another one of those utopian attempts to remake mankind in the image of -- certainly not God, but of materialistic science. And as such, it has about as much chance of success as attempts to remake mankind in the psychological, social, or economic area. The funny thing about attempts like this is they tend to backfire. Even with dogs, the farther you get from the wild type the more problems tend to crop up. You might even wind up with a sterile specimen -- and how you gonna start a new species if the Adam and Eve are sterile? We know, or suspect, that sterility is nature's way of saying, "unh-unh". Which is why the current fertility mania is highly suspect -- not to mention very non-Darwinian.

And that's a good point. Here we have the human species, which has evolved, through thick and thin, over millions of years. It is, from the strictly Darwinian point of view, "all it can be", as the Army recruiters say... or I would say "all it _needs_ to be", at least for now. So why this great rush to hurry up the process? Isn't regular old evolution good enough? I suppose someone's going to say, well, it might have been up until a hundred years ago or so, but now we have all this pollution, and the negative side effects of technology, and "the ability to destroy the planet", yadda yadda. All true, but who knows? Maybe this too is part of the evolutionary process. Maybe this is the chance mankind -- with its current allotment of DNA -- gets to sink or swim. Would a sincere Darwinian want to interfere? Or maybe they've been inspired by the research into Intelligent Design and want to try it for themselves. All I can say is the record of utopian exertions on behalf of the human race has been pretty dismal so far. What makes us think this will turn out any better?

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