I used to believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was the unifying principle behind all of biology, and that this idea was not only scientifically valid, but also consonant with my deep faith as a Christian. The theory does not explain the origin of life, but then it was never intended to do so.
I now realize that while Darwinian evolution might have been the single predominant force for change during the almost 3-billion-year history of life on earth, this is no longer true, and it is likely that it will never be true again.
What am I talking about you ask?
Take a road trip in the country and look around you. Passing farms, you might see some cows, chickens, cornfields, wheat farms, tomato and strawberry fields, vineyards. Even in the city you can see animals like dogs and cats.
None of the plants or animals mentioned in the last paragraph are a product of natural selection. They are all products of Intelligent Design—the designer in this case being humans. I am not talking about genetically modified foods, but of selective artificial breeding, which has been a human activity for thousands of years.
We have altered the biological characteristics of dozens of species in a tiny fraction of the time that natural selection would have taken. We have also driven hundreds of species to extinction, also in a dramatically short time. One of the key ingredients of natural selection is the environment, which used to change with glacial slowness. In fact, the pace of environmental change was probably just about right to match the equally slow genetic changes caused by random mutations. But since the dawn of man, we have been making changes to the environment, and we do so at an increasingly rapid pace.
And what about us? We are still natural animals, and since our origin, we have been subject to natural selection. Lighter (and darker) skin color and the ability to drink milk as adults are some of the adaptive changes that we have experienced. But as our culture and technology have grown, we have begun to replace natural selection with our own brand of evolution. We have filled the globe, but our technological revolutions in transportation have made it impossible for any group of humans to remain isolated long enough to form a new species, so further speciation of H. Sapiens is impossible.
Certain phenotypic variants that might have been advantageous or produced a less fit organism a few thousand years ago now have little effect on our capacity to survive and reproduce. Being big, strong, fast and keen-eyed ain’t what they used to be. Being smart, creative, empathic, social and resilient are better keys to success. Medicine and hygiene have made irrelevant many physical and genetic variants that used to be deadly.
What has happened is that we human beings have begun to replace natural selection as the force for determining the future of biology.
How is this possible? If we ourselves are the product of evolution, then how can it be that we are able to supplant what has worked since the origin of life? Does this mean that evolution included the seed of its own demise, by eventually allowing for the development of a creature that would surpass it? That is possible.
Or perhaps, while our bodies are certainly a product of evolution, those aspects of being human that allowed us to progress to where we are—our consciousness and our unique skills—are derived from some other source. We are animals. But we also have some spark of divinity, given to us as a gift. I believe this is the reason we have been able to rise above and leave behind the rules of natural selection, and make blind directionless evolution a thing of the past.