Human Evolution

Written by: Wallace Arthur


Here’s the question that I raised at the end of my previous post:

Does human evolution require some additional, special, explanation that does not apply to the rest of our kingdom?

With regard to the physical human body, the two great founders of the theory of natural selection were agreed that no special explanation is required. Wallace writes in 1889: “I fully support Mr. Darwin’s conclusion as to the identity of man’s bodily structure with that of the higher mammalia, and his descent from some ancestral form common to man and the anthropoid apes”.

However, when it comes to the evolution of the human mind, as opposed to the human body (can one really separate them?) the two men could not be more at odds with one another. Darwin says, in the third chapter of The Descent of Man, that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” He then discusses the “means by which the several moral and mental faculties of man have been gradually evolved.”

Wallace takes note of Darwin’s conclusion about the origin of human mental faculties by natural selection, and says this of it: “this conclusion appears to me not to be supported by adequate evidence and to be directly opposed to many well-ascertained facts.” Rather than seeing a gradual transition from ancestral apes to man in the degree of elaboration of the mind, Wallace sees a qualitative gulf between man and all other animals. He says that human mental faculties “could not have been developed by variation and natural selection alone, and that, therefore, some other influence, law, or agency is required to account for them.”

What might this additional ‘agency’ be? Perhaps big-effect gene mutations? No, Wallace has something very different in mind; something perhaps beyond the realm of science.

In fact, Wallace treats three ‘stages’ of evolution as being completely outside of an explanation in terms of natural selection. These three stages are: the origin of life; the origin of consciousness; and the origin of human higher mental faculties. He says: “These three distinct stages of progress from the inorganic world of matter and motion up to man, point clearly to an unseen universe – to a world of spirit, to which the world of matter is altogether subordinate.”

Today most scientists are mechanists, not vitalists, and would support the view of Darwin over that of Wallace. But are they right to do so? Personally, I think that, within the context of the evolution of life on Earth, they are. But what about the context of possible parallel universes proposed in M-theory? Is one of them spiritual (M for magic) or is it just a vast physical ‘brane’ in an 11-dimensional space (M for membrane)? We shouldn’t pretend that we know all the answers just yet.

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About the Author: Wallace Arthur

Wallace Arthur is an evolutionary biologist with two main areas of interest: the interplay between evolution and development ('evo-devo'), and the question of how evolution might operate on inhabited exoplanets (part of the broad field of astrobiology)....

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