Evolutionary Speculations on Human Kind.

   Paraphrased fromHuman evolution at the crossroads: genetics and cybernetics complicate
  forecast for species
on MSNBC.com… The Future of Evolution http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7103668/


     Due to our ability to modify genetic makeup, many evolutionary biologists have begun to speculate as to the future of humankind. Paleontologists say that anatomically modern humans may have at one time shared the Earth with as many as three other closely related types — Neanderthals, Homo erectus and the dwarf hominids, whose remains were discovered last year (2004) in Indonesia.


     Could "spin-off" human species develop in the future?


     The rapid rise of genetic modification might lead to such a circumstance. It might even be that humans could blend themselves with machines in unprecedented ways  (Borg) - turning natural-born humans into an endangered species. Future human development may be influenced by techniques ranging from stem-cell research to the implantation of biocompatible computer chips.


    In his book "Future Evolution", University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward (he also wrote "Rare Earth")  argues that we are making ourselves virtually extinction-proof by bending Earth's flora and fauna to our will. It might be assumed that the human species will be hanging around for at least another 500 million years.


     Here are five highly speculative, but theoretically possible paths, ranging from homogenized humans to alien-looking hybrids bred for interstellar travel that could be the Future of Humankind.


1. Unihumans: Will we all be assimilated into one?

     Different populations of a species must be reproductively isolated from each other in order for those populations to diverge into separate species. That's the process that gave rise to 13 different species of "Darwin's Finches" in the Galapagos Islands. The human species may no longer be open for divergence? Our gene pool has been converging for tens of thousands of years, and Stuart Pimm, an expert on biodiversity at Duke University, says that trend may well be accelerating. The raw matter for evolution is variation and humans seem to be losing that variability very quickly. As a suggestive example, we humans speak something on the order of 6,500 languages. Yet,  the number of languages we will likely pass on to our children is about 600. Cultural diversity, as measured by linguistic diversity, is fading, as human society becomes more interconnected globally, Pimm has argued. As a monoculture, our future species could be more susceptible to quick-spreading diseases, as last year's bird flu epidemic illustrated. A Unihuman culture would have to cope with evolutionary pressures such that toxins that which like estrogens and are found in pesticides and industrial PCBs, have been linked to early puberty for women, increased incidence of breast cancer, and lower sperm counts for men.


2.  Survivalistians: Coping with doomsday and Mass Extinctions

     Surviving doomsday is a story as old as Noah’s Ark, and as new as the post-bioapocalypse movie “28 Days After.” Mass extinctions have greatly influenced the evolution of species on Earth (example: the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago).

     Catastrophes ranging from super-floods to plagues to nuclear war to asteroid strikes could erase civilization as we know it, leaving remnants of humanity to go their own evolutionary ways. A civilization-shattering catastrophe (say a meteor strike) serves to divide humanity into separate populations, vulnerable once again to selection pressures. For example, people who had more genetic resistance to viral disease would be more likely to pass on that advantage to their descendants after a mass extinction-like event.

     If different populations develop in isolation over many thousands of generations, it’s conceivable that new separate species would emerge. For example, that virus-resistant strain of post-humans might eventually thrive in the wake of a global bioterror crisis, while less hardy humans would find themselves quarantined in the world’s safe havens. Maybe its already happened. Patterns in the spread of the virus that causes AIDS may hint at earlier, less catastrophic episodes of natural selection. Stuart Pimm has said that “there are pockets of people who don’t seem to become HIV-positive, even though they have a lot of exposure to the virus - and that may be because their ancestors survived the plague 500 years ago.”

     Even in the event of a post-human split-off, evolutionary theory dictates that one species would eventually subjugate, assimilate or eliminate their competitors for the top job in the global ecosystem. Just ask the Neanderthals.

3.  Numans: Rise of the superhumans

    The future of enhanced humans… is it Ben Johnson, Dutch Cyclists, or Barry Bonds?

    The age of new genetic and pharmacological ways to improve human performance is upon us. Could they represent a new form of evolution… a radical kind of evolution that moves much more quickly than biological evolution which can take millions of years, or even cultural evolution, which works on a scale of hundreds or thousands of years.

     Three kinds of Numan humans...
Such enhancements first appear on the athletic field and the battlefield, indicates social commentator, Joel Garreau, (author of the book “Radical Evolution”), but eventually they appear everywhere. “You’re talking about three different kinds of humans: 1) the enhanced, 2) the naturals, and 3) the rest” Garreau said. “The enhanced are defined as those who have the money and enthusiasm to make themselves live longer, be smarter, look sexier.”

   The naturals will be those who seek enhancements for higher reasons, just as vegetarians forgo meat and fundamentalists forgo what they see as illicit pleasures. Then there’s all the rest of us, who don’t get enhanced only because they can’t. However, advances in medical science have actually been great levelers of social equality. For example, age-old scourges such as smallpox and polio have been eradicated, thanks to public health efforts in poorer, as well as richer countries. That trend is likely to continue as scientists learn more about the genetic roots of disease, Garreau said. "Maybe there would be a long-term health project to breed HIV-resistant people,” he said.

