Perhaps one fact about human biology and genetics which everyone has buried somewhere in the back of their minds is that about 99 percent of the human genome is identical with that of a chimpanzee or monkey. But the question is not only about why we are so similar to chimpanzees and monkeys, but also, what is it that narrowly makes us different from them? This is where Charles Darwin comes into play.
Darwin’s theory, in a nutshell, is “the theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Both the differences and similarities between distinct species are then explained by Darwin through the concept of “variation.” As Darwin wrote:
“We have…seen that it is the most flourishing and dominant species of the larger genera which on an average vary most; and varieties…tend to become converted into new and distinct species. The larger genera thus tend to become larger; and throughout nature the forms of life which are now dominant tend to become still more dominant by leaving many modified and dominant descendants. But by steps hereafter…the larger genera also tend to break up into smaller genera. And thus, the forms of life throughout the universe become divided into groups subordinate to groups.”
Why certain types of organisms descend and modify and survive through the course of time while others do not is explained by Darwin through the concept of “natural selection.” Darwin explained the concept of “natural selection” in the following manner:
“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”
“We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”
Thus, natural selection is a force which takes climactic and environmental factors into account and then acts “only through and for the good of each being” to borrow from Darwin. The history of natural selection amongst the human race is demonstrated by the replacement of the Homo erectus which spread to Europe and Asia from Africa about two million years ago by a more technologically advanced Homo sapiens species which again came out of Africa somewhere between one hundred to three-hundred thousand years ago. Two major subgroups of the Homo erectus in Europe were the Homo neanderthalensis and the Homo heidelbergensis, and the two major subgroups of the Homo erectus in Asia are the Chinese and Malay peoples.
As one scholar argued, the story of the Homo sapiens is a story of technology. Arguably, the reason why the Homo sapiens were able to replace the Homo erectus of Europe and Asia is because of technology. In turn, why Europe and Asia could have adjusted to prevailing circumstances can in large part be explained by technology. And recent advances and changes in technology might be ushering in yet another epoch in the evolutionary history of the Homo sapiens. Certain scholars like Yuval Noah Harari have argued that these recent advancements and changes in technology can overcome ‘natural selection’ itself by altering the biological constitution of human beings through accessing the “biochemical algorithms” of a human being. While computers and machines have “electronic algorithms” which can be accessed and changed, animals and human beings are thought to have “biochemical algorithms” which can be accessed and changed and in turn can enable human beings to overcome natural selection, according to Harari.
Whereas natural selection enabled human evolution and gene mutations up until now, technology will enable the evolution and gene mutations in human beings from this point forward, so the theory goes. Nevertheless, there is an opposite school of thought with regards to the theory of evolution from the one that is “gene-centric” and must be considered, namely the environment-centric school of evolution which does not discount ‘natural selection’ is thought to have more preponderance, relevance, and significance to an understanding of natural and social reality at the present moment. Thus, rather than being a set of antiquated and obsolete ideas that should be buried in the annals of history, Darwin’s ideas are as relevant to an understanding of natural and social reality now as they were during the peak of Western “Enlightenment” a number of centuries ago in Europe.