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PROMETHEAN EVOLUTION AS THE BIOLOGICAL BASIS OF HUMAN FREEDOM AND EQUALITY SUSUMU OHNO* ' Within the context of genes in the genome dictating the construction of an individual organism, men can never be free, since, by the very nature of the reproductive process, man is forever precluded from exerting his will upon his most important asset: the genetic constitution. As far as I know, no person ever born had a say at the time of his or her conception as to the choice of parental gametes. In this sense, each man is in inescapable bondage to his own genetic constitution. Evolution by natural selection is a privilege reserved only for a genetically polymorphic population. Thus individuals ofa dynamic population are bound to be genetic unequals of each other. What then becomes ofour cherished and widely accepted beliefin the free will ofmen as well as in roughly equal potentials among individuals? It is granted that human intelligence is a polygenic trait in which individual inequalities are less obvious, but the mere fact of this being a polygenic trait does not liberate man from the tyrannical power of his inherited genes. In this short essay, I shall advance the thesis that human intelligence and certain other refined functions of higher vertebrates have evolved by rising above the Epimethean law ofevolution by natural selection. As far as these functions are concerned, an ability to cope with a variety of future contingencies is conferred upon almost every individual , instead of only to a few fortunate, mutant individuals in a population ; and herein lies the biological basis of human freedom and the surprising equality among individuals in regard to their potential intelligence . Since these functions give an impression of having evolved in anticipation of future needs, I shall call the development of these functions "Promethean evolution." Epimethean Nature of Evolution by Natural Selection Natural selection, as we understand it, has only hindsight and thus is Epimethean in character. In this sense, it is no better than a general who»Department of Biology, City of Hope Medical Center, Duarte, California 91010. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Summer 1976 I 527 always prepares for future battles solely on the basis of historical precedents . Consequently, like troops under such a general's command, a population suffers enormous casualties whenever it encounters a drastic change in environment. There is a slim chance ofsurvival by adaptation, depending entirely upon a chance presence ofappropriate mutants that can cope with the new environment. Inasmuch as natural selection always operates after the fact, by favoring already existing mutants, genetic polymorphism can confer the ability to cope with future environmental changes only to a population as a whole but never to every member of a population. In the Epimethean world ofevolution by natural selection, one cannot conceive of the lac operan becoming the species characteristic ofEscherichia coli before E. coli's first encounter with lactose in the gut of suckling mammalian infants that occurred with the emergence of mammals. Yet such an evolutionary development, in advance of the occasion for actual needs, apparently occurred with regard to human intelligence. Only 10,000 years ago, civilizations as such were emerging in several scattered localities of the world, that is, the banks of the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Yellow rivers. Time and again, histories seem to have proven that surrounding barbaric tribes were no less intelligent than those already civilized, for, whenever opportunities arose, they seemed to have had no difficulty in assimilating civilized ways. So-called developed populations of today, as a rule, represent relatively late developers in the time scale of history. For such populations to have increased an average intelligence significantly in the very short span of a few thousand years, it would have been necessary to practice very intense selective breeding for higher intelligence. Yet written histories show little evidence of such practice. It looks as though Homo sapiens as an incipient species was already endowed with about the same degree of intelligence as modern man. This point was apparently bothersome even to Wallace, one of the two original selectionists. With regard to the power of natural selection, he therefore drew the line at man's brain, "For how could selection have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 527-532
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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