Imagine this situation: A dog breeder discovers that he can select from docile parents to get puppies that are more easily trained to do what he asks. He has just employed an evolutionary process to alter the reproductive fitness of some dogs that serve his goals. He did this without understanding how evolution works, yet with confidence that some kind of predictable inheritance was likely to be in play.
Now add to the story that a biologist named Charles Darwin has just written a book called On the Origin of Species that explains how “artificial” selection works among animal breeders—which is then extended to the rest of the natural world by removing the person who might do the selecting and letting it happen as an emergent pattern from the environment. The new situation is one where any person who is consciously aware of the mechanisms involved in evolution can now make conscious choices about what gets inherited for future generations.
We already have a situation where human beings, which are subject to the workings of evolution themselves, can become aware of their role as shapers of the environment to consciously select which animals get bred and for what desirable outcomes they are doing so. It is not sleight-of-hand to say that this meets the criteria for evolution to be aware of itself. But such a narrative ploy—clever though it may be—does little more than scratch the surface of what humans can do to intentionally shape our own evolutionary processes.
To grasp what we are truly capable of, it will be necessary to unpack more of the unique patterns that have come to dominate our ancestral line as a profoundly cultural species. I will summarize the arguments made by Joe Henrich and Kevin Laland in their recent books, titled The Secret of Our Success and Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony respectively, to make this argument.
Henrich explains how humans are able to achieve their spectacular success as a species because of the ways that we build upon what we learned before. Refining and extending our technologies is one way to go from slightly misshaped stones with sharper edges to eventually building rocket ships that place one of our own on the moon. This is called cumulative culture and there is little evidence that any other species is able to create it. We humans have been shaping our own evolutionary process by building on what came before to achieve desired goals for quite literally millions of years.
One example of this is the invention of techniques for making and maintaining fires. Along with this incredible technology came the cooking practices for tough meat that is both difficult to digest and can carry pathogens that make us sick. By harnessing an external system for digestion, we gained the ability to reduce the length of our intestines (needed to break down tough materials and neutralize bacteria that might cause harm). This opened up the possibility for more energy to go into growing larger brains, a positive feedback of cascading changes that enhanced our ancestral abilities for creating cultural systems.
Laland’s argument is specifically about social learning. Humans, it seems, are rare among animals for our ability and desire to teach things to each other. This gives us the two ingredients necessary for cumulative culture to occur—high fidelity of copying and extensive mentoring to learn complex skills. As our ancestors gained the ability to select which skills are learned, we began to consciously shape how cumulative culture plays out from one generation to the next.
The important thing for our species is that we profoundly shape our social environments with tools and practices that alter what our children can learn. Thus we become inheritance systems for culture that build upon and work in parallel with the inheritance systems associated with our genes. This is called gene-culture coevolution and humans do it like no other species on Earth.
As more among us become aware of gene-culture coevolution, we can begin to consciously choose what kinds of social systems we’d like to create that future generations will inherit. For example, we might choose to build energy infrastructure around a portfolio of renewables that free us from fossil fuels and the disruptions to planetary climate associated with burning them. Or we might choose to employ the many findings from prevention science to raise our children in nurturing environments that increase their abilities to regulate emotions and cooperate with others. In this manner, we would increase the likelihood that future societies are managed as democracies instead of some form of authoritarian control by dominant force.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has said that we must become “wise managers of our own evolutionary process” and this requires that we first become aware that it is possible to do so. My colleagues and I birthed the Cultural Evolution Society to help researchers around the world to find one another—increasing their ability to cooperate—and more recently we launched the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution to help practitioners learn what evolutionary approaches have to offer them as they grapple with incredibly complex challenges in their communities.
What I hope to have conveyed in this brief essay is that (1) evolution can be conscious of itself; (2) humans, in particular, can be conscious of the ways that evolution shapes who we are; and (3) with awareness and skill, it is even possible for us to shape the inheritance systems for future generations through careful analysis, planning, and implementation. With many global threats confronting our now-planetary-in-scale species, it is urgently incumbent upon us to do so.