On Human Evolution

“Otherwise,” I said, “you end up with something like Lysenko, and that’s the end of science.”

“Lysenko was a tyrant and an ignoramus,” said Mr. Magundi, “and the damage he did to biology in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of human lives—was incalculable. He seems not to have had the slightest idea of how science works. Yet for all that, by some lucky instinct he grasped a truth that eludes most armchair biologists. He did not believe that Darwinian evolution could account for human progress, and he was right. Human evolution is Lamarckian. The forces of natural selection have been largely neutralized, because we cherish our weak and infirm; but we pass on our acquired characteristics to the next generation. One generation discovers a cure for polio, and the next generation is immune to that disease. One generation laboriously builds up the Internet, and the next seems to be born with a Facebook account. We progress as a species by extrabiological means: because we have language, and tradition, and writing, and education, the accumulated experience of all previous generations is ours, and our lives begin where our ancestors’ lives left off. In a way, you could say that old man Lysenko was right about that. He was just wrong about everything else.”

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