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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No Population Bomb

I frequently meet people who think that overpopulation will lead to some future disaster (i.e., a “population bomb”).  This is frustrating mostly because fear mongering about overpopulation has been a favourite past-time of many academics for more than two centuries now.  The two most famous examples of overpopulation fear mongering came from Thomas Malthus in the 19th century and Paul Ehrlich in the 20th century.  Both academics predicted global catastrophes at dates that have come and gone without humans surpassing carrying capacity.

These scholars were not necessarily bad scientists or not properly employing the scientific method.  The human population has been growing exponentially since 1650 – the longest period of exponential population growth for any organism… ever.  As ecologists and biologists know, strongly r-selected species that experience exponential population growth for even a few years reach their carrying capacity and then experience a population collapse.  Malthus and Ehrlich reasoned that this was bound to happen to us as well.

The mistake of both Malthus and Ehrlich was that they didn’t realize that humans are a strongly K-selected species and the cause of our exponential growth was a-typical (i.e., human ingenuity enabled us to continually raise the carrying capacity by improving medicine, health, and agricultural practices).  But if Malthus and Ehrlich are wrong, does anyone have a better understanding of the future of our population?  Can our population keep exploding exponentially?

First off, several population models have been constructed over the past two decades, and they provide us with interesting data.  But perhaps the most insightful study was recently published by a team of Spanish mathematicians at the Autonomous University of Madrid.  They modelled human population trends from 1900 to 2010.  This enabled them to extrapolate these trends and make predictions for the future.  They concluded that the world population would stop growing by mid-century (2050) at around ~8-9 billion individuals.  This prediction is in line with the majority of the United Nations low-estimate projections for future population growth.

These researchers were able to make such firm predictions because of important trends in population growth that many people may be unaware of.  For example, although the human population reached 7 billion recently, the growth rate peaked in 1963 (2.2% growth) and has been slowing ever since (in 2011 it was 1.1%).  Also, the total annual birth rate peaked in the 1980s and has been declining ever since.  And finally countries in the developed world are already at (or below) replacement level fertility levels (2.33 children per woman).  In fact, the global population itself is quickly reaching replacement level fertility levels (which explains why growth rates and total annual birth rates are declining) (figure below).

What is causing population growth to slow?

Our species is not slowing down population growth because we are reaching carrying capacity.  We are slowing down population growth because of education, gender equality, the rural-to-urban transition, and birth control.

Human growth rate is directly correlated with affluence.  The richer a country becomes the slower their population grows.  This is because affluent countries provide better education for both men and women.  When women are educated they are freed to participate in society and build careers (as opposed to being career mothers).  Women in developed affluent countries tend to have 2-3 children (or 0-1 children) as opposed to 5-10 children.  In fact, even in developed countries, the trend for women to have fewer and fewer children may be continuing.  As a result, it would not surprise me if fertility levels were well below 2 and approaching 1 in many developed countries by the 2030s.  And as countries throughout the world modernize and develop, equal access to education for females should continue to spread.

Another major cause of the slower population growth is the rural-to-urban transition.  In 1900 every country had a predominantly rural population.  In rural areas farming is the dominant (if not only) way to make a living.  This mode of production provides children with an important function: they can work the farm.  As a result, there is an economic incentive to have children.  However, children are very expensive in urban settings, and they are never an economic benefit because they are in school until they can provide for themselves.  This always leads to family size decreasing in urban settings. And urbanization as a global process is not going to be stopped.  Even conservative estimates suspect that 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030.  The U.N. projects that it will be around 70% by 2050 (again, that is a conservative estimate).   Considering that countries in the developed world have already urbanized, the majority of these rural-to-urban migrations will be in the developing world (figure below).

Finally, the invention of (and cheap and easy access to) birth control is something that changed the Western world forever.  Once women were able to gain more control over their own reproduction family size started to decrease.  There were fewer unwanted/unplanned children.  That is why providing cheap and easy access to birth control world wide is so important.  Combined with female education and rapid urbanization, these forces will allow all countries to join the developed countries with a fertility level of 2.3 (or lower).

Of course, all of this (equal access to education for females and continued rapid urbanization leading to decreased global fertility) is all dependent on current rates of economic development in the developed world.  Without raising the standard of living for the global population, the population trends observed today will reverse.  And in order to ensure that the developing world’s economic growth continues, we must ensure that we transition to a new energy economy and avoid major nation-state wars.

