Question on human evolution

Zach asked:

If evolution is making adaptions to your body to better suit your environment then shouldn’t conscious life i.e. humans be the peak of evolution? Since we can think we don’t have to adapt to the environment anymore we can just change it. Example would be we no longer have to compete with other animals for our food, or compete with weather we have houses and cars and heating and air conditioning.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’re making a fundamental mistake here. Evolution does not ‘make’ adaptations. In fact, evolution ‘makes’ nothing. Evolution is the History of Creatures on Earth, just as a book on The History of the English Speaking Peoples is a history of people who speak English. So you must immediately rid yourself of the misconception that there is some ‘power’ active on Earth that did all the evolutioning. It is nothing but a manner of speaking.

Also, you badly misjudge what competition for survival is all about. We have been doing all the things you think will improve our lot on Earth. We’ve already built millions of cars and houses, got rid of thousands of other life forms and changed millions of square miles of the habitat etc. The result is that we are in process of destroying the habitat and if we keep going this way, we will soon become extinct. This is because we are not clever enough to understand that all the other life forms – animal and vegetation – are our life support systems. Take them away and bingo! You can say good bye to humans. I suggest you need some information on evolution to help you understand better what this is all about.


Answer by Craig Skinner

It’s true that we change the world more than do birds with their nests and bowers, beavers with their dams, or ants and termites with their colonies and mounds.

But it hasn’t been very successful. On two counts. First, huge numbers of people live in abject poverty – try talking about housing, cars, heating, air conditioning and no need to compete with weather to flood victims in Bangladesh, slum dwellers in Mumbai, tsunami survivors or those starving due to drought. Secondly, our efforts at changing the world have led to current unsolved problems with global warming, overpopulation, species extinction, desertification and pollution.

Yes, we occupy the cognitive niche in the world’s ecology. And our direct competitors for that spot, other homo species, are long extinct, to be followed soon I fear by our cousins the gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orang-utans. But in evolutionary terms we have been around for a mere eyeblink (150,000 years, give or take, depending on what counts as homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to an ancestral homo species), so that it is far too soon to know whether the cognitive niche, or at least our occupancy of it, is stable long term.

In evolutionary terms, success is measured by how widespread a species is, and for how long. Among the winners are species of bacteria, ferns and insects which have been around for many millions, even billions, of years. And if humans went extinct tomorrow, these species wouldn’t even notice the difference.

The plight of homo sapiens can be summed up in four words: tribal species, global habitat. And until we can reconcile these two aspects, strife and environmental degradation will continue indefinitely, and our long-term survival is far from assured. It is certainly far too early for talk of humans being the peak of evolution. On the contrary, it may turn out we were a mere blip.


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