     To date, genetic medicine has focused on therapies that work on only one person at a time. The effects of those therapies aren’t carried on to future generations. For example, if you take muscle-enhancing drugs, or even undergo gene therapy for bigger muscles, your progeny will not have  similarly big muscles. In order to make an enhancement inheritable, you’d have to have new gene code spliced into your germline stem cells - creating an ethical controversy of transcendent proportions. Tinkering with the germline could conceivably produce a superhuman species in a single generation - but could also conceivably create a race of monsters.

  Cyborgs: Merging with the machines

                          Will intelligent machines be assimilated, or will humans be eliminated? (Terminator 1, 2, 3)

     Until a few years ago, that question was addressed, but only in science-fiction plot lines. Today however, the rapid pace of cybernetics has led some experts to suggest that artificial intelligence may outpace Homo sapiens’ natural smarts. The pace of change is often stated in terms of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors packed into a square inch of computer chip should double every 18 months. “Moore’s Law is now on its 30th doubling. We have never seen that sort of exponential increase before in human history,” said Joel Garreau, author of the book “Radical Evolution”.
     In some fields, artificial intelligence has already bested humans - with Deep Blue’s (IBM’s Mainframe) 1997 victory over world chess champion Garry Kasparov providing a vivid example. It has been speculated that a truly intelligent robot may arise by the year 2030 (Bicentennial Man). Once an intelligent robot exists, is it only a small step to a robot species - to an intelligent robot, that may make evolved copies of itself ? (remember number 6, the human Cylon of Battlestar Galactica).

     Assimilating the robots...
To many scientists and science fiction writers, it seems more likely that we could become part-robot ourselves: We’re already making machines that can be assimilated — including prosthetic limbs, mechanical hearts, cochlear implants, and artificial retinas. Why couldn’t brain augmentation be added to the list? Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute suggests that we’ll design improvements to ourselves (smart chips in our brains). Shostak, in his book “Sharing the Universe,” states that it’s likely to be a transitional step at best from man to machine-man.



5.  Astrans: Turning into an alien race

     If humans survive long enough, there’s one sure way to grow new branches on our evolutionary family tree: by spreading out to other planets.

     Habitable worlds beyond Earth could be a 23rd century analog to the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary laboratory, just barely close enough for travelers to get to, but far enough away that there'd be little gene mixing with the parent human species.

     “If we get off to the stars, then yes, we will have speciation,” said University of Washington paleontologist, Peter Ward. “But can we ever get off the Earth?”

     Currently, the closest star system thought to have a planet is Epsilon Eridani, 10.5 light-years away. Even if spaceships could travel at 1 percent the speed of light - an incredible 6.7 million mph - it would take more than a millennium to get there. However, Mars might be far enough: If humans established a permanent settlement there, the radically different living conditions could change the evolutionary equation. For example, those who are born and raised in one-third of Earth’s gravity could never feel at home on the old “home planet.” It wouldn’t take long for the new Martians to become a breed apart.

     As for distant stars, the SETI’s Seth Shostak has already been thinking through the possibilities:

  • Build a big ark: Build a spaceship big enough to carry an entire civilization to the destination star system. The problem is, those environments might be too unnatural for natural humans. “If you talk to the sociologists, they’ll say that it will not work. … You’ll be lucky if anybody’s still alive after the third generation,” Shostak said.

  • Go to warp speed: Somehow we discover a wormhole or find a way to travel at relativistic speeds. “That sounds OK, except for the fact that nobody knows how to do it,” Shostak said.

  • Enter the Astrans: Humans that are genetically engineered to tolerate ultra long-term hibernation aboard robotic ships. Once the ship reaches its destination, these “Astrans” are awakened to start the work of settling a new world. “That’s one possibility,” Shostak said.

     One approach could be to send the instructions for making humans (much like the movie “Species I, II,  and III”) and just going to beam ourselves to the stars. “The only trouble is, if there’s nobody on the other end to put us back together" said Shostak. So are we back to square one? Not necessarily, suggests Shostak. Setting up the receivers on other stars is no job for a human, “but the machines could make it work.” In fact, if any other society is significantly further along than ours, such a network might be up and running by now. “The machines really could develop large tracts of galactic real estate, whereas it’s really hard for biology to travel,” Shostak said.


     It all seems inconceivable, but if humans really are to be extinction-proof - if they manage to survive global catastrophes, genetic upheavals, and cybernetic challenges- who’s to say what will be millions of years from now? Two intelligent species, human and machine, just might work together to spread life through the universe. “If you were sufficiently motivated,” Shostak said, “you might in fact keep it going forever.”


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