There is a terrible misconception about evolution that is universal. It comes from a semantic quirk, started with Darwin himself, and is (oddly) supported by the ideologies of both the religious and the secular humanist. One must remember that the writings of Darwin, along with all of the philosophy written prior to 1954, were formulated based on observations of organisms. The molecular study of the basic mechanisms in the process of evolution did not begin until the helix construction was discovered in 1954, and in fact the bulk of the knowledge is only now (1999) developing, primarily as the result of the genome project .

Evolution, it is said, is a matter of survival of the fittest.

This belief, although it has a very small element of truth in it, is greatly misleading. It gives the idea that evolution is, somehow, a positive process, one that develops superior organisms such as the strong, virile, intelligent human (that kind of thinking makes it easy to believe). The human, in its ego, believes itself to be a superior creature, and since it is a product of evolution, then evolution must be wonderful.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The religious, faced with mounting evidence about evolution, seek to find God's hand in it and so, grasping at straws, it is easier for them to accept evolution if it should be a process which seeks to build a higher (more Godlike?) creature. The secular humanist, lacking real knowledge and rejecting religious dogma, turns to the philosophers for answers, none of whom, frankly, have a clue. Even the most atheistic philosopher will expound greatly, even while claiming independence from the spiritual, on the intrinsic (spiritual?) values of the human and the glories of the life force (God?) called evolution and how true intelligence (like his?) is somehow a magical (spiritual?) parameter of the human neural system and is the central aspect of human life.

Neither approach to evolution has a shred of real supporting evidence. But the mechanism of evolution, in its general form, is becoming well known.

The basic elements of evolution:

  1. A DNA string, one which describes a surviving organism, suffers accidents in its replication. These accidents are not planned, there are no goals, and there is no compassion for the organism. These mutations are, pure and simple, mechanical mistakes in replication of the DNA string. Since the string is the description of an organism, one which is complex in construction, the DNA string is also highly complex. The mutation acts as a random tuning of a string in a piano. Rarely will a random tuning result in a better sound. Usually a random tuning ruins that key for playing music. Enough of them on the piano ruins the piano. Mutations, being almost chaotic, are hardly Godlike, or spiritual in any way. Neither are they reasonable in any manner.
  2. The now-deformed organism is born. The world it enters has certain requirements for survival. Different organisms have developed in different environmental niches. If the modified organism is able to survive its deformity in its particular environmental (which in most organisms includes a social environment as well) then the mutation is perpetuated, if not, the deformity is removed through suffering and death. Borderline deformities diminish the comfort of the strain, sometimes to the point of requiring many generations of suffering before finally succumbing to environmental pressures. This is a ghastly, cruel and inhuman process.
  3. If the organism is in balance with its environment, it will suffer a high mortality rate. This high mortality rate is necessary in order to keep the accumulation of deformities at a low enough level for the species to survive. The human, for example has about three critical area mutations per birth. About half of these will survive in the gene pool. If the environment is too severe for the organism to survive (the mortality rate is too high) then the organism will become extinct. If the mortality rate is too low, the deformities will accumulate in the species gene pool, diminishing the species ability to survive, until it reaches balance again. The human, as a result of its intellect, has solved many of its survival problems through compassionate cultures, housing, clothing, agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine and other technology. As a result it has tampered with its environment, allowing longer lives, more individual comfort and a too-high population growth. Any mutation that survives birth is now propagated throughout the human gene pool, since we have effectively removed the cleansing effect of the environment. Deleterious mutations are accumulating in the human gene pool. Since the human is now dependent on the technology of its society, if it should degenerate to the point of societal collapse, the entire species would likely become extinct.

In summary:

Although there is an element of truth in the idea that evolution provides a survival of the fittest, that factor is only an extremely small part of the process. It is true that the occasional mutation that provides benefit to a species is readily accepted into the species gene pool, but those mutations that harm human survival far far outnumber those that help. The major effect of evolution toward species survival is the removal of deleterious mutations. Unfortunately, the method evolution uses for this cleansing, death and suffering, is terrible. In seeking relief from this aspect of evolution, the human, by removing a large part of the environment, now lives under a one-sided evolution in which the same rate of mutations (deformities) still occur but the cleansing effect of the environment has been largely nullified.

A final note:
Since the elements of the human neural system are also subject to evolution, evolutionary forces (mutation, environment) apply to the neural system in precisely the same manner that they do to the physical body. They affect both the intellect and the instincts. Since the evolution of human culture is tightly interwoven with human evolution, it, also, suffers the same malady.