The Evolution of the Future
Evolution, being an unguided process, would seem the last thing one could predict. That hasn’t stopped some evolutionists from speculating what an evolutionary future will bring to our planet and our species. Carl Zimmer, a blogger for a Discover Magazine blog, is one such speculator. He also wrote the final essay in the Origins series celebrating the Darwin Bicentennial for Science magazine,1 which he entitled Darwinesquely, “On the Origin of Tomorrow.” He made this article publicly available at CarlZimmer.com.
Darwin recognized that as long as the ingredients for the evolutionary process still exist, life has the potential to change. He didn’t believe it was possible to forecast evolution’s course, but he did expect humans would have a big effect. In his day, they had already demonstrated their power with the triumphs of domestication, such as breeding dogs from wolves. Darwin recognized that we humans can also wipe out entire species. He knew the dodo’s fate, and in 1874 he signed a petition to save the last surviving Aldabra giant tortoises on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Three questions spring up immediately from this paragraph: (1) What possible forecasts could be made for an unforecastable course? (2) is it “wrong” for humans to affect the course of evolution, if they are products of evolution themselves? – or, should we feel any pity for outcomes we may find distasteful, and what is pity anyway? (3) How does human evolutionary influence differ from human designed influence? In other words, can the possible influences of humans on the future of nature and ourselves be just as validly discussed from a creationary perspective? What differentiates the Darwinian dialogue about the future from any given non-Darwinian speculation, and makes it better? If Zimmer preaches any advice to his fellow humans about how they should direct the directionless, what is the moral foundation for it? Let’s see if Zimmer addresses these questions.
Zimmer first recognizes that evolution is unpredictable. The article quotes Yogi Berra, “Prediction is very difficult. Especially about the future.” No qualms so far. Just pack up and go home, then? Not yet –
Yet evolutionary biologists also feel a new sense of urgency about understanding what lies ahead. Since Darwin’s day, humans have gained an unprecedented influence over our own evolution. At the same time, our actions, be it causing climate change, modifying the genomes of other organisms, or introducing invasive species, are creating new sources of natural selection on the flora and fauna around us. “The decisions we and our children make are going to have much more influence over the shape of evolution in the foreseeable future than physical events,” says Andrew Knoll, a paleontologist at Harvard University.
So far, this is just an observation: humans influence change in plants and animals. He has not made any value judgments. He did say that evolutionary biologists feel a new sense of urgency to understand what lies ahead. But then, can one understand something that is unpredictable? It would seem foolish to rush to understand what has one characteristic: unpredictability. That would be like rushing off in all directions. And is it possible to influence the “shape of evolution” when evolution by nature is shapeless? If humans were to shape it with intelligent design, would it still be evolution? We seem lost in conundrums so far.
“Evolution is unstoppable.” That’s Lawrence Moran (U of Toronto) speaking. Zimmer explains, “All it means is that the human genome will continue to change from generation to generation.” This is equivalent to “Stuff happens.” It would seem even Zulus and Twitterers know that. Has evolutionary biology improved on this obvious truism? Even creationist John Sanford believes the human genome is changing – he thinks it’s degenerating (see Uncommon Descent).
Zimmer next delves into mutations, natural selection, antibiotic resistance and other cards from the Darwin deck. “Natural selection has not stopped,” he announced. Most young-earth creationists would say, “Amen.” Anyone looking at the palette of skin colors and faces in humans would say, “What else is new?” We’re all still interfertile people. Can Zimmer put some science behind his predictions?
Stearns and his colleagues now know which traits are selected in the women of Framingham, but they have yet to determine exactly what advantage each trait confers—a situation that evolutionary biologists often face when documenting natural selection. Nevertheless, based on the strength of the natural selection they have measured, the scientists predict that after 10 generations, the women of Framingham will give birth, on average, a few months younger than today, have 3.6% lower cholesterol, and will be 1.3% shorter.
Impressive as that may sound, there are already populations of humans with varying ages of puberty, height, and cholesterol. Yet they are still all interfertile people. Unless these variations are yielding some new species, Homo novo, it seems Darwin has little to celebrate. Zimmer hedged his prediction: “Of course, even this prediction is subject to change,” he admitted. A prediction subject to change is no prediction at all. If he predicts that “Stuff will happen,” and some other stuff happens, it’s all just stuff.
Next, Zimmer discussed intelligently-designed evolution: genetic engineering: “eventually scientists will be able to alter the genes of future generations.” Unfortunately, he said, it has little to do with Darwin: “But even if a child was born with engineered genes in our lifetime, that milestone wouldn’t mean much for the evolution of our species.” “Those engineered genes would be swamped by the billions of mutations that emerge naturally in the babies born every year.” The reader is still wondering why this is an essay on Darwin. That is, unless Darwin can improve on the Stuff Happens Law (SHL), which can be taken as a null hypothesis, this is an essay with no direction, no natural law, no predictability, no understanding, and no counsel; it’s a point, not a vector – a particle wobbling under Brownian motion.
