What’s next in human evolution?

Our origins on this planet, the workings of the environment and the quirks in nature have been intriguing puzzles for us since time immemorial. There still remain a plethora of unanswered questions but one thing that can be observed surely is Change. Everything on our planet undergoes some degree of change– planned or otherwise. This includes not just the landscape, but life itself. To evolve is to change, which we all do.

Our journey so far –

When Charles Darwin published the first edition of ‘On Origin of Species’, he fuelled a debate that was vicious and widespread. One of the problems that occurred due to misinformed discussions was the spread of a distilled statement – Man has descended from apes. While religious heads were up in arms against the very idea of evolution, others were disgusted and disbelieving – surely our majestic selves couldn’t have descended from monkey and chimps…

Related: The evolution of human morality

The phrase continues to be in tremendous use. We did NOT descend from chimps, gorillas or monkeys. But millions of years ago (a very short span on the evolutionary timescale) we did share a common ancestor.

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Another popular but incorrect notion is that of our gait. We are flooded with images and caricatures showing a four-legged species, gradually evolving to a slouching one – a creature halfway between four-legged and two-legged stance – finally to our current state of a biped human. But evolution is never such a single path, there are no direct connections.

New evidence suggests that we never walked ‘bent-over’. Our ancestors, the hominids, could swing and climb trees. They simply found an adaptation to bipedalism that separated us from the ape line of our family. The benefits of bipedalism – travelling larger distances, lesser energy consumption, ability to use hands for foraging and hunting and less absorption of sun’s radiation – led to its natural selection. But in popular culture the idea of humans raising themselves nobly from a slouching stance to an upright one has survived.

The earliest hominid skull found yet is dated to be nearly 6 million years old. It is not simply primate and shows non ape-like characteristics.  Australopithecus, believed to be direct human ancestors, were actually the progenitors of another line of species that co-existed with our early ancestors and vanished, like several other lines. Possibly, another species, Kenyanthropus platyops, is our ancestor. Our transition from archaic hominids occurred 2.5 million years ago, marked by Homo rudolfensis,

As we evolved, our brain capacity increased. This measurable increase in our intelligence is one of the most important distinguishing factors for us. It helped us develop tools and conquer forces of nature, to some extent. We were able to navigate vast regions of the globe and spread to varying climes, where we adapted and flourished. Around 30,000 years ago, any surviving Homo relative dwindled, leaving us to be the only human species on Earth.

The modern Homo sapiens have been around for about hundred thousand years. The average lifespan for a mammal species, or the time a mammalian species stays on this planet before it becomes extinct is a million years. So there seems to be ample of time left for us on Earth. Will we survive long enough to reach an evolutionary pinnacle?

A general direction

While we are presented many opportunities to change, a favorable change which is feasible and steady is a miracle of statistics. Despite this, we, as other beings, have been on an elaborate evolution trail. And while the details of our evolutionary past are not clear, a general direction has been proposed. Assuming we continue in that path, some changes can be anticipated.

It is said that, humans have been on a path of increased height, less hair, smaller teeth, larger skulls, among other traits. A simplistic approach to the future would be to assume that for the next few thousand years, we will continue to follow these steps, effectively leading to tall, virtually hairless, large-skulled beings with a nice set of shiny, small teeth to add to the glory. But it is wrong to paint such a simplistic portrait of a process that is many-faceted and very complex. For example, large skulls are dangerous for the baby as well as the mother during childbirth so they may be naturally selected against.

Anthropologists have come up with a wide array of explanations as to how and why the different ethnicities or races developed within the Homo sapiens population.  Even though we classify ourselves into different races, the genetic diversity found in the entire human population today is less than the genetic variation found in a single clan of gorillas.

But these different ‘races’ have been the root cause of a lot of consternation. Today as we revel in the age of globalization. Ethnic lines are blurring. Multicultural families are on the rise and this number can only be expected to increase in near future. So a popular theory is that our species may soon (on an evolutionary time-scale) develop into a ubiquitous mono-ethnic group. But this change will occur over tens of thousands of years.

