FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

From Darwinian Evolution to Cultural Evolution

Carl Woese, the world's foremost authority on microbial biology, published an article in June 2004 postulating that humans and technology have ended the era of classic Darwinian evolution (natural selection).

Woese theorizes that Darwinian evolution didn't exist in the very earliest days of life on Earth. Instead, very similar life forms engaged in what he calls "horizontal gene transfer," thorough which all life forms could exchange genetic characteristics. Only when one life form became clearly different and superior to the others that natural selection began.

Now, as humans have become the dominant species on Earth, our technology is progressing so rapidly that it's far outpaced Darwinian evolution. As a result:

[C]ultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.

In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.

The notion of genetics as a plaything is sure to trigger ethical and moral debate. If someone can manipulate genomes as a hobby, how hard would it be for a terrorist to weaponize life forms in the same vein? How easily could good intentions go horribly awry? Anyone who has seen or read Jurassic Park can understand these dangers. Nonetheless, Woese brings a new and useful line of thinking to the question of how life developed and where it's headed.

Sources: MIT Technology Review, KurzweilAI.net