Friday, March 06, 2009

the mirage of conscious evolution

Humans are the most adventitious of creatures—a result of blind evolutionary drift. Yet, with the power of genetic engineering we need no longer be ruled by chance. Humankind—so we are told—can shape its own future. According to E.O. Wilson, conscious control of human evolution is not only possible but inevitable:

... genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life. ...The prospect of this 'volitional evolution'—a species deciding what to do about its own heredity—will present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced ... humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate. It can, if it chooses, alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.

The author of this passage is the greatest contemporary Darwinian. He has been attacked by biologists and social scientists who believe that the human species is not governed by the same laws as other animals. In that war Wilson is undoubtedly on the side of truth. Yet the prospect of conscious human evolution he invokes is a mirage. The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin's discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of genes. The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth.

It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals