For much of the history of life, evolution worked a certain way. Organisms competed for the chance to reproduce. An individual with an advantageous mutation would produce more offspring, which would inherit the advantageous gene, and in this way life continually improved upon itself.
But I would argue that for humans, in the world as it is today, this process is more or less defunct. We are not, by and large, competing with each other to produce more offspring. It's true that some people lack reproductive ability or die before their time, but most people who reach adulthood with their health intact can have as many babies as they want. It is a matter of choice more than a competition. Furthermore, people with genetic defects, who may never have survived in times past, can now (sometimes) lead healthy procreative lives thanks to modern medicine.
This means that the best genes no longer produce more copies. There is no longer a way for advantageous mutations to spread through the population. If these trends continue, we can expect that our gene pool will no longer improve, and may even degrade a bit thanks to advanced health care. The human body and mind are currently as good as they will ever get.
So have humans stopped evolving? As individuals, I would say yes. But our society is clearly still evolving, due a mechanism we evolved in the past million years (back when we were still evolving the normal way): language.
Language allows for the evolution of ideas rather than genes. A person with a good idea can communicate it to others, who, if they like it, can communicate it further. In this way good ideas, rather than good traits, spread through the population.
Here's another way of seeing the difference: for conventional evolution, DNA carries information about traits that successfully spread themselves. For this new form of evolution, language (both oral and written) carries information about ideas that successfully spread themselves.
I don't think any of the above ideas are terribly original. But it occurred to me today that while there are many mathematical models for genetic evolution, I don't know of any good models for the evolution of ideas. And more generally, how does a society that progresses by idea-based evolution differ from one that evolves genetically? The question is so vague I can barely conceive of how to frame it, but it seems very important to the study of humanity's future.
A new kind of problem
16 hours ago in RRResearch