Statistician Hans Rosling has calculated that all of these scenarios are probable.  I agree.  If current economic development trends continue we should expect the average person’s income in India and China (for example) to reach the same levels of the U.K., U.S.A., and Japan by 2048.  Check out Rosling’s TED talk on this: Asia’s rise – how and when.  Also, as Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk have pointed out, a transition to a new energy economy is highly probable and will likely happen over the next 20 years.  This transition (from fossil fuels to predominantly solar) will not only provide us with clean and renewable energy, but also more abundant and cheaper energy.  Finally, as Steven Pinker explained in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.  There have been no developed world nation state wars since 1945.  I believe this trend should continue.

All of this makes it highly probable that between now (2013) and 2050 global population will plateau.  Equal access to education for females and rapid urbanization will lead the way.  The trends are clear: the more educated women are and the more urbanized populations are, the smaller their family size.  So long as current economic development trends continue, a transition to new energy is fulfilled, and developed world state-conflict remains non-existent, those social trends driving reduced fertility will also continue.

Due to all of the factors involved in this population transition, it may seem like an unlikely situation.  But the key is that all of these trends are very strong and well under way. It would take an extreme reversal of current trends for population not to stabilize.  That is why the global population researchers from the Autonomous University of Madrid were able to make such a strong conclusion from their mathematical models about our future population decline.

All this means that on the scale of hundreds of years our population growth may actually look like a very steep sigmoidal curve.  But of course, in 2050 our planet and species will look very different than it currently is.  There is a limit to what our models can predict about the future population.  It could be that the human population plateaus and stabilizes.  However, in a world with more energy, more geopolitical stability, advanced A.I., and a larger extraterrestrial presence, our species demographics may begin to change in unexpected ways.  For now, we may simply be relieved that Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong.  We will not encounter a population bomb.

What are your thoughts on overpopulation?  Share them with Cadell on Twitter!

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Robot Sex Revolution

The robotics revolution is coming. In the not-to-distant future robots will completely transform our world in more profound ways than the internet did in the 1990s and 2000s. The evidence for this coming revolution have already started to develop. For example:

All of these examples represent the tip-of-the-iceberg in terms of what is currently possible. Furthermore, this does not even begin to scratch the surface of what will be possible in the 2020s and 2030s. As a result, I believe that research into the future of A.I. may be the most important area of research at the moment.

However, even if robotics technology continues to evolve at its current pace, will robots ever be conscious entities that we have real relationships with?

In a recent Aeon Magazine article, George Zarkadakis wonders whether the ultimate goal of A.I. is to create conscious machines that we can love. I will leave it for philosophers to decide whether that is our “ultimate goal” with the development of A.I. However, I do believe that we will create robotic beings that we will fall in love with. Whether or not they will actually be conscious is irrelevant.

In a recent book titled Sex and Love With Robots by artificial intelligence expert David Levy, Levy posits that this will happen by around 2050.

“Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach us more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.”

— David Levy

Levy realistically expected that many people would have an intense negative emotional reaction to these ideas, stating that:

“It would not surprise me if a significant proportion of readers deride these ideas until my predictions have been proved correct.”

— David Levy

For the most part, I agree with Levy. In fact, my views on this issue are likely considered more extreme (or taboo) than his. In my own theory of technological evolution, I feel as though this decade will witness the complete blurring of the online and offline worlds. In the next decade (2020s), I feel as though the same will happen with the biological and technological worlds.

This blurring will include intimate relationships with robots.

Human-like robots will most likely be physically and intellectually indistinguishable from humans towards the end of the 2020s. This will inevitably spark massive societal conversations about the rights and role of robots within our society. But perhaps more interestingly, this will also inevitably lead to situations where humans will have deep personal relationships with all kinds of robots.

At first, I suspect people will view sexual partnership with robots in the same way people initially judged online dating last decade. Over a relatively short period of time, once more and more people become accustomed to the new normal, the stigma against intimate relationships with robots should disappear.

And this is why my views are probably more extreme than Levy’s. Whereas he believes these intimate relationships will develop by 2050, I think that is a ridiculously conservative estimate. By the 2030s robot-human sexual relationships will likely be quite pervasive. I suspect that these sexual relationships will range from casual sex or prostitution to long-term bonds and marriage.

Henrik Christensen, founder of the European Robotics Research Network, thinks that sex with robots is only five years away. Since he is referring to a very primitive type of robot, I pretty much agree. He stated:

“There are companies that already sell realistic sex dolls, and its just a matter of adding some electronics to them to add some vibration, or endowing the robots with a few audio responses. That’s fairly primitive in terms of robotics, but the technology is already there.””

— Henrik Christensen

Today, we have started to have conversations with robots). What happens when the mind of Watson) (or more advanced) is uploaded as software inside a robotic brain similar to the one designed by the University of Waterloo? What happens when that brain is in the body of a human-like robot not dissimilar to those that already exist today?

The conclusion may seem extreme and controversial to many. But that won’t stop it from happening. The robotics revolution is coming. And human-robot sex will be a part of that revolution.

You can find more of Cadell’s futuristic ramblings on Twitter.

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Comprehending Deep Time

Last year an important study on great ape generation length effectively doubled the amount of time since our divergence with chimpanzees and bonobos.  Many evolutionary anthropologists now believe that the human-chimp-bonobo divergence occurred between 7-14 million years ago, as opposed to 6 million years ago (the large range of the speciation gap is because the speciation event is now thought to be a long-term process, as opposed to a temporally swift event).  And last week the European Space Agency announced new data indicating our universe is 50 million years older than previously believed (from 13.77 to 13.82 billion years old).  Both of these studies force us to reconceptualize our reality: the first challenges our interpretation of human evolution, and the second challenges our interpretation of the universe’s history and development.

But how can we best understand these numbers and reinterpretations?

Attempting to comprehend the unimaginably long stretch of time that preceded the present is something many scientists must confront.  This usually poses incredible challenges because our minds have evolved to conceptualize time on scales of years, decades, and centuries; as opposed to time on scales of millions or billions of years.  In fact, even conceptualizing the timescales of human civilization is quite daunting.  For example, Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted from 3,000 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E., which for context is 13 times longer than independent United States history.

Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen J. Gould dedicated his life to understand phenomenon on deep time scales.  He stated that:

“The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. An abstract, intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough, getting it into the gut is quite another matter.”

— Stephen J. Gould

I understand (and respect) Gould’s opinion on this issue, but I slightly disagree.  I do not think that an abstract, intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily.  When I was in college I spent hours thinking hard about deep time.  In order to improve my understanding of phenomena on these time scales I frequently relied on metaphor and varying time scale comparisons.  I also read books about the history of the universe that detailed events in reverse chronology.  I felt as though reverse chronology accounts of our past eased me gently into ever greater time scales.  Once I had absorbed an understanding of phenomena that occurred on scales of millennia, it was far easier for me to absorb an understanding of phenomena that occurred on scales of hundreds of millennia.  After applying this approach, it became progressively easier to view all events in our contemporary world from the perspective of cosmic time.

Applying this approach also helps to understand studies that alter the master narrative of existence like the two papers mentioned above.  How should we approach an understanding of the new human-chimpanzee-bonobo divergence time and the new age of our universe?  I would argue that for proper context we should consult one of the most important intellectual tools humans have developed to understand deep time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in the 1980s.  This calendar is used to map the entire lifetime of the universe, and all significant events, onto a single calendar year.  By employing this calendar metaphor, the human mind is able to approach un-human time scales in a human format.

For the recalculated human-chimpanzee-bonobo divergence time we must now conceptualize a gradual split that occurred over a scale of 7 million years (14-7mya), as opposed to a relatively sudden split 6 mya.  A speciation occurring over 7 million years is almost an unfathomably long period of time.  Once modern humans had left Africa it took them ~50,000 years to colonize nearly every available landmass on the planet.  That means the human-chimpanzee-bonobo speciation event took 140 times longer than human colonization of the entire planet!

On the Cosmic Calendar our previous understanding of the human-chimpanzee-bonobo speciation event occurred on December 31st at approximately 20:04 P.M.  So with this framework the critical split leading to the evolution of humans occurred about 4 hours before the New Year!  Under our new interpretation we can still imagine the split as occurring on December 31st.  However, the key difference is that the split will be occurring over several hours: from 15:24-19:04 P.M.  So the human emergence story is now occupying a slightly larger fraction of the famous Cosmic Calendar.

