One morning, my wife and I were arriving to the parking lot of our workplace a little later than usual. Due some construction happening at the time, the parking lot would get full really fast, so I offered to drop her at the main entrance and then I would go and search a place to park, or go to work from elsewhere if I couldn’t find a spot. She replied back “let’s search together for the parking place, for sure four eyes are better than two”, to which I responded: “right, until evolution gives us another pair of eyes”.
From that little piece of conversation a question arised in my mind: How would a person born with four eyes would be treated in today’s world? Surely that person wouldn’t have a common life! First, let’s assume that the four eyes were result of a set of random genetic mutations and are fully functional.
Probably the child would be object of medical study after the birth and once the doctors determine that besides the two new pair of eyes and whichever differences come with an evolved occipital lobe, the child is perfectly healthy since the cause was indeed a random genetic mutation. The formative years of the child would be different of those of a person with two eyes. In the best of the cases it would require perhaps special care and education, but in the worst, the child would be object of constant social scrutiny from neighbors and family, and perhaps when the child becomes old enough to go to school, other children would subject him or her to mockery or even bullying for being so different. However, the parents may think of these consequences in advance and would choose to hide the child from the rest of society and educate him at home, isolating him from others unless a careful and dedicated introduction process takes place. Or maybe the parents choose to submit the child to surgery to remove the extra pair of eyes and “fix the abnormality”, in an attempt to give the child a better chance of a comfortable life.
In the first case (when parents didn’t choose to hide the child nor remove surgically the extra eyes), chances of the child growing to have a lasting emotional relationship and have children are really low; his physical appearance is too different to conform to social standards, thus making more difficult for the four-eyed person to be accepted among people, not to mention about being romantically attractive for someone else. Even in the chance that some really illuminated person would decide to “see beyond” (pun not intended) the physical appearance, they might not take any chances in procreating a baby since there is no way to know if the genetic mutation is dominant enough to be carried by the new baby and start the whole story again. In the second scenario (social isolation and home education), the child would have even less chances to engage in a relationship and have offspring than the first case. Finally, the third case (surgical procedure) may give the child some more chances, but the uncertainty about genetic dominance may still affect a new baby, after all, the surgery would alter the physical appearance but not the genetic encoding of a person.
Evolution is a complex and slow process by which random mutations occur to organisms, and if those organisms are able to live long enough to procreate and pass along the genes, then the mutation eventually becomes part of the gene pool of that species. Natural selection plays an important role on the evolutive process since those random mutations may alter the fitness of the organism to survive, and therefore its ability to procreate and pass the genetic mutations and before continuing, it’s important to understand what “natural” selection means in this context.
We say that a mutation benefits an organism if the organism is able to survive or adapt better to its natural environment while participating in the dynamics of its ecosystem, thus it’s “naturally selected”. For instance, from a group of gazelles living in the prairie coexisting with cheetahs, if a genetic mutation gives a gazelle our genetic prize of four eyes and this increases the chances of seeing a cheetah on the distance and because of this the gazelle is able to flee before the cheetah gets closer, then we can assume that the gazelle would get more chances of reproducing and passing along those useful genes that give four eyes.
The story of a person born with an extra pair of eyes (and even the gazelle’s) seems unrealistic since we know that the eye itself as we know it today took thousands (if not millions) of years to become what it is. But one thing that we must pay attention to is that different from the gazelle’s story, in the case of the four-eyed human there are factors in the narrative that demonstrate that natural selection is being affected by all those social forces that act upon all of us. Certainly we would not think of the parents of the four-eyed gazelle considering surgery or isolation from the other gazelles just because of the extra pair of eyes; moreover, the reproductive capabilities of the gazelle do not obey social forces of the herd, if anything, would obey the forces of a biological need for reproduction.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference is the environment of the gazelle compared to the environment of the human. Gazelles are not required to attend school, nor participate in religious organizations, nor to look nice or groom their appearance to be attractive for some other gazelles, while humans certainly are! Although not all of these rules happen explicitly, humans are constantly socialized (i.e taught unspoken rules of belief, behavior and expectation that must be met to coexist in society), since the very moment of birth, we think of male babies in a way that differ from female babies whether we are aware of it or not. We are taught to believe in certain things and to act in certain ways, and for the most part these social lessons are defined on basis of gender, age, ethnicity, class, religion, etc, almost always in forms that we do not fully understand or even perceive.
