Monday, October 19, 2009

Evolution or Extinction: The Ultimate Challenge to Our Species

When I was teaching physical, or biological anthropology, I was often asked, "Is our species still evolving?" Sometimes, the question was posed to me a bit more forcefully, as a challenge to the reality of evolution, itself. Some students would ask, "If evolution occurred, why aren't we humans still evolving?" (And those were some of the easier questions I fielded in my thirty something years of teaching anthropology prior to my retirement several years ago due to an autoimmune disease). What made and makes these particular queries so simple to address is, first, the overwhelming evidence that we humans are still undergoing evolutionary change. About three years ago, for example, University Chicago Professor Jonathan Pritchard and his colleagues identified a number of genes that have been undergoing changes in the last 10,000 years - among them genes related to skin color, taste, smell, and brain structure. Biological evolution involves changes in gene frequencies over time. Of course, humans evolve in other ways - we make alterations in our behavior and these, in turn, are often preceded by environmental shifts.

Although space and time constraints for this particular post preclude further explanation of the mechanisms of evolutionary change, I felt compelled in my inaugural blog on this forum to underscore the following: nothing short of major evolutionary shifts will prevent humankind’s extinction. After all, far more species who’ve inhabited this planet met the fate of extinction rather than survival and subsequent evolution. But what kinds of evolutionary changes are requisite to our long-term chances of survival? Please note that I’m not suggesting that some sort of biological characteristics will suddenly emerge that will save our species at the last minute like a cosmic hail Mary pass. Quite to the contrary, alterations in behavior typically precede biological changes and we must make fundamental behavioral changes to have even a fighting chance of reversing the doomsday scenario we’ve created. The modern environmental movement, catalyzed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, helped to raise initial awareness about the harmful effects of human behavior on ecosystems and other species, and while we’re currently making unparalleled progress in reversing some of our most destructive behaviors and initiating new, alternative measures, the obstacles we face are staggering.

What kinds of behavioral evolution in our local, national and global communities will reverse our species’ self destructive course? I believe that at this – perhaps the most critical precipice in our evolution in thousands of years or more – we are compelled to take several fundamental actions. First, we must reconnect with nature as intimately as possible, recognizing our deep emotional needs for the natural world. This will involve re-exploring our species’ place as a part of nature, with all the vulnerability that this implies. We must also become a more caring species, not only by cultivating feelings of compassion but also by learning to care in the most proactive and educated ways possible. Finally, we must all become more scientifically literate and thus better able to participate in the social and technological changes required of us at the present time. I look forward to delving more deeply into each of these topics in the days and weeks to come.