But let’s remember to put this in proper perspective.  Biological evolution, and speciation specifically, can take millions of years.  For the human mind this is nearly impossible to understand without a useful tool like a Cosmic Calendar.  As I stated above, the speciation event between humans and our closest relatives took 140 times longer than the complete colonization of the planet.  Yet we still only emerge on the last day of the universe’s time scale.  Our distant hominid ancestors made it just in time for the New Year’s Party.

The universe’s age was also recalculated last week.  For many people this may not mean very much.  What is the difference between 13.77 and 13.82?  This may seem like an inconsequential age extension of a universe we already knew was ancient.  But let’s remember that 13.77 BILLION to 13.82 BILLION (~50 million years) is the difference between primates and no primates.  Almost all of primate evolution, and certainly all-significant events within primate evolution, occurred within the last 50 million years!  Approximately 50 million years ago, lemurs had yet to raft to Madagascar, New World Monkeys had yet to make their mysterious journey to South America, and apes did not exist at all!

The reason I discussed time scales related to great ape evolution (e.g., hundreds of thousands of years and millions of years) first was to ease you back into the world of billions.  On the Cosmic Calendar the reimagining of a universe 50 million years older does not change very much: our galaxy still forms around the same time, as does our planet, and life, and all other significant developments in the history of our universe.  This is because on the scale of the universe, 50 million years is comparable to a couple of months for a human.  The equivalent of adding all of primate evolution to the Cosmic Calendar is inconsequential to the unimaginable expanse of cosmic time.

Why is this important to understand?  Apart from being mind-bendingly cool and being a useful tool to help you understand scientific discoveries; it should also help you put your own life in context.  Our entire order’s evolution is nothing on the temporal scale of billions of years.  Our species emergence is but a preamble to the universe’s New Year’s Eve party.  And modern civilization?  We arrived a few seconds (13 seconds to be fair), before the ball dropped.  When we start to discuss an individual’s life, we may be diving into the temporal scales of nanoseconds.

If those scales do not humble you, nothing will.

Cadell Last is on Twitter!  It will only take a few seconds to follow!

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Another Earth

Astronomy is often referred to as the most intellectually humbling academic subject.  When you study astronomy you are confronted with scale, size, and time that is completely alien to the human mind.  We evolved to understand spatial scales of kilometers, not light-years, and to understand temporal scales of decades, not billions of years.

Despite this, it is always important to contextualize the human experience with astronomical knowledge.  And last year was a year of particularly insightful discoveries relevant to understanding our species place within the universe.  In 2012, astronomers discovered: a) the first earth-sized planets, b) an earth-sized planet in the nearest star system to earth, and c) the first earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of its parents star.  These discoveries represent major milestones in the development of human knowledge.  They allow us to better-contextualize our planets relationship to the rest of the universe.

To me, these discoveries provide the first empirical evidence that earth-like planets are likely very common in the Milky Way galaxy (and probably in most other galaxies as well).  As soon as astronomers had the technology and methods developed to detect planets as small as earth, they started detecting them.  In the coming years I expect that we will become overwhelmed with headlines similar to: “another earth-like planet detected.”

Interestingly, a paper accepted yesterday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters provided a statistical analysis indicating that we should find some of those earth-like planets in our cosmic neighbourhood.  Ravi Kopparapu, lead author of the study claims: “we now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take.  That is a conservation estimate.”  Since there are eight M-stars (small stars) within 10 light-years of Earth, we should conservatively expect to find three Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their parent star.

For me, these estimates are very surprising.  Last decade we had no data on likely frequency of earth-like planets and relatively little data on frequency of exoplanets.  I was someone who thought exoplanets would be very common (which they are), but I thought earth-like planets would be relatively rare.  But it looks like that guess was off.  And if current estimates are accurate, and there are three Earth-like planets within 10 light-years of Earth, we should expect some BIG discoveries in the next two decades.

Why? Because of the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

I remember a few years ago I went to a special presentation at McMaster University with my granddad and a friend about the first image ever recorded of an exoplanet.  I was excited, but I knew before the presentation started that what we were going to be observing would be a grainy pixel on a dark black screen.  Even our best telescopes are very poor at directly detecting exoplanets (which is why all exoplanet discoveries are made indirectly by either a) detecting the light they bend when they cross their parent star(s) or b) their gravitation effects on their parent star(s)).

