Science eLetter discussion on, “Evolution in the Anthropocene.”

RE: An Intentional “Evolutionary Transition” Is Called For…

Paul J. Watson, Evolution of social and sexual behavior

Dept. of Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA

5 March 2016

I am happy beyond words to have this fantastic conservation article, “Evolution in the Anthropocene,” published in Science (26 Feb. 2016, p.922), broaching the critical and revolutionary subject of our species’ need to implement a radically less selfish (i.e., a fundamentally more prosocial and biophilic) EvoCentric attitude toward conservation. Natural selection has been able to produce a number of fantastic evolutionary transitions (e.g., see Andrew F.G. Bourke’s splendid, “Principles of Social Evolution,” ISBN-13: 978-0199231164), but all of them involved the arising of new forms of organisms that, in the end, always were better at maximizing individual lifetime inclusive fitness, no holds barred. The current article suggests the need for, and the possibility of, a level of unselfishness qualitatively different than anything natural selection has or could possibly produce on its own. But, the article implies that humans may attain the requisite qualities of mind through cultural evolution alone. I think that together we must face up to the very high likelihood, given the incredible power and “purpose” of natural selection, that this is highly doubtful. The evolution of all our cultures, both past and present, are highly constrained by foundational genetic designs currently under the control of good old-fashioned natural selection. Thus, the only way humans will attain an truly novel evolutionary transition, one based on human intrapsychic designs that could seriously be interested in Evocentric Conservation is if we take the biologically unprecedented step of wrenching the evolution of our minds out of the tightly clenched hands of natural selection by implementing a thoroughly researched and supervised program of intentional cognitive-emotional evolution. I suggest that in the midst of the urgent worldwide debate about how we should use emerging genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR/CAS9 and gene drive, that we not ignore the amazing just-in-the-nick-of-time opportunity on offer, through such techniques, to do just this. The human race needs to implement an emergency program focused with laser beam clarity on learning how to edit our own species-typical and pan-cultural genome in such a way that we evolve minds that are actually capable of carrying out Evocentric conservation strategies, on a sustained, widespread, and minimally contingent basis.


Reply to Watson: “Science without conscience is nothing but ruin to the soul”

François Sarrazin, Professor

Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ Paris 06, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, CNRS, CESCO, UMR 7204, 75005 Paris, France

Other Contributors:

Jane Lecomte, Professor

17 March 2016

We sincerely thank Paul Watson for his enthusiasm for our perspective. We nevertheless have to answer to two main points of his e-letter. First, we remind that we advocated for “comprehensive dialogs among social scientists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists to explore the biological and cultural roots of our interactions with nonhumans and to understand the origins of our inertia in the face of the urgency of biodiversity erosion”. It is thus clear that, similarly to Paul Watson, we embrace both biological and cultural processes in the human evolutionary trajectory. However we remain extremely prudent and open-minded on the actual level of the genetic basis in daily human decisions. We distinguished human well-being and human fitness in our scenarios whereas we consider that the well-being of nonhuman is mostly fitness driven. Indeed, human behaviors exhibit Darwinian puzzles that challenge evolutionary theory. Over the past million years, human groups improved the resilience of their fitness components by increasing cognition, empathy and cooperation. They secured their resources and reduced the impact of predation, competition and parasitism through niche construction, modifying selective pressures for both themselves and other organisms. They could then devote increasing time and energy using sensory and cognitive traits to enhance rewards beyond significant fitness gains in a process of ‘phenotypic emancipation’ i.e. an expanse of the bubble of their well-being. Among others, agriculture, medicine, fossil fuels, contraception provided opportunities to magnify this process at least on the short-term. For any organisms, phenotypic emancipation should ultimately be counter-selected when the energy devoted to individual well-being outcompetes fitness requirements. However, this trade-off might be temporally displaced whenever cooperation and niche construction reduce selective pressures at the individual level like in human societies. Culture did not emerge from phenotypic emancipation but it can boost it e.g. through learning and comparison between individual’s values, performances or wealth within societies. Culture may support information favoring fitness as well as phenotypic emancipation in a parallel and sometimes antagonistic way, partly inducing Darwinian puzzles. So what are the genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, or cultural bases of each strategy of human/nonhuman interactions in our five conservation scenarios and in the associated evolutionary transitions? This is a key question raised by our perspective. But this human phenotypic emancipation has a second major consequence. It implies to put intrinsic value on each individual well-being beyond their role in the human evolutionary trajectory. It thus prevents any radical and purely technical answer that would shape the destiny of human beings without respect for human rights. In our perspective, we pointed out the reductionism and short-sighted views of synthetic biology and gene drive for biodiversity management. We only considered them for ex situ R&D “as a very last resort to reduce our evolutionary impacts on” nonhumans evolutionary trajectories. No doubt that such technical answer would be an even more frightening “Pandora’s box” for human individuals and societies. Even if evocentric conservation asks the question of our own evolution, gene drive and transhumanism remain technical approaches without ethical framework and constitute terrifying dead ends. History is full of well-intended tragedies. As French, we know that true evocentric conservation can only be compatible with “Liberté Egalité Fraternité”. This is why it is so challenging and inspiring.


“Repair the past and prepare the future.” — Anonymous.

I thank the authors for so thoughtfully responding to my eLetter. These are the kinds of world-wide discussions we need. I’ll try to be brief…

First, I would hope to avoid bringing human “souls” into the discussion, even briefly or figuratively. There is no evidence for souls, and thinking there is anything even vaguely supernatural about humans makes it so much more difficult, if not impossible, to formulate and perhaps someday implement even a maximally moral program of intentional evolution aimed at producing a future Homo bloodline, hopefully in good time, that is even close to being psychologically capable of engaging in EvoCentric conservation practices, or, for example, carrying out E.O. Wilson’s recent prescription for sustainability based on letting half the planet, including the parts that offer good human habitat, go wild. If we keep promoting the idea that we are some kind of Holy Species, then the apparent immorality of lowly science and secular society messing with our genetic constitution, even in the most carefully thought out and evidence-based ways, increases, in the eyes of many, ten thousand fold, to throw out a gross quantitative estimate…

Second, we humans currently are under a tremendous variety of selection pressures. Natural selection continues to operate with a vengeance. Human culture, clearly part of the Earth’s selective environment, surely modifies it, often increasing the intensity of competition, selection’s engine, amongst humans and nonhumans.

But, to think that we have escaped in any significant way from our long and conservative genetic heritage, or that culture somehow would cause selection to stop concentrating on promoting the most effective replicators as it has always done, is pure wish-thinking. Complex contingent altruism in its various forms exists, of course, but merely as ways humans have evolved to use, directly or indirectly, to help maximize individual lifetime inclusive fitness. If we are worried about human rights, and of course we are (in general, far too contingently), please note that our current and past designer, natural selection, does not care about them at all, per se. Look at how human minds actually operate in situ.

The one way to have any chance of becoming a species with more significantly more conscience and a more consistent and fundamental concern for universal human rights is by actively DENYING natural selection continuing sole rights to determine the adaptive design of the human psyche. Terrifying outcomes of genetic intervention in human intrapsychic design? The terror of the situation is already here, a naturally selected inevitability. Can we be responsible enough to reverse it? With deep respect. — PJW