Thursday, June 26, 2003

"Quantum evolution"

Evolution is fact, not theory -- but that doesn't mean that it's without its share of mysteries. For example, the transitional forms expected by Darwinian natural selection simply don't seem to exist in the expected quantity. It's as if evolutionary leaps from one species to another occur in fitful bursts: a phenomenon that, to some, implies an intelligent designer.

While I don't think that life on Earth has been steered by an omnipotent deity (although extraterrestrial intervention shouldn't be discounted), the lack of transitional specimens in the fossil record may be an important window into the mechanics of evolution. Rather than laboriously searching for "missing" links, perhaps scientists should concede, if only as an exercise in thought, that there are no transitional specimens; perhaps life has found a way to circumvent awkward transitional forms, hastening the evolutionary process. It's possible that DNA possesses its own collective intelligence, perhaps only loosely allied with its host species, resulting in morphological "quantum jumps."

The human lineage is by no means exempt. While contemporary humans share a common ancestry with apes, we have yet to find a transitional protohuman that would end the "missing link" controversy. (Of course, no amount of evidence will ever placate "Creation scientists" possessed by the idea that we were somehow created by divine will, but that's another matter . . .) But just maybe there wasn't a "missing" link. Maybe protohuman genes, sensing some incipient change in the biospheric zeitgeist, launched a new version of humanity to increase their chances of survival.

This sounds like an act of intelligence, but is it really? Temporarily setting aside the paradigm-smashing concept that living things are endowed with sentient or semi-sentient "morphogenetic fields" [term coined by Rupert Sheldrake], an evolutionary "leap" might be purely reflexive. (Ants and wasps construct elaborate "architecture," yet no one accuses them of intelligence. Similarly, viruses capably hijack cell nuclei, yet biologists hesitate to even consider them "alive" in anything but a rudimentary technical sense.)

The implications of evolutionary quantum jumps are far-reaching -- and disturbingly relevant. Humans have reworked the Earth's biosphere in countless ways in just the last few hundred years, exceeding the influence of our ancestors at a rate that promises to exponentiate. We have added new ingredients to the fabric of our planetary chemistry, saturated the skies with electronic transmissions, shaken the earth with nuclear explosions, and unleashed a veritable zoo of psychoactive substances. We live in an environment increasingly besieged by information of all conceivable forms; consequently, we suffer from new maladies and addictions.

Will these trends spur an abrupt genetic "upgrade"? Will homo sapiens cease to exist within a handful of generations? Fossil-hunters of the distant future, still seeking the worryingly absent links in the human continuum, may find the skeletons of "Starbucks Man" suddenly superseded by a new, improved version.

None of this is to say we shouldn't take measures to deliberately hasten our evolution. We may be unique in being the first humans capable of making the transition to a higher form of our own volition -- not an opportunity to be taken lightly.

(This entry brought to you courtesy of "Blogger New." I've posted a very similar version of this on my Mars site.)

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