Future Humans

Image Credit / Nickolay Lamm

Image Credit / Nickolay Lamm

Humans evolved. We have been aware of this reality for 150 years, yet the implications are not apparent to most. What we have discovered about evolution is that it is A) not goal oriented and B) not hierarchical (i.e., there is no end state). This means that humans, as we currently exist, will not always exist.

Let me be clear before proceeding. This does not mean extinction is inevitable. But it does mean that our current form cannot persist indefinitely. We will change.

As a result of this knowledge, geneticist Dr. Alan Kwan and graphic designer Nickolay Lamm attempted to understand what we might look like in 20,000-100,000 years. Unfortunately for both individuals involved, their work is not science and should only be considered misleading science fiction.

Most biologists have a fantastic understanding of evolution (obviously). Biologists have revealed how the entire biosphere evolved. The theory of evolution by natural selection can explain in fantastic detail how a colony of the first replicating cells could diversify over time to produce endless forms most beautiful, including highly intelligent species like our own.

Despite the theory of evolution’s beautiful simplicity, clearly many people do not understand how it works at all. Evolution is a theory that can explain the history of organisms. Evolution can explain how things change. However, the theory is very rarely useful in predicting specific changes. From our knowledge of the history of biosphere, we can say some things about how a biosphere evolves, and therefore predict a few things about what we should suspect of the biosphere millions of years in the future. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins expounded on this quite well recently:

Evolution is very seldom in the business of predicting what is going to happen in a million years time. What I would say is that if you asked me what life is going to look like in say, ten million years or twenty million years, […] what there will be is a whole lot of different species doing pretty much the same thing as the present species are, but they’ll all be different. […] What you can predict is that there will be a similar range of species, doing a similar range of things, and that’s a fascinating thought.

Of course I agree with Dawkins main point, which is that we now understand how a biosphere is likely to change, even if we can’t say anything specifically about any one organism. We understand how a biosphere changes given the existence of certain traits like vision, hearing, echolocation, etc.

However, where I would perhaps disagree with Dawkins is that his analysis does not account for intelligence. Intelligence is here now. The Earth has a nervous system. Presently, that is our species: Homo sapiens. Intelligence is a game changer for evolution and it is a game changer for the biosphere. In the history of life on Earth, no intelligent species has ever created technology that itself evolves. As a result, we have no idea what the biosphere will look like over millions of years, given the presence of high intelligence. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.

This is fundamentally why the research done by Alan Kwan and Nickolay Lamm is wrong. But they are wrong for two other important reasons as well:

1) Conventional evolutionary mechanisms for change do not effect our species. For example, all species are subject to the law of natural selection. In all species that have ever existed most individuals did not survive long enough to reproduce. Differential non-random survival produced change over long spans of time. However humans are lifting themselves from natural selection because most people live long enough to reproduce. The mechanisms for change that will take natural selections place will be self-imposed through genetic engineering. This means that we will still be changing, but that change will literally be intelligent. Ironically, we will be intelligently designing ourselves. Although it is possible for me to posit this will occur, it is literally impossible for me to say what humans 500 or 1,000 years hence choose to change about their genetic makeup.

2) Technological evolution is speeding up, which is going to make biological evolution near irrelevant. All other species are subject to biological evolutionary processes that take tens of thousands of years (at least) to make considerable genomic changes. However, technological evolution (which is driven by culture) changes on yearly timescales. And that process is only getting faster. In the next 100 years we will likely witness more technological evolution than perhaps all of previous human history combined. How humans in only the next 100 years decide to fundamentally alter their form is debatable and realistically speaking, approaches unknowability. Many theories posit that the human form in 100 years will be primarily cyborg or robotic. It seems probable to me. But not 100% knowable.

Are we starting to see why predicting what we will look like in 100,000 years is ridiculous?

In the end, there is an important lesson to learn from the work of Dr. Kwan and Nickolay Lamm. First, it is important to acknowledge that the human form has not always appeared as it currently does. Second, that form will continue to change, and although we can gauge some type of directionality to that change, it is impossible to say what change will occur on the scales of deep time. Finally, we need to acknowledge that the human species is different than any life that has come before in the history of Earth. As I stated above, biologists have a good understanding of how life has evolved over the past 4 billion years. But we have no idea how life evolves given high intelligence. Therefore, we cannot predict what the biosphere will look like on the scales of deep time if we include the variable of intelligence. And we definitely can’t predict specific anatomical, physical, or genetic changes that may occur within our species.

