Necessity, Chance, or Design: What, or who, will determine human destiny?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Jacques Monod (1910-1976) is a French biochemist known for his seminal contribution in the scientific field of molecular biology as exemplified by his pioneering work on the genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis. He is also known for coining “chance and necessity” as the term that describes the dual mechanisms behind evolutionary process, which he spelled out in his 1970 book, Le Hasard et la Necessite: Essai sur la philosohie naturelle de la biologie moderne (Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology). The term was an elegant way to describe how evolution is led by necessity, or natural selection, as well as by chance, or mutation.

Natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) as the concept that describes evolutionary process has certainly been among the most controversial concepts in the history of science. Yet, the conception of nature as a dynamic process that exerts a selective force on every species if it is to maintain its viability in that changing environment is now widely accepted, with increasing understanding of the mechanism by which that selection operates, thanks to the development of such modern scientific disciplines as molecular biology and genetics.

Advances in these scientific disciples have been so phenomenal that scientists are now aware of the vital role human intervention plays in influencing the process of evolution for human species. In fact, Edward O Wilson, whose expertise on the subject of evolution is widely recognized, goes as far as suggesting that natural selection may be on the way out as far as human evolution is concerned: “We are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection—the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be.”1

What Wilson is suggesting is really a scary prospect for us humans. This is so because life, including us human species, has evolved by interplay of dual mechanisms of “chance” and “necessity”, between “spontaneous order” and “natural selection”, as Stuart Kaufman explains: “Life and its evolution have always depended on the mutual embrace of spontaneous order and selection’s crafting of that order.”2 But volitional selection goes beyond the mechanism of self-organization that creates spontaneous order. It is a new mechanism of “design” as a driving force behind human evolution. As the process guided by chance and necessity, humans have reached the stage where we are at by an accumulated series of fortuitous events during evolution and not by any kind of divine intervention or by purposeful action. In other words, human evolution is not, as Wilson points out, predestined to reach any goal. This means that where we are headed as a species now depends very much on what we do with our newly acquired capacity for volitional selection.

The possibility of volitional selection is already with us, for the precise DNA editing at the moment of conception is now known for mice, though not yet for humans. What this implies is that the birth of “designer babies” is no longer an imaginary conception of science fiction writers but may soon become a real possibility for medical scientists. While the possibility of producing human babies genetically modified for health and intelligence sounds like an exciting news, it raises a challenging question for us as to who will determine what sort of qualities are to be endowed in those designer babies. It is true that we have promoted and developed finer qualities such as compassion, equanimity, generosity, and love, thanks to the insights and teachings of our humanistic thinkers and spiritual leaders. But the fact of the matter is that we still carry with us the remnants of our reptilian past in our brain. Where we are headed as a species will therefore depend crucially on whether we can overcome what Wilson calls “the Paleolithic Curse”: “We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptation that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society.”3

  1. Wilson, Edward O., The Meaning of Human Existence, New York: Liveright, 2015, p. 14.
  2. Kaufman, Stuart A., At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.9.
  3. Wilson, op. cit., p. 176.