The Human Genome Project, an international initiative launched in 1990, sought to identify the entire genetic makeup of our species. For many scientists, it meant trying to understand the genetic underpinnings of what made humans uniquely human. James Watson, a codiscoverer of the helical shape of DNA, wrote that “when finally interpreted, the genetic messages encoded within our DNA molecules will provide the ultimate answers to the chemical underpinnings of human existence” (Watson 1990, 248). The underlying message is that what makes humans unique can be found in our genes. The Human Genome Project hoped to find the core of who we are and where we come from.
Despite its lofty goal, the Human Genome Project—even after publishing the entire human genome in January 2022—could not fully account for the many factors that contribute to what it is to be human. Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin (2017) argue that genetic determinism of the sort assumed by the Human Genome Project neglects other essential dimensions that contribute to the development and evolution of human bodies, not to mention the role that culture plays. They use an apt metaphor of a cake to illustrate the incompleteness of reductive models. Consider the flavor of a cake and think of the ingredients listed in the recipe. The recipe includes ingredients such as flour, sugar, shortening, vanilla extract, eggs, and milk. Does raw flour taste like cake? Does sugar, vanilla extract, or any of the other ingredients taste like cake? They do not, and knowing the individual flavors of each ingredient does not tell us much about what cake tastes like. Even mixing all of the ingredients in the correct proportions does not get us cake. Instead, external factors such as baking at the right temperature, for the right amount of time, and even the particularities of our evolved sense of taste and smell are all necessary components of experiencing the cake.
Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin (2017) argue that the same is true for humans and other organisms.
Knowing everything about cake ingredients does not allow us to fully know cake. Equally so, knowing everything about the genes found in our DNA does not allow us to fully know humans. Different, interacting levels are implicated in the development and evolution of all organisms, including humans. Genes, the structure of chromosomes, developmental processes, epigenetic tags, environmental factors, and still-other components all play key roles such that genetically reductive models of human development and evolution are woefully inadequate.
The complex interactions across many levels—genetic, developmental, and environmental—explain why we still do not know how our one-dimensional DNA nucleotide sequence results in a four-dimensional organism. This was the unfulfilled promise of the inception of the Human Genome Project in the 1980s and 1990s: the project produced the complete DNA sequence of a human cell in the hopes that it would reveal how human bodies are built and how to cure them when they are built poorly. Yet, that information has remained elusive. Presumably, the knowledge of how organisms are produced from DNA sequences will one day permit us to reconcile the discrepancies between patterns in anatomical evolution and molecular evolution.
In this chapter, we will consider multilevel evolution and explore evolution as a complex interaction between genetic and epigenetic factors as well as the environments in which organisms live. Next, we will examine the biopolitical nature of human evolution. We will then investigate problems that arise from attributing all traits to an adaptive function. Finally, we will address common misconceptions about evolution. The goal of this chapter is to provide you with the necessary toolkit for understanding the molecular, anatomical, and political dimensions of evolution.