DARWIN’S DILEMMA, OR HOW DID THERE GET TO BE SO MANY OF US?

Darwin’s theory of evolution posits that natural variation occurs within groups, and that those individuals who turn out in some important manner to be better suited to their environment, that is, more fit in one way or another, are also better able to reproduce, thus ensuring that their genes (and the traits attached) get passed on to future generations. Over the decades, the theory has certainly proven itself in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of populations, including humans. In this manner, for example, homo sapiens won out over several other groups of hominoids, including homo neanderthalensis, an otherwise perfectly well adapted branch of the human tree, at least until their overbearing cousins arrived on the scene. But what of homo sapiens today? Are we still evolving? The answer can only be “yes,” but I wonder if the ways in which we are evolving are ultimately of benefit to us or to the planet on which we live.

This brings up a closely related question, one that I think is of supreme importance these days, namely, are we as a race reproducing ourselves out of existence? A case could be made that many, if not most, of the major problems we are facing today on a global scale can trace their source to one basic issue: there are too many of us on the planet. We are now at seven billion, and counting. What if each of these people reproduced at a simple ration of one to two? That is, suppose each couple, each pair of two people, were to produce four offspring. Although I am not a specialist in demography, or statistics for that matter, the simple math involved predicts that it will not be long, certainly in geological terms, before our population doubles. Can any of us really imagine a world in which there are fourteen billion people? And yet, it could happen, all the more so as humans find better ways of fighting germs and disease, in times past the killer of large swaths of the population.

Now, in case you may be wondering, I am not advocating for reduced food or medicine for anybody. Indeed, all those who “here,” that is, those of us already born deserve every benefit that human technology and medicine can possibly provide in order to give each person the opportunity for a healthy and productive life. That is because, at their core, no person is intrinsically better than any other person. However, what I AM advocating for is a little bit of common sense when it comes to procreation. There’s no mystery about it. At this time in history we know how NOT to have children. And those who elect to have no children at all, or only one, or at most the strict replacement value of two, are probably doing the world the greatest service. On the other hand, those who preach the value of more and more children are ensuring the depletion of necessary resources, the further degradation of the planet, and the probable future decline of humanity itself. Churches in particular that say that the only legitimate purpose of sex is for procreative purposes are therefore doing us, and the planet on which we live, a tremendous disservice.

So, in one sense, we have to wonder whether Darwin had it right or not, at least when it comes to us humans. There is, of course, no way he could have predicted, even as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, that human reproduction would run so drastically and so dangerously amuck. But let us remember that human beings are not the same as creatures that reproduce with no ability to think about or predict the consequences of their actions. In theory at least, we can and should plan, and calculate, and make reasonable and responsible choices.

Maybe it could even be said that this ability to reason and understand where the results of our actions will take us might in fact be the selected trait among humans that could in the end save us, along with the planet. If that’s the case, it could be that Darwin was right about us after all. Reason and logic, even pity for the planet, could save us by helping us choose not to reproduce, or to limit ourselves to only one or two children, or better still to adopt already born but unwanted children. Wouldn’t this in fact be one of the best possible uses of our human reason? And wouldn’t it make Darwin proud to know that we – his offspring – selected, in this case consciously, not just what is best for ourselves and our children, but ultimately what in the end is needed for our very survival, as well as for that of the earth itself?

Paul