The Elephant in Biology’s Room

Imagine humans one day fulfill what is currently only a dream for the discipline known today as synthetic biology: to create a whole new species from simple organic molecules. No, not by combining biomolecules, or larger structures we obtained from living systems. Imagine we create at some point a new life form from scratch. As any other, this life form will be able to self-sustain and to self-reproduce with variation, and thus able to undergo evolution by natural selection. We will have a new species on our planet—whatever our definition of species, it will be indisputably new.

This species would deserve a place in the history of life on Earth. So, how do we explain its evolutionary debut using concepts from classical evolutionary theory? Was it natural selection? No. Was it allopatric, parapatric, or sympatric speciation—phenomena at the geographical level? No. Was it lateral gene transfer, polyploidization, or hybridization—phenomena at the molecular level? No.

We may try with less standard concepts. Was it the Baldwin effect? No. Kin selection? No. Group selection? No. Multilevel selection? No. Epigenetics? No. . .

This thought experiment is, of course, beginning to get as silly as the brilliant Monty Python’s Cheese Shop skit—only not funny, so I should stop. In lay terms, we would simply and finally say that humans made new life come into being. (Let’s try for now not to make matters worse by saying that humans consciously made new life come into being.)

(continue reading)