This difference may seem obvious or even silly, since we mighty humans have acquired rational thought through evolution, we have developed self awareness and meta thinking (thinking of thinking), we became capable of abstract imagination and creativity, and due this we have been able to build cities, invent machines, and all the rest of amazing things that human race has accomplished. Nonetheless, this evolutionary combo has made an impact for natural selection since we humans do not exist in a “natural” environment anymore but in an artificial one created by ourselves, and the dynamics of our environment are far distinct from those of predators and preys, we are far from considering survival as an ultimate achievable goal. We have created these dynamic abstract systems that we call social organizations that allow us to coexist (to some acceptable degree since we are still here and not extinct) and that for the most part rule our expectations, opportunities and choices in life.
In the same sense, we have created standards of physical appearance that definitely shape the way we think of those whom have gained the lottery of evolution and with it a genetic mutation that manifests as a deviance from the image of what we consider “normal” (we can take Marfan Syndrome or Trimethylaminuria). In a way, we have exchanged the process of natural selection for a social selection, in which the organism that will “survive” is that one capable of conform the best to the traits of society, this is, the one able to perform better according to the social rules that have been created. When we think of a successful person, we do not just think of that one that is just alive (that’s not enough anymore!), for some people success means to have a growing family or a prominent career; in general and across cultures, we value and cherish the traits of personality that identify a “good person”.
It can be objected that not all genetic variations or mutations carry radical physical changes, some of them can lead to biological changes (like allergies and phobias -like photophobia or hydrophobia and not in the psychological sense-) or neurological changes (like Down Syndrome, Autism or ADHD). In most of these cases however, we try to change the condition of the person to that of what we consider normal through medical treatments and therapy, or so we think.
Realistically, we are trying to change the people in a way that allows them to participate in all those social dynamics that we have created. When treatment is not possible, we turned to spaces that were created specifically to allow them to exist in acceptable conditions. For example, it is well known that many decades ago, treatment for some forms of mental illness included lobotomy and a life-long reclusion in a mental facility. In the past years people have fought for the rights of the physically or mentally “disabled”, and while certainly today more places would hire a person with Down Syndrome than 20 years ago, it’s really difficult to think that the paths of professional success are shaped to allow a person with a to become leaders of corporations or successful entrepreneurs, mostly because these things are traits of what we consider success.
The use of the word “disabled” or “disability” to refer to those that cannot perform in society is relative to and only meaningful within, the boundaries of the context of the social selection we as humans have created. Let’s assume that exist a hypothetical colony of humans in a small settlement far from other civilizations; from time to time, there are people that are born with a genetic mutation that are not capable of mathematical or strategical thinking, but are in exchange, able to procure care and attentions to others, and skillful enough to perform arts. In this society, the people that are born with this genetic mutation are expected to choose a caretaking occupation, but they are just as encouraged to engage into any other occupation that they feel they can participate into. Moreover, there are no rules about engagement or procreation and for the past two generations, there is a family that have constantly given birth to these genetically caring people. It is noticeable that within the colony, the word “disabled” doesn’t carry any meaning since the genetically different people are not forced to become “normal” or isolated if the transformation it’s not possible. Only an outsider from a society that has not explored nor created paths for the genetically different people, would be able to see the difference as a “disability”.
We could object then that not all mutations affect the ability of a person to perform in society. If a person is lucky enough that the genetic mutation does not alter their capability to act as and look like a “normal” human, then the chances of the genetic mutation to be part of the human species are greater. While that is true, that solves nothing for all the other genetic mutations that indeed change the way a person acts or looks. While it is clear that our forms of social organizations are far from perfect, a great consequence we have not considered is that we have damaged the process of natural selection in a way that allows only those that still act and look like “normal” humans to fully integrate into the social environments. Therefore, it has become almost impossible to know if people with any of those biological or neurological genetic mutations are or not the starting point of a new branch of human evolutionary development.
