In an article for New Scientist this week, Kevin Laland argues that it is time to go beyond the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory. Orthodox ideas about how evolution works are being challenged by new discoveries in genetics, epigenetics and developmental biology. He is leading a research programme to test the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis. According to this new paradigm, organisms are not simply disposable soma:
Organisms are not the “throwaway survival machines” envisaged by Richard Dawkins and others, but instead often take the lead in their own evolution, dragging genetic change along in their wake. Move over selfish gene, and make way for the orchestrating organism.
One of the mechanisms organisms use to rebel against the “selfish gene” tyranny and direct their own evolution is habitat choice:
Organisms are not merely buffeted around by the forces of nature; through their habitat choices and the way they modify their environment, they play active roles in determining which of their characteristics are useful. So they create some of the conditions of their existence, and this influences their evolution
In light of this idea, “Shaping the Urban Brain” by Sandro Galea is another interesting read. Sandro stresses the tremendous effects of urbanisation, and how cities exert a profound influence on all aspects of our health, in particular on our mental health. There are several mechanisms through which cities, by their very design, can influence our mental health:
The choices we make now will determine the trajectory of urban health for years to come. In Shenzhen, for example, mental health issues account for roughly 20 percent of the city’s overall disease burden, the highest rate of adult mental illness in any Chinese city
And he openly asks:
Will the future of urbanization resemble the Dickensian past, where concern about well-being took a backseat to growth? Or will we seize this historical moment to build our urban spaces with an eye towards supporting the mental health of the population?
In other words, do we want to actively guide our own evolution, or will we passively accept the treacherous workings of our genes?
Urbanism will be a key lever.
Featured Image: Shenzhen