However, when the JWST (successor to the Hubble Space Telescope) is launched in 2018, we will be able to directly detect exoplanets within 25 light-years of our star system.  This means that if Kopparapu and others are correct we are going to be able to see images of other earth-like planets in the 2020s.

I’ll let that thought sink in a little bit.

But wait! It gets better.  The JWST can also determine the chemical composition of planets.  This means that not only will we get detailed images of other Earth-like planets soon but also we will likely be able to tell if those planets are home to life.  This is because life creates, transforms, and regulates the biosphere, radically altering a planets chemical composition.  Obviously we will not be able to identify species and get specific biological information, but we would likely be able to tell if they were carbon-based life forms that depended on oxygen and hydrogen for survival (for example).

If this doesn’t get you interested in scientific discovery and the future of human understanding, I don’t know what will.  The discoveries of the past two years in astronomy definitely help us conceptualize our place within the Milky Way.  However, these discoveries make me even more excited for what is just around the corner.  We are on the technological edge of making the most profound discoveries in the history of science: finding another earth.  And if you think about how much seeing a picture of our planet from space did to our understanding of life and our place within the universe, just wait until you see another Earth.

Love space and the future?  Find out more about both by following Cadell’s Twitter!

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Technology for the World

This morning Nigel Warburton published a fantastic article titled “Cosmopolitans” in Aeon Magazine.  Within it, he discusses how our nation typically defines us geographically, and our immediate social networks dominate our social thinking.  He argues that as evolved social apes we tend to think on small social scales.  Despite this, there is an ancient philosophical tradition, cosmopolitanism, which emphasizes that we think globally.  Warburton believes that there is a high likelihood this philosophical tradition will predominate in the future.

I most certainly agree.  As I have discussed before in The Ratchet within the context of “othering,” thinking of humanity as an equal and united whole is a philosophical view that is becoming increasingly popular.

Interestingly, in the last half of the 20th century, most astronauts embraced cosmopolitanism.  As Mike Rugnetta of the PBS Idea Channel has pointed out, astronauts embrace this view because they are “bludgeoned with perspective.”  They realize that we are one species, living on one planet when they gaze upon Earth from space.  Alan Shephard, lunar module pilot for Apollo 9 explained this experience well:

“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. It comes through you so powerfully that you are the sensing element for man.”

— Alan Shephard

But of course, we don’t need to go to space to adopt this philosophy and feel this way about our species and planet. In 1972 we all had access to The Blue Marble image, the first picture of our planet from space.  And in 1990 we received The Pale Blue Dot image, a picture of our planet from 6 billion kilometers away, which put our existence into even deeper context.  We can now all think and imagine our species to be globally connected, as opposed to being divided by borders, religions, and ethnicities.  In fact, The Pale Blue Dot image is my favourite picture because it allows everyone to imagine this.

This philosophical view that we are all one species is translating into people creating technologies to help the world, as opposed to creating technologies for one group of people, or one nation of people.  Peter Diamandis, co-creator of Singularity University is a great example of the potential practical application of this perspective.  At Singularity University he challenges students to use modern information technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges (e.g., scarce energy, clean water, access to medicine, etc.).  The key point here is that individuals are creating technologies to improve the lives of everyone, our entire species.

The liberating possibilities for our species this decade are mind blowing.  For example, Dean Kamen has developed the SlingShot, which is a water purification technology that can generate thousands of liters of clean water per day out of any liquid source.  Dirty water, sludge, and salt water, can all be transformed into fresh and clean drinkable water.  This technology will be distributed around the world this decade and potentially give all humans access to clean water.

Also, there is the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize challenging teams around the world to create mobile devices that you can speak to, can cough on, do a finger blood prick with, and can diagnose anyone better than a team of board-certified doctors. In the future, we may all be able to have a mobile-sized “Watson-doctor” on our phones. These technologies should also diffuse throughout the world in the same way that cell phone technologies did throughout the developing world this past decade.

What does the world look like when everyone has access to clean water and world-class medical expertise?