Another objection could be that perhaps, humans are the epitome or evolution; that we have achieved such a state of evolutionary ableness that anything less of what we consider “normal” necessarily could not be an advance but a regression. Unfortunately, that assertion ignores entirely the socialization process that became the source of the idea of “normal” humans as in the hypothetical colony. We can see the importance of the socialization process if we look back to a previous state of human development, when those proto humans resembled a little more to apes than what we do today. Had the protohuman had the same conceptualization of what a “normal” protohuman should look like, then the surgence of the first less-hairy human was necessarily seen as an abnormality, and thus a regression and clearly not an advance. But that was obviously not the case since those proto humans evolved into us, humans.
Besides this evolutionary argument, we can think of other changes that have happened to the human species that might not be considered advances. In the ancient cultures, humans were able to perform demonstrations of physical prowess in the daily life that today we have relegated to recreational activities and sports. In the past, humans had the stamina to run and walk really long distances since that was the only way to travel, or to be fast enough to chase gazelles and deers in the forest without shooting weapons (like the Raramuri in the pre colonized Americas). With the domestication of horses and the subsequent invention of vehicles, humans slowly lost those physical abilities.
An objection could be that those extreme physical abilities are not needed anymore since we have evolved into a different type of humans, from being “physical” we became more “intellectual” and from those times, smart humans that were not capable of running fast or be strong enough, created machines and tools to help them, that in a way, passed the test of “survival” and became part of the human culture. Unfortunately, this argument does not hold consistently throughout human history, particularly when we try to define what “intellectual” means. If as described by the objection, “intellectual” means for a person to have the mental capability of imagine and build tools and devices that would make up for the lack of physical abilities present on others, this path was actively threatened during the historical period known as Obscurantism, during which “intellectual” people were persecuted and punished by the arguments and reasons of religion. Definitely, “physical” humans would have more chances of survival than “intellectual” types during that era.
If we abandon that first definition of “intellect” and “intellectual” to coin the religious reasonings within, we could consider “intellect” as the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively abstract or complex matters, and by consequence “intellectual” would be someone that shows those faculties. Thus, an “intellectual” person would be the fittest among others and slowly, the human species would have taken into a more “intellectual” existence in which reason and objectivity would be part of the gene pool. Unfortunately again, history proves that while reason and objectivity are indeed common traits of all humans, it has not been enough to guarantee survival (which would be the proof that natural selection has not been affected by our social action). If we think of the crusades or the Holy War (or any war for that matter), we can acknowledge that while natural selection has granted all humans with the capability of reasoning, social selection was in charge of dictating which religion had to be targeted, or which ideology group, or which beliefs were to be punished.
The final objection we could explore is that the social selection process then is not the opposite of the natural selection but its consequence and a successor. Other way to read this is that since humans evolved by the natural selection process, and humans created the social selection process, therefore the selection process is a natural step in evolution. These objection seems at first solid enough. By comparison, the natural selection process and the social selection process have many similarities; both create paths for survival (predators-preys in one, social success in the other); both have mechanisms of purge and selection (mere survival in the first, opportunities of achieve and strive for the other). However, we could think that since the social selection process has replaced the natural selection, the natural selection process must have stopped for the social forces to exercise their full influence; but evolution (the main source of changes for the natural selection) is still there, people are still born with genetic mutations and as discussed before, our social concept of “normal” defines paths of mostly social dampening for those that have been given the gifts of evolution, thus reaffirming that social selection is indeed in conflict with natural selection and it has affected the natural course of evolution in the human species.
In conclusion, the same forces that act upon us to participate collectively in the process of social selection, have blurred out the very essence of evolution from the common imaginary in modern societies. We have deviated from the single truth that the processes of nature are still there, acting on us; that evolution hasn’t stopped and that most likely would still be active as long as there is life in the planet, and it’s up to us, humans as the main source of social changes, to accommodate our beliefs and conceptions of what is “normal” to allow and embrace the inevitable and wonderful hand of natural selection.