Science is meant to be the opposite of a belief system. No one underlined this point more securely than Charles Darwin, who devised a theory of evolution that defied the strongest belief of his time, the all but universal belief in the bible version of the origins of man. The fossil record supported a notion contrary to the Bible, that creation was a process, not a single event dictated by a divine Creator. Despite a century and a half of proof that Darwin was right, taking God out of evolution still sticks in the throat of many people.
Pollsters find, to the dismay of trained scientists, that God remains in play for many when it comes to our origins. For example, a 2013 Pew Research poll found that one-third of respondents believe that human beings have always existed in their present form. When broken down by religion, this anti-Darwin, pro-Bible view is held by 64% of white evangelical Protestants and 50% of black Protestants broken down by political party, only 43% of Republicans believe that human beings evolved over time versus 67% of Democrats and 65% of independents.
With this as background, it’s no wonder that evolution as a public debate causes heated divisions, even though among scientists there has been no serious challenge to Darwinism. But now it seems that a new hot-button issue, actually rooted in science, has caused evolutionists to react as if their own belief system has been attacked. This is the issue of mind and consciousness and the part they played in human evolution. Specifically, did early humans make choices that facilitated our evolution outside the framework of random mutations and natural selection, which are the two pillars of Darwinian theory?
Natural selection, often tagged as “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin himself never used), is about gaining an advantage in the two things that matter for survival: getting enough food and passing on genes through mating rituals. The food part is self-evident, since a species will dwindle and die out if it loses the competition for food. Random mutation is a bit more technical. Species evolve by changing in ways that adapt better or worse to their environment, and such changes occur at the genetic level. Genes mutate at a predictable rate in an apparently random manner. In other words, an early giraffe might exhibit a longer neck, thanks to a random genetic mutation, and if this longer neck allows it to compete more successfully for food and mating rights, the new mutation has a chance, over time, to allow all giraffes to have longer necks.
Darwinism, as it is presently taught, is very careful to make this process totally random and mindless. In other words, giraffes didn’t desire longer necks. They only sprung up by accidental mutation, not through any intent or purpose, which are both mental traits. Going back to the original step of tossing out the divine mind, evolutionary theory also excluded all minds from the process, including the human mind. Our ancestors, so the theory dictates, had no say in how they evolved, despite possessing a state of elevated consciousness far beyond that of any other primate. Primitive hominids and early humans were bound by random mutation and natural selection, along with the rest of life on the planet.
But several factors have raised two possibilities, and depending on which one you support, you find yourself pressing a hot button. The first possibility is that the mind or consciousness must be included in the evolutionary mix. Evolution is a field where data are constantly argued over, but it appears that Homo sapiens has evolved with unprecedented speed over the last 8,000 to 30,000 years, which seems to many scientists, to be too fast for the operation of random mutation and natural selection alone, especially since they take millions of years to create major alterations in a species. To account for this sped-up timeline, the X factors that could make a difference are culture and making choices, both of which are conscious activities.
If a culture values basketball, for example, it quite possibly would choose to feed its basketball players well. Women might find tall men more desirable, and thus an intervention has taken place. Nature isn’t the only factor selecting who survives and who doesn’t. Conscious choice has stuck its thumb into the genetic mix. This is obviously true when it comes to modern Homo sapiens. We long ago escaped the rigid constraints of Darwinism in various ways. Here are a few undeniable ones:
— We take care of the sick and weak. They don’t die off as the result of losing out in the competition for food.
— We treat and cure diseases. Adverse mutations don’t simply run their course. They are countered by medical knowledge.
— — We artificially tamper with the breeding pool by treating childhood diseases, insuring the survival of children whom Nature has condemned to death if the disease in question is fatal.
— We give food and shelter freely or at drastically reduced expense to those who cannot get them for themselves.
— We choose mates for mental reasons that have nothing to do with food procurement or the ability to physically defeat male rivals.
Simple logic tells us that these traits had to evolve over time; therefore, the real question isn’t whether consciousness plays a part in human evolution but how and when it began to. Totally excluding mind from evolution is not science but the exercise of a belief system. Current evidence doesn’t support the belief, and yet the belief blindly wins out. But the rising field of epigenetics is on the side of the mind, because it indicates that lifestyle, behavior, experience and stress level can be passed on, not through genetic mutations but by chemical modifications of your DNA (called “marks”) that change the activities of existing genes. These marks can occur during calamitous events (i.e., if your ancestors went through a famine) and are hypothesized to be passed on to future generations (as the result of a past famine, you may be statistically more prone to diabetes). For example, children born to parents during the horrible Dutch famine during WWII, are more prone to obesity and diabetes.
This form of “soft” inheritance is being widely validated at many levels of biology, from microbes to water fleas to mice. Epigenetic marks on specific genes have been associated with risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease as part of the recently published national Epigenome Roadmap project. Once culture has been allowed into the evolutionary picture, with the support of epigenetics to indicate how life experiences can change our gene activities and perhaps even be passed on to the next generation, the opening for the role of mind and consciousness in the process is undeniable.
But we said there was a second position that can be taken on the issue. This is the contention that consciousness is the most important ingredient in the mix. Instead of being one factor out of many that must be considered, consciousness may drive evolution. This brings in banned words like purpose, meaning, and intention. Thanks to the anti-science, pro-Bible camp, many geneticists feel that they are defending the Alamo in a knee-jerk reaction against attack whenever the words “mind” or “consciousness” are raised. Science isn’t meant to have radioactive words or strict dogma. The seeker of truth must go where the data lead.
We feel that the data lead to a place where pure randomness isn’t viable and where blind natural selection must take mind and culture into account. Certainly these two points hold true for modern Homo sapiens, as we just saw. How far the argument can be expanded into the entire process of evolution will be the subject of the next post. (Our forthcoming book Super Genes covers each point in great detail, for anyone who wants further scientific validation.)
(To be cont.)
DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra is the co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of the New York Times bestseller, Super Brain. He serves as an Adjunct Professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School, Columbia University, Assistant Clinical Professor, in the Family and Preventive Medicine Department at the University of California, San Diego, Health Sciences, and Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization.
RUDOLPH E. TANZI is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and Vice Chair of Neurology at Mass. General Hospital. Dr. Tanzi is the co-author with Deepak Chopra of the New York Times bestseller, Super Brain, and an internationally acclaimed expert on Alzheimer disease. He was included in TIME Magazine’s “TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World”.