Posted by: jennlay | March 17, 2009

Escaping and Controlling Nature to Become More “Fit”

The discussion from class yesterday on Alister McGrath’s book led to some interesting questions for me about where humans have come in the process of evolution and how we have manipulated the idea of survival of the fittest.  Most scientists and many others would argue that we are who we are today as human beings as a result of evolution and natural selection.  Through the process of billions of years, the conditions of the natural world have led to Homo sapiens.  Yet natural selection has also led to a point where the very being brought about through this process has developed ways to subvert it and control it.  As McGrath points out from Dawkins’ argument, humans have the ability to overcome their genes.  The aspects of an organism which used to determine who lived, who died, and who developed can now be manipulated or just completely ignored in a way, because we have developed so many ways to “defeat” the natural environment which might eliminate certain populations, by removing ourselves from it or bringing possible predators to the point of extinction.  There are a few different thoughts I have about this in relation to how we view and value different human lives and the lives of other beings in nature.

The first question is about the nature of fitness.  My understanding is that this traditionally has meant who is best adept to survive in a given environment.  The interesting thing about human populations, at least what would be called “civilized” populations, is that we have created our own environments to which we adapt, almost completely separate from the natural world.  Our cities are a far cry from the jungles of the Amazon or the plains of Africa.  In the name of civilization, humans have destroyed the natural environment and replaced it with brick, concrete, stone, and marble.  Populations of animals who used to live in these environments are now extinct, along with many different species of plants.  In destroying nature and conquering it, humans have created their own fabricated environment which seems to help protect them and ensure their own survival.

Yet I wonder about his question of fitness within human populations who have so separated themselves from the natural world that should they find themselves stranded in the wilderness they would surely die.  Natural selection takes on a whole new life when a fabricated environment is built to house and protect a population from the threats of the natural world.  What then determines who lives, dies, and develops and towards what end is this process now working?  While natural selection used to ensure that the species best fit for the environment lived and as the environment changed so did the populations, it now seems to be carefully (or not so carefully) determined by those with the most power, and usually in the form of highly advanced weaponry.  During the periods of colonization, many native populations were massacred and enslaved due to ideas of social Darwinism.  These populations were seen as less evolved and thus going to go extinct anyway, so to hurry the process was really an act of mercy or at least justifiable by the laws of nature.  However, these native populations in my opinion were actually more fit, because they understood their natural environment.  Are we really helping ourselves or hurting ourselves by separating from the natural world and creating so many structures and technologies that create artificial environments to replace the natural ones?  Many native cultures had pretty advanced agriculture and understanding of the seasons.  They knew what to eat, how to prepare it, and how to protect themselves and their community.  Most of us today are so separate from how our food is grown and where it comes from, that left to fend for ourselves we would probably starve, or at least eat a very simple, bland diet.  In the mass killings of these native populations, we have lost a great wealth of knowledge about the land, the environment, and the history of these people.  In the natural world, they were more fit than the urban city dwellers of civilization, but they were also no match for the high skilled weaponry and technology of the Europeans.

Alister McGrath addresses this issue of the violence that can be brought about through science only very briefly in a few pages on the development of Napalm during WWII (and it was also developed further for use in Vietnam with horrific consequences).  Science and technology often go hand in hand, as many scientific discoveries lead to technological advances as well.  The New Atheists are quick to condemn all religion for the violence carried out by some in the name of a specific belief, but what about all of the violence and suffering brought about through scientific advances such as napalm?  The science that developed napalm murdered and deformed thousands of thousands of men, women, and children in Vietnam.  Science also helped bring about nuclear weapons.  The two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan not only killed thousands of innocent people but also left radiation in the environment that continued to affect thousands more who survived the initial blast.  While these acts were not carried out in the name of science, they also would not have been possible without scientific discoveries.  Science I think is more dangerous than religion, because while religion may fuel the ideas, science provides the means and it is the means which ultimately bring about the violence, destruction, and suffering.

So does having the most powerful weapons make one the most fit in our environment today?  Have human beings replaced nature in being the determining force of who lives and who dies?   While humans do poses the power now to destroy our world 7 times over, we are still subject to natural disasters as much as we might try and keep nature out or subdue it to do our will.  Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes still have the power to show us how little power we have in the face of nature.  When we find ourselves without electricity in our civilized world today it is a national emergency.  We have created our own artificial environment, but when we no longer have it, can we survive?  I think these questions should cause pause in the mind of the New Atheists and scientists who hold strictly to logic and reason and science, when logic and science have helped rid us of the wisdom of those who knew what it really meant to survive in the natural world.

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Responses

  1. Jen, I have a question about our ‘artificial environment’ and the Noble Savage idea which you almost seem to lean toward in this post. It’s undeniable that humanity has changed our living conditions away from the unsheltered wild, but I wonder how far your claims that we create our own environments and separate ourselves from nature will stretch. Don’t all animals (or most, at least) change their environments?

    I’ll use specifically of the example of ants, though any number of animals change their living conditions to suit their niche. Ants ‘destroy’ the environment – they dig massive underground complexes using a variety of materials which they pull out of the materials’ original place. And, to carry the analogy further, a single ant would be just as hard pressed to survive without its artificial environment and its colony as a single human would.

    I’m not trying to tie in evolution or comment on what you did after this initial claim; I am just asking if the ‘artificial’ conditions which humans have created are really artifical in the sense which you mean. And if they are, is anything really natural (& does survival of the fittest have any place) once you begin to speak of animal behaviour?

  2. Jen, I think you make some very interesting points about the survivability of humans in the environments they have created for themselves. It is interesting to think that we have kind of found a way to live above the impact of nature (to an extent). However, natural selection is still a factor because fitness does not just refer to the ability to survive longer or better than others, but it also has to do with the ability to reproduce and the transmission of genes. A more fit individual is one that has a greater ability to pass on genes successfully; the survival of offspring is an important aspect of fitness. Therefore fitness is reflective of success at the genetic level. Genetic diseases and chromosomal abnormalities, which do not have to do with the environment, that effect lifespan and reproductive success are considered in fitness as well. Fitness at the genotypic level is what contributes to evolution and the elimination of “unfit” genes.

  3. With regards to this topic it seems to me that we are neglecting the cultural aspect of society. Once humans started living in community with one another culture started to develop and has gone through its own kind of survival of the fittest. Previous concepts and ways of living fell by the way side as new and easier ways of thinking and living came about. This it seems to me is what has happened with the urban environment, it has evolved out of centuries of cultural “natural selection”. It is easier and more convenient for a person to live in the city and ease of living it is culturally desired. If the city infrastructure were to collapse all that we would truly be loosing would be the culture that centered on city life.


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