Ah, but humans are altering the genetics of crops and microbes, he points out. And we might even create organisms from scratch, like Craig Venter is attempting to do. Sadly, that doesn’t give Darwin anything to crow about, either. “If Venter succeeds, his artificial [sic] would be a triumph of human ingenuity, but it would probably be a minor blip on the biosphere’s radar.” (Note: It can be safely assumed Zimmer was not intending to write an essay on intelligent design.)
With his prediction score still at zero (i.e., indistinguishable from “stuff will happen,”) one wonders where Zimmer will turn next. He points out other changes attributable to humans – species altered by fishing, hunting, smokestacks and chainsaws (influences creationists would acknowledge). He points out the impact of invasive species (nothing distinctively Darwinian about that, either; Malthusian, maybe, but not Darwinian – the origin of species).
Maybe Stephen Palumbi (Stanford) can help: “In the last century, we were having a big impact, but it wasn’t everywhere,” Palumbi said. “But global climate change is an ‘everywhere’ impact, and that’s different.” Yet even if global climate change is accepted as a human impact, what happens is the SHL, not a law of science with any predictive power or moral imperative.
Zimmer discusses how species are shifting due to global warming. Palumbi steps in again: “We know that things can evolve quickly, but can they evolve fast enough?” The perceptive reader asks, “fast enough for what? For this stuff to happen instead of that stuff?” Zimmer adds, “Unless we can ease up on the biosphere, they warn that the biggest feature of evolution in the near future will be extinctions.” Notice that he did not say humans should ease up on the biosphere, but it seems implied. This hints at some angst in his soul: some desire for species to be preserved – even if they have to evolve into some other species – so that life can continue a little while longer before the sun bloats and fries our planet, and before the universe ultimately chills it out of existence:
A drop in biodiversity may bring with it a collapse of many ecosystems. Coupled with a rapid increase in global temperatures, ocean acidification, and other changes, we may be pushing the environment into a state we’ve never experienced as a civilization. Such a stress could put our species under intense natural selection as well.
Stuff happens, for sure. Stated dispassionately as an observation, this paragraph doesn’t make any value judgments. Indeed, for Zimmer to be consistent, he must stand behind the one-way mirror, clipboard in hand, taking notes. And so he does, continuing onward to the inevitable:
One way or another, life will survive this current crisis. But where is life headed in the very distant future? To find out, planetary scientist King-Fai Li of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues built a model of Earth and the sun and watched it evolve for billions of years. In their simulation, the sun gets brighter, as it has since it first formed. The extra energy speeds up the rate at which carbon dioxide is drawn out of Earth’s atmosphere, cooling it off. But after about 2 billion years, this cooling mechanism breaks down, and Earth heats up, ending up like its lifeless neighbor, Venus.
But Li’s model does not include a clever species like our own, which can use its brain to influence the planet. Would it be possible to extend the life span of Earth’s biosphere? “I am not going to rule out any talented civilizations that will be able to do that,” says Li.
Surprise! It was an essay on intelligent design after all!
1. Carl Zimmer, “On the Origin of Tomorrow,” Science, 4 December 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5958, pp. 1334-1336, DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5958.1334.
We hope you enjoyed this funny episode. Elizabeth Pennisi didn’t get the joke, either. She wrote for the Science blog “Origins” about what a nifty essay Zimmer wrote to honor Darwin. He believes in I.D. in spite of himself! He’s wearing a Darwin costume, fake beard and all, over his intelligently designed body. His essay goes to show that evolutionists are incapable of living consistently with their theory. They cannot speak, write, or live treating humans as just another pawn in the evolutionary process.
Zimmer has proven himself clueless. Let’s score him on the three questions raised above: (1) Prediction: he gave various versions of “stuff will happen.” Earth becoming like Venus may have some natural-law punch to it, but that’s only if one assumes materialism and no God with a purpose for mankind – for a Darwinist, a circular argument. (2) Morals: he avoided making moral judgments. OK, then, why write this essay at all? Stuff may happen, we don’t know what, and whatever happens, happens. This makes the Grand Finale for the Darwin Essay Series? (3) Distinctions: nothing Zimmer said is happening or might happen distinguishes evolutionary expectations from creationary expectations. There was nothing worth any Darwin celebration here. A dirge, maybe, because it is so hopeless, but no cause for exalting Charlie on a pedestal.
Most of all, the whole essay is futile. Face it; what is there to say about the future of evolution if you believe in it? Stuff happens. What’s the point of rambling about that? That’s not understanding; it is un-understanding. It recalls Stephen Weinberg’s brief flash of insight, when he momentarily faced the implications of his world view: “the more the universe becomes comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Zimmer carefully avoided the word should in his essay – as he must. But between the lines you could see his fingers flipping through the Darwin dictionary looking for that word, and not finding it, fidgeting for another Book he dare not consult. He held back the quivering voice and tears about all those creatures going extinct because of man’s actions. And when considering that the earth is destined to become another Venus (the ultimate in global warming without man’s help), and realizing that space travel to a nicer spot would only buy time before the heat death of the universe, he almost sighed. He thought we were not watching.
Exercise: Identify the character behind the one-way mirror: animal? vegetable? mineral? something else?