This is a question I've been thinking about for some time now.
And when I saw a cartoon pic in one of the discussions here, it reminded me of this question and decided to post this thread. (Sorry if it's repeated, I didn't really check)
If we invented many things that help us live our lives and do our jobs much easier, will that make us evolve backwards to the point where we lose some of our naturally selected organs that give us some abilities?
I know that all of us won't witness it if it happens but I'm just wondering!
Oh, I didn't mean to say that you were hoping for a catastrophe. What I meant was that, given mankind's apparent inability to even agree when a plan is necessary, there is a strong likelihood that any drastic change in our population will almost certainly be a result of a catastrophe.
All of this is really a tangent. The question really is whether we descend into a semi-animalistic dystopia--a new, better armed, dark age.
I'm wondering if we are still evolving anyway.... or are we?
Given enough time, genetic drift could lead anywhere, but the timescale required probably means the human species is more likely to have become extinct before any significant changes occur by that mechanism.
Evolution is primarily driven by the emergence, usually from genetic mutations, of characteristis that tend to provide a reproductive advantage. Any characteristic that appears, but makes no difference on the chances of survival to a reproductive age will not continue to evolve, linearly. Therefore, "backwards" evolution through natural selection is highly unlikely. Furthermore, what counts as "backwards" is culturally biased. But that does not mean that we can't see significant changes in our morphology for reasons other than evolution.
We have become a taller species, especially in the U.S., in just the last 100 years. But that is NOT evolution. That is a result of medical and nutritional changes. True, a case could be made that tall men have a reproduction advantage over short men, in which case we would indeed evolve to become a taller species. But that takes many more years than just a century.
However, there is one caveat: if the Republicans and the Jesus freaks take over the country, being stupid may indeed provide a better chance of survival. If so, we could be looking at a future as envisioned in the Luke Wilson film, “Idiocracy.”
The evolution pictured in “Idiocracy,” however is not so much driven by survival as it is by choice. The writer, Mike Judge (“Office Space”), imagines that the ACTUAL FACT that stupid people are reproducing at a much faster rate, BY CHOICE, than are smart people, means that future populations are sure to be less intelligent. Can’t really disagree with that. Beware the G.O.P.!
@ Dale - Really nice post. I think too often people, even atheists have somewhat of a misconception about the fundamentals of evolution and you really captured it. Put most simply anywhere there is a place where a procreation/survival advantage exists and some portion of a diverse population (genetic diversity/mutation) is able to harness said advantage, they will at a macro level be more successful in passing on whatever those genes are that allow them to benefit from the advantage, and thus more of those genetics (and phenotypic effects) are expressed through the generations.
Going to a more broad scope to lend my two cents to the original question. First off, I think the concept of regression doesn't exactly apply to evolution because it implies a direction, where evolution isn't directional. It can seem that way at times, but it's more about adaptability to whatever the prevailing environment is. If we (as humans) have fundamentally evolved greater brain power/processing than our chimp cousins it's because there was a benefit to doing so, and our brains grew, and eventually it led to an increase in intelligence, and ultimately our creation of vast civilizations where intellect was such a major contributor in the place of brute force as it were. If as we create more things that make our lives easier, or extend our lifespans, or make access to knowledge easier, there will likely be a void where some humans will likely find some advantage to procreation/survival. I have a few hunches of possible "directions", based on some personal thought processes:
The "Peacock" Evolution
As knowledge becomes SO ubiquitous in our society there will always be a niche for the thinkers to push that envelope, but eventually (once the ID boobies GTFO of the way) our education system will start to make leaps and strides to raise en masse global intelligence. Basically the vast majority of people will have a high enough intellect to make it a less influential trait. At that point, we go through the peacock transition where selection will start being made on a "whole" package mate concept. No more having to balance beauty or brains, it will be about those who have both. So where we have seen an expanse in the intellect over geological ages, we'd see a corresponding increase in whatever traits society starts to find beautiful. Most likely these would correlate to....
The "Fittest (and survival thereof)" Evolution
We already see today a shift in the understanding of fitness and health. Whether we're talking GMO's or organics...this diet vs. that one...the importance of exercise...SMOKING BAD!!!! All these things would likely lead to a mass outbreak of, and a rampant engagement in health. This might be more attributable to a memetic evolution than a purely genetic one, but it could in theory start to make a significant impact on what the people find attractive, which in turn leads to mate selection pressures, which in turn starts the ball rolling on a genetic evolution.
The "De-Evolution" Evolution
Much like idiocracy, the concept here is a regression in intellect but unlike in the movie, the premise isn't based on the number of dumb people breeding outnumbering those that are. This would be a temporary effect IMHO whereas a systematic shift of need for intellect decreasing because we have machines/computers to do that for us would mean that by and large the energy spent "thinking" would put the possessors at a disadvantage (however slight) compared to people who adapt to whatever system replaces intellect as a dominant trait...probably some form of physical advancement like strength.
The "Enlightenment" Evolution
Okay, this one is probably a bit of a pipe dream, but essentially it boils down to a collective (global/societal) shift that realizes that all the resources we waste in war could better serve humanity. World peace happens and intellect flourishes. So does every extension of that, and the expressions. Great music, art, medical technology, etc. By and large humans come together, nations "dissolve" and we all live happily forever and ever.
And yes, that last one is corny and a pipe dream but it would be in theory possible. I do think Dale hit on another BIG point though which is that the rate of evolutionary change in large animals like us is a very slow process. Of course that's based on the incrementally small shifts in natural selection, we are (in theory at least) capable of creating unnatural selections pressures that would be significantly larger and possibly speed up this process. But given what we have come to expect of human evolution, it is likely that we will have either died out or killed everyone in some global nuke-fest before we really started to see true genetic level evolution.
All this of course comes from the mind of a primate, so is subject to error and revision...I know I'm CLOSE to perfect...but I'm not quite there yet. :p
What isn't being used may eventually disappear, but we are also evolving better drivers.
The Human race is evolving but evolution has no "forward" or "backward".
We have been, are now, and will continue to evolve. What may change is the nature of the selective pressures we live under.
Evolution has not forward or backward, up or down, higher or lower. It simply takes place.