The greatest threat to humanity is not nuclear obliteration, environmental catastrophe, meteor strike or a contagious virus. The greatest threat to our survival comes from ourselves and our relentless drive to develop and progress the world we live in.
Generally, we perceive progress to be good for us. It means that we live longer, that our lives are easier, that we enjoy greater comforts. Any comparison of life today with that of previous generations confirms these benefits.
The trouble is that our advancement exposes us to a vulnerability – an evolutionary danger.
All species evolve. They adapt to their prevailing environment according to the qualities which give their genes the best prospects of survival and development. This adaptive process is governed by nature.
Thousands of years ago, faced with a harsh natural world, humanity coalesced into small groups in order to give itself a better chance in the evolutionary struggle. These groups were humanity’s principal defence against the savagery of nature. As they grew in size they became the foundations for our modern society.
And in fairness, it has been an evolutionary success. Societal living has served humanity well. So much so, that we continue to expand society’s role, reach and resources.
In fact, with a dependence on each other as our primary survival tool, we have created a new living environment – that of society. Humanity’s prevailing environment is no longer the natural world. Nature has been eclipsed. We are more in contact with and relate to society than we do to nature. And so we are now more likely to be evolving to a societal environment rather than to the natural environment.
Society has become the basis and bearing for humanity’s on-going evolutionary change. Society is our new adaptive director and regulator.
This gives rise to two fundamental issues, each, in relation to humanity, having a destructive capability:
Firstly, it is a form of inbreeding. With humanity evolving in accordance with the dictates of society we are now adapting to an environment of our own making.
Humanity has and continues to limit the influence of other non-societal environmental factors on our lives. We believe that the more society is able to distance and shield us from the forces, vagaries and shackles of nature the better it serves humanity. This intent drives an insatiable appetite to progress our society – technology and science now pervade all our lives.
It does, however, mean that we are becoming more and more insular. We may have a relationship with society but we increasingly lack a connection with anything else.
Society – our own creation – has become the chief architect of humanity. We evolve on the basis of what genes will fare well in a societal environment. As we create society, society creates us; as we shape society, society shapes us. And so, we are effectively determining our own evolution.
Separated from nature, there is no managerial supervision, no checks and balances, no thinking of the bigger picture.
The downside of this relationship with society is that it amounts to inbreeding. And, without a wider array of genetic influences, the danger is that humanity will go on to develop some kind of congenital defect, a fault that brings about the onset of our destruction.
And secondly, there is the issue of incongruity. Although in theory there is a similar connection and interdependence between nature and the natural environment as there is between humanity and society – each shaping the other, their development and futures being inter-twined – there is a stark practical contrast in the two relationships.
In nature, the adaptive process is slow and steady – deliberately so. It has to be in order to ensure the delicate balance that exists between the two operating forces of nature and the environment. Each acts independently but neither is master of the other, neither having any dominance over the other. They operate in tandem, feeding off each other, shaping each other.
It’s an inspired arrangement that ensures sustained progress whilst also enabling and encouraging change. As a species’ adaptation impacts on an environment, that changed environment impacts on other species. Through this process of perpetual evolution (excluding the occasional cataclysmic event), dramatic change and disruption is largely prevented.
Contrast this with humanity’s relationship with society. Society is prone to rapid, incessant, sudden and substantive change – change that may not be matched by a paralleled human evolutionary development. As a result, humanity is in danger of being unable to adapt sufficiently and speedily enough to cope with a changed prevailing environment.
There may well develop an increasing discord between humanity and society. It would be like we’re running down a hillside. We’re going faster and faster. At some point our legs won’t be able to keep up with the momentum and we will tumble.
This potential incongruity arises because human change and adaptation is still largely governed by nature. We may have separated ourselves from substantial parts of nature but in one fundamental area we are still subject to nature’s rules – reproduction.
Nature remains the basis for our continued state of being. Biologically, nature is still responsible for making us the way we are today.
It is this discrepancy between the pace of societal change and our reliance on nature’s gradual evolutionary process that will threaten our long term survival. With these forces out of kilter we will increasingly suffer from alienation, disharmony and disillusionment.
Unless we can do something about it, both these issues – inbreeding and incongruity- represent a very real danger to our future.
In terms of avoiding these issues, the two most obvious solutions do not seem to be viable or effective:
Firstly, we could try to put the brake on progress. By limiting societal advancement we would give our evolutionary development chance to ensure it is properly aligned with society, allowing humanity to keep pace with the rate and direction of societal change.
The prospects of this happening are unlikely. The desire for progress seems to be a conveyor belt that we would be reluctant to step off.
Secondly, we could pursue genetic engineering as an evolutionary corrective.
Given that our societal world is changing so quickly, it may be that our genes and natural selection cannot keep pace with that change. Perhaps, singularly, nature is no longer up to the job. Perhaps nature needs our support and involvement.
By embracing genetic engineering, it would enable humanity to by-pass or supplement nature’s reproductive involvement and allow us to shape and model humanity in accordance with the demands of our prevailing societal environment.
Unfortunately there is an underlying flaw in pursuing this action. It may solve the incongruity problem by improving humanity’s evolutionary performance in relation to our societal environment but it would also directly contribute to the inbreeding issue in that it increases our genetic self-build.
The more we try to shape ourselves the more we sow the seeds of our own downfall.
Inevitably, given humanity’s drive for progress and belief in our capabilities, genetic engineering will be our chosen means to resolve any perilous chasm that might arise between human evolution and societal progress. Genetic engineering is something that we will have to get more involved with. There is no other realistic option.
The trouble with genetic engineering is that we’re damned if we do; we damned if we don’t.