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Was Darwin wrong? Why it matters

Hmmm, this sounds like a stretch, even for me. Surely natural selection is gold-plated, like the Bible, maybe even better?

Nope, it’s starting to look like Darwin was barking up the wrong (evolutionary?) tree. But just so you know, I’m just the messenger, using info from the big guns, in this case a widely-published professor of biology Kevin Laland from the University of St Andrews), oh yes, in a widely-read article from the famed British science journal, The New Scientist (“Evolution evolves: Beyond the selfish gene”). 

It’s pretty clear from extensive research that evolution uses numerous mechanisms, apart from natural selection. Moreover the mechanisms in total probably account for most of evolution. Natural selection is just one relatively small one. These other mechanisms include:

  • epigenetics
  • gene switches
  • the selfish gene (courtesy of Richard Dawkins)
  • self-directed selection
  • developmental bias
  • proteomics

I’ll spare you the gory details, but two are particularly worthy of mention. Epigenetics is the mechanism whereby the body can undergo change which is heritable even within the same generation and without having any DNA driving it.

You might recall that Lamarck was regarded as a crank for promoting the idea. But now it looks like he was right after all (“Was Lamarck right? Epigenetic research suggests we might inherit learned traits. But how?”), and the whole biological profession was wrong. For around 200 years. Which all goes to show, right?

And, just another shocker. Epigenetics means many things. Actually it means evolution from all non-genetic causes. And it turns out there’s a lot of them, far more than mentioned here. So actually we’re dealing with the tip of the iceberg once we open that particular can of worms.

And we now know that evolution often occurs without any environmental selection or linkage, as a direct result of unassociated animal behaviors. This occurs when, due to developmental plasticity, an animal changes its own environment through changing its own behavior e.g. humans wearing clothes means they don’t need to evolve to be warmer without them and so they select on things like body shape and fashion sense.

Dr. Stephen Hawking has jumped on this particular bandwagon but others are already there. This looks like it’s a really big factor which hasn’t been previously recognized.

We used to think genes were destiny. But now we know that genes have switches that can be on or off (“Genetic switches play big role in human evolution”). So even if you inherit certain specific genes there’s no guarantee that they will actually be switched on. So even if natural selection gives you certain genes, they might not work. What a bummer if you have genes for beauty and intelligence but they’re switched off. How does natural selection work then?

The selfish gene does its own thing, sometimes independently of natural selection. It might even do what's bad for the species if it will help its own survival. This can be viewed as a tragedy of the commons. We can’t assume that natural selection and genetic drive is necessarily the same thing. Another strike against natural selection.

Developmental bias is a pretty simple idea. It means that genes, for whatever reason, prefer to evolve in certain ways, some of which might not be the best or the most propitious from the perspective of natural selection. In other words natural selection might say one thing, but the genes cannot or don’t want to do it so go somewhere else. Check it out here.

Finally we need to take stock of the new science of proteomics. This takes us in a new direction compared to gene studies. It looks like it supplies some new insights into the evolution of proteins, in particular that they cannot evolve backwards. If so, this is a powerful piece of evidence against the role of natural selection in evolution since it implies that if the best course is to go back to a predecessor molecule, it can’t be done. Not in the bag yet, but just another big question-mark.

So Darwin probably wasn’t completely wrong. He just figured out a vital 10% (my totally uneducated guess btw) of the picture. But now we know that if you see Darwin as having explained evolution, then you are hopelessly wrong.

This could be shocking for many people; it’s like finding out that you favored celebrity was a fake. But we shouldn’t be surprised. All scientific knowledge is time-stamped. It will only be true until we find it’s false. Check out “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date” by Samuel Arbesman.

Darwin is way past his expiration date. He’s had a good run so no-one should be unhappy. But it’s time to move on, as you can plainly see. We’ve all got to keep our minds open to the new stuff coming down the intellectual pike.

You might think this doesn’t matter. It’s all for biologists and other-worldly intellectuals. No such luck.

In the pure-Darwinian conception of evolution, humans have no control. We deal with the hand we are dealt with. Natural selection is independent of us and takes place over many – maybe a vast number – of generations.

But in the new view we have control. Evolution can actually take place within a generation. It’s not just genes. Many of the new factors in evolution are open to human control.

I have already posted on how new gene-editing techniques will be used in humans to change our bodies and our evolution (“Could Genetically-Modified Humans Re-Ignite Global Growth?”).

The world is our oyster now from an evolutionary viewpoint. In principle we can now actually plan and reengineer the evolution of humans. That’s a very big idea. Much bigger even than Darwin and natural selection.

The message: keep your mind open and agile if you want to sign on to this new revolutionary, evolutionary future.

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