These are but a few examples of how great thinkers are thinking about the health, safety, and welfare of people globally.  We are going to be developing technologies that help everyone, not just a few, or the wealthy.  We are one species. We are starting to think of ourselves in this way.  The philosophy of cosmopolitanism is alive and well. And it has a very bright future.

Are you on Twitter?  If so, you can follow me from anywhere on the planet!

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Monkey Tool Users

You may have never heard of a bearded capuchin monkey.  In many ways it is a typical New World monkey.  However, this particular species of monkey continues to impress primatologists because it is the only known non-ape primate to use tools.  Primatologists “discovered” this in the 1990’s, but knowledge of capuchin monkey tool-use has been a part of Brazilian folklore for over four centuries, if not longer.

Although more research needs to be conducted, it appears as though they have a limited “tool-kit” consisting of specialized stones that they use to crack nuts in different savanna-like environments (Ottoni & Izar, 2008).  Interestingly, there is a high degree of intentionality in both the stone selection process, and in the strategic use of stone tools (Visalberghi et al., 2009).  Furthermore, a paper published a few days ago revealed that they have the capacity to improve the efficiency of their tool use (Fragaszy et al., 2013). Here is an awesome video via the BBC of a capuchin using a tool to crack open a nut:

What is perhaps more remarkable, is that the capuchins lower skeletal structure is well adapted to walking bipedally while carrying stones.  This could mean that stone tool use has been an integral part of the bearded capuchin’s behavioural repertoire for thousands of years (if not much longer).

So what do these discoveries mean?  In terms of primate tool-use they appear to be an extreme phylogenetic outlier.  Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans make and use tools, but the lesser apes and all other monkeys in the wild do not.

When considering the fact that all great apes make and use tools, it seems reasonable to suspect that the common ancestor of all great apes also made and used tools.  That pushes back the origin of primitive tool use to perhaps as late as 14 million years ago.  Of course, as Adam Benton of EvoAnthhas pointed out, the first empirical evidence in the paleoanthropological record of stone tool construction is 2.5 million years old.  But the nature of the paleoanthropological record is fragmentary and all great ape tools would not preserve archaeologically; therefore it is also important to consider the possibility of tool-use being ancestral for great apes.

But where do the bearded capuchins fit into this picture?  These primates are displaying a type of technological ability that was thought to have emerged approximately 2 million years ago with the origin of our genus.  Is this simply an extreme and unexpected example of convergent evolution?

Capuchin stone tool-use wouldn’t represent the first time that animal behaviourists have been surprised by cultural and technological diversity in the animal kingdom.  Over the past few decades anthropologists and biologists have uncovered an unprecedented amount of cultural variety among cetaceans and birds, including New Caledonian crow tool use that appears to be cumulative (Hunt & Gray, 2003).

In my initial judgment of this perplexing situation, I would lean towards accepting the parsimonious conclusion: that capuchins have convergently evolved the ability to use stone tools.  However, some researchers have proposed that we must not rule out the alternatives.  It could be that stone tool-use among primates emerged 35 million years ago, with the origin of the first monkey species.  Or it could be the case that stone tool use has been adapted and then lost by several monkey and ape species over the past 35 million years.  If either of these scenarios is true, we must explain why all other known contemporary monkeys have no stone tool kits.

Either way, this is yet another great example of animals forcing us to question our relationship to the past and our own divergent behaviour.

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References:

Dean, L.G., et al.  2012.  Identification of the social and cognitive processes underlying human cumulative culture.  Science, 335: 1114-1118.

Fragaszy, D.M., Liu, Q., Wright, B.W., Allen, A., & Brown, C.W.  2013.  Wild bearded capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) strategically place nuts in a stable position during nut-cracking.  PLoS ONE, 8: e56182.

Hunt, G.R. & Gray, R.D.  2003.  Diversification and cumulative evolution in New Caledonian crow tool manufacture.  Proceedings of the Royal Society, 270: 867-874.

Ottoni, E.B. & Izar, P.  2008.  Capuchin monkey tool use: Overview and implications.  Evolutionary Anthropology, 17: 171-178.

Visalberghi, E., Addessi, E., Truppa, V., Spagnoletti, N., Ottoni, E., Izar, P. & Fragaszy, D.  2009.  Selection of effective stone tools by wild bearded capuchin monkeys.  Current Biology, 19: 213-217.

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