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April 11, 2007

Biological versus Cultural Evolution and its Challenge to Human Survival

In its most basic form, the concept of evolution refers to changes occurring over time in response to a changing environment that ultimately become of sufficient magnitude to reshape the evolving entity while (paradoxically) allowing its survival. While the environmental changes provoking evolution may be abrupt,  those thought of as evolutionary were generally considered more gradual.  However, it's now well recognized that several cataclysmic changes have shaped biological evolution on Planet Earth by producing mass extinctions.

In terms of evolution's general definition, the evolving entity might be something as abstract as an idea or as concrete as a living species. As any evolutionary process unfolds over time, one conceptual difficulty becomes separation of provocative environmental changes which were purely external from others that may have been part of the initial adaptation and later became counterproductive or, in the parlance of modern Psychiatry, 'maladaptive.' An easy example is the dentition of saber tooth cats that allowed them to kill much larger mammals, but later became an impediment when their prey adapted to a changing climate by becoming smaller and swifter.

Another, and more profound, conceptual difficulty arises from the implication that 'evolution' has  'survival' as its goal; did the saber tooth cat go extinct or 'survive' as a modern Puma? While the non living members of a species that failed to meet the challenge of environmental change may exist as inanimate fossils for a while, they will eventually be recycled by 'nature.' However unsuccessful ideas stubbornly refuse to go away and are continually cropping up in new guises to sabotage cognitive progress. 'Dead' languages which are no longer spoken may have become fossils, but enough failed ideas seem to have persisted long enough in 'living' languages  to preclude the indefinite survival of our species.

'Evolution' acquired a more specific and controversial meaning with reference to Biology after Charles Darwin published 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859. It has, if anything, become even more controversial today, despite widespread agreement among scientists that, as a theory, it has provided at least as much useful structure to the Biological Sciences as the Periodic Table has to Chemistry and Newton's theory of Gravity to Physics.

Just as Newtonian Physics required some enhancement from Einstein and others  Darwin's original theory has undergone amplification; first through Mendelian Genetics and later through elucidation of DNA's molecular structure and the subsequent mapping of genomes. A measure of biology's greater degree of complexity than more 'basic' sciences is that RNA is required for gene expression, and we still don't understand just how that happens or how genes are turned 'on' and 'off' at various times.

As mentioned above, the concept of biological evolution was quickly followed by the attractive assumption that a parallel 'cultural' evolution is also taking place. Unfortunately, that assumption eventually breaks down because 'culture' is a purely human endeavor and, as such, subject to the same intrinsic limitations as our cognitive processes, while biological evolution is a response to the impersonal forces of Nature which so easily defy human control.

An analogous comparison is the one I've been making between the parallel classifications now being used for somatic disease on the one hand, and emotional 'illnesses' on the other: one is based on the (relatively) objective criteria of Pathology, while the other is based on the far more subjective criteria now being catalogued by Psychiatry for eventual debut as DSM-V.

It's now clear that cognition is both a biological process and the means by which our highly evolved brains  have reshaped the planet in ways we only began to understand  in the second half  of the Twentieth Century. The impact of that cognitive activity is still being emotionally debated in a setting in which a majority of  educated humans still profess belief in a Creator and reliance on military establishments for 'security,' despite the manifestly erratic and uncontrollable  dissemination of the nuclear weapons technology that dominates international relations nearly three decades after end of the  Cold War.

As if that weren't discouraging enough, the 'civilized' world, as represented by the United Nations, is manifestly unable to impose the rule of law in areas of admitted genocide and continues to subscribe by treaty to a failed domestic American drug policy without any scientific basis. That policy has been judged  an abject failure by 3/4 of at the American public for years and is credited with generating the four-fold expansion of its prison population since 1970,  yet it's staunchly defended by the federal bureaucracy as both necessary and 'successful.' (Many other examples of comparable intellectual dishonesty abound; drug policy is merely the one I've become most familiar with).

Against that background, one should be able to understand the uncertainty generated by realizing that the same concept (evolution) can describe both the process that produced our marvelous brains AND the intrinsic emotional qualities by which they are responsible for the violent differences in belief frustrating our species'  feeble attempts to deal with its most pressing existential problems.

Again, the key to understanding this cascade of existential opinions is the simple recognition, stubbornly denied by a majority of humans, that most  psychotropic drug use, whether prescribed or not, is simply a manifestation of the uncertainty we now call 'anxiety.'

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 11, 2007 09:04 PM