Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Seeing ourselves in "On the Origin of Species"

As with anything we read, it is an all too familiar habit to identify with or recognise parts of ourselves and our lives in the subjects we read about. Looking at Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, without considering “The Descent of Man” (which we haven’t read anyway), it is easy to attempt to draw parallels between his description of the evolution of animal species with our own species: humans. At least for me, this immediately raises the question of: how distinct are we really from our animal counterparts?

From past archaeology classes, I have seen the progress of physical changes through fossil records of our species over time. Particularly fascinating are the gradual changes in the size of the skull and cranial cavity and the theoretical implications that has had on our increased mental capacities. Can intellect then be thought of as a trait that has helped our species survive much like the sharp canine teeth that helps the hyena cut into its prey?

I would agree that it has, although it is no longer the case. Our sizable intellect is changing how our species reproduces and altering, through medicine, who survives. Humans are, in a way, domesticated, no longer in the volatile life and death struggle wild animals still find themselves in. We seem to be applying the practices of husbandry to ourselves, with some ethical additions. There are ethical restrictions in medicine (we no longer have, for example, forced castration for mentally or physically handicapped individuals), rights to reproduction (where couples who are not naturally able to conceive or carry a child are able to do so through various medical procedures), and vaccines, surgeries, etc to save and prolong the lives of people who would not normally survive long enough to reproduce, among others.

In all of these examples, humans are, through our intellect, altering and defying nature. Does that, therefore, keep us on the same naturally selective course Darwin has mapped out for animal species? Or are we charting a new direction, diverging from the path nature would have us on? Can we really know for sure? No. Does it worry me thinking how far and forcefully we might try to define our path and the consequences of taking technology beyond the reasonable limits nature has provided? Yes.

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