Understanding human evolution is a science. We must make sure that when we discuss human evolution, both in the past and in contemporary times, that we focus on what is knowable. Attempting to understand what is probable in the next 100 years is in the realm of science. It is a maturing predictive science, but it is still science. In contrast, attempting to understand what will happen in the next 100,000 is impossible. It is science fiction.

What do you think about the future of human evolution?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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Further Confirmation of the Big Bang

The Big Bang / BBC Science

The Big Bang / BBC Science

And it all started with a Big Bang…

Everyone knows our universe began with a Big Bang.  Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that approximately 13.8 billion years we know that what we can observe seemed to have underwent a significant phase transition, which directly led to the creation of all known matter and energy, and perhaps led to the existence of space and time itself.  But we don’t know that the Big Bang was the start of everything there is.  We don’t know whether there are other areas of our universe that existed pre-Big Bang.  And perhaps more importantly, we don’t know what caused the Big Bang itself.

However, I definitely don’t want to undersell how powerful a theory the Big Bang theory is.  The Big Bang theory is the central, guiding theory in all cosmology, and can explain nearly every aspect of the universe we observe.  That is quite an ambitious and successful theory by any measure.  And last month the Big Bang theory got a big boost by a team of international researchers that massively strengthened one of the four observational pillars of the Big Bang.

For everyone who doesn’t know, the four observational pillars of the Big Bang are:

  1. Expansion of the fabric of space
  2. Cosmic Background Radiation
  3. Abundance of light elements
  4. Galactic evolution and distribution

The observed expansion of spacetime itself is crucial to supporting the idea that our observed universe started with a Big Bang.  All galaxies are rushing apart from each other.  The further apart two galaxies are, the further apart they are rushing apart.  This expansion has been ongoing since the beginning of spacetime itself.  We can extrapolate expansion rates into the past, and with help from Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we can get an estimate on the conditions of the early universe.

The Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR) is equally important to understanding the Big Bang as the expansion of spacetime.  Discovered in the 1960s, the CBR is empirical confirmation that the universe was once in a primordial state with no galaxies or stars.  It is actually a snapshot of time approximately 380,000 years post-bang when the universe had just started to form atoms and photons were first able to roam freely.  This period in the universe’s development was predicted by the general theory of relativity, and thus is a fantastic example of the predictive power of the theory.

The fourth pillar (we’ll get to the third after!) is also important.  We now know that galaxies have evolved in a quite straightforward direction of time.  As the universe expanded gravity pulled slightly unevenly distributed matter into larger and larger clumps.  First gravity sculpted clouds of hydrogen.  Then young galaxies.  Then super clusters of galaxies.  Today the largest structures in the universe are galaxies connected like giant cosmic filaments.  Our universe as a giant web of matter (that is admittedly being ripped further and further apart).

Finally, the third pillar: the abundance of light elements.  For a while chemists wondered how we could possibly explain why 99% of the universe was composed of the lightest elements: hydrogen, helium, and lithium.  Stars are chemical factories, but the known process of thermonuclear fusion predicts that there should be a higher percentage of heavier elements than observed.  The only way we can explain the observed abundance of light elements is if the universe was once as hot and dense as a star for a short period of time.  If this was the case we should suspect that the universe in this state would have only been able to produce the lightest elements, which would explain why they are so abundant.

Wait… that is what the Big Bang theory predicts!  Perfect!  This phenomenon is called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis“.  But there is a problem.  Scientists have shown that the Big Bang theory roughly accounts for the amount of hydrogen and helium observed.  Over the past few decades astronomers have observed that there are two times the amount of two Lithium isotopes (Li-6 and Li-7) than Big Bang nucleosynthesis could account for.  This is a major problem that cosmologists have been working to resolve now for over twenty years.  Some scientists suspected that there could be pre-galactic fusion cores that we don’t have the technology to observe yet.  Some thought there was a big enough discrepancy in observations to that justify re-working the Big Bang theory itself.

However, last month the aforementioned Big Bang pillar-reinforcing study demonstrated that the problem was technological.  The authors claim that the observed over-abundance of lithium was due to poor observational quality in the past.  In their study, utilizing the powerful W.M. Keck Observatory’s 10-meter telescope, they completely reconciled the Big Bang theory with the observed abundance of lithium.

As a result, the pillars are stronger than ever.  Our universe, at least what we can observe of it, started with Big Bang.  Future studies related to reinforcing the pillar of the Big Bang will now be focused on observing the first stars and galaxies in our universe’s history.  In order to do that, astronomers will have to wait for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the planned successor of Hubble and is scheduled to launch in 2018.

What do you think of this scientific development?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!