While this may be a result of our changing international relationship dynamics, our dependence on modern medicine and technology may have another, not so pleasant, change. Since in a very near future, we may be able to supplement our body with all the required hormones and such, over thousands of years, the processes to produce these may dwindle in favor of self-tailored supplements. While all these scenarios seem probable to some and noise to others, let us delve deeper into this mystery.

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While we can assert that we have reached our current state as a result of evolution, we can’t determine whether this will continue forever.

There are two schools of thought on this, both leading in opposite directions:

  • Natural Selection is one of the pillars of evolution theory and works on a simple principle. While mutations bring about variations, not all these changes become a part of the organism’s existence in the long run. It is natural selection which filters out unfavorable variations by selecting traits which confer some benefit to the organism. For such genetic novelties to occur, cross-breeding between small, isolated populations is a pre-requisite.

So what happens in a large population, connected across regions with no scope of fixation of the genetic quirks in isolated groups? A large, mono-ethnic, highly mobile population? A sort of population we assume to be headed towards in the next thousand years or so?

According to Steve Jones, a UCL professor, the reduction in variation due to merging of races is not the only thing endangering evolution. Survival of the Fittest essentially means an increase in the individuals with favorable traits and increased mortality of individuals having unfavorable traits. It’s a driving force of evolution. But with the advent of technology and innovation, any previously thought of as unfavorable trait – for example less physical strength, affinity to diseases and genetic ailments – can now be overcome. As our knowledge grows, we might be able to do away with the fatality attached to such characters.

Evolution, at least of humans, may become an ancient truth, to be replaced by, say, genetic engineering.

  • But to all the fans of evolution, take heart! A lot of ongoing research claims that natural selection still continues and is not likely to go away so soon. Also in our world plagued by intelligent pathogens – like virus that continue to genetically outsmart us, stronger immune systems are going to be selected for.

Moreover, our earth’s climate is changing, dramatically. While we are making great technological leaps, we are still far from saving the planet from our polluting activities. Natural selection can go far in helping us evolve into a species suited to the changing climes.

While the first theory has its set of evidences, we must remember the role technology will play in our lives in the coming centuries. Even if natural selection was to stop in our case, science will allow for artificial selection. That too will be an evolution, though not a biological one.

All of this is possible, only if we don’t kill ourselves of course. There are multiple paths to humanity’s extinction before we make any sort of mark on the universe.

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One of the most popular ideas that float around is co-existence with robots. Futurist Ray Kurzweil goes on to claim that all of us will be part-robots in some way by 2030.

But science fiction books and movies encourage us to ask several questions – can they develop spontaneous intelligence. Will there come a time when robots could think of their own accord? Will they become a part of the intricate web of life on earth, regarded as species in their own right? Will they reproduce on their own? Could they commit crimes on their own?

Related: If your robot commits murder, should you go to jail?

Another idea that seems more plausible is that of Transcendence and Transhumanism.

Modern medicine has enabled us to combat some diseases and defects by having electronic implants in our body. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, robotics are changing human conditions. As mentioned above, unnatural selection, bolstered by these researches, could easily replace biological evolution, which acts on a very small rate compared to advancements in these fields.

Already, we have miniscule robots aiding surgeries, intelligent limbs replacing older prosthetics. It is this road that we may take up, the one where we will get meta-humans and super-soldiers along the way.  This idea of humans transcending the biological evolution is known as transhumanism and is professed by eminent researchers like Nick Bostrom of University of Oxford.

The philosophy of transcendence is not far from this. This one suggests that if and when we learn to have our brains connected and transferred to computers, we will achieve feats like near immortality. We might become digitalized beings, becoming like the robots we have designed. Even Stephen Hawking mentioned the idea of total upheaval of our body mechanisms. He mentioned that just as DNA replaced earlier forms of life, machines would replace DNA.

But then again interbreeding with intelligent robots or becoming digitalized being ourselves begs one question. Can this be considered a part of future ‘human’ evolution, or will it be the end of us, giving way to a new species?

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The deterioration of our planet’s condition is a major worry. Scientists believe that a major disaster may prove to be an isolating mechanism to create a new species of humans. But disasters may even lead to total annihilation of or species. While we may attempt to salvage it and retain the best of earth, we may even acclimatize to a downgraded planet and our bodies may adapt to live in these ‘horrific’ conditions. But another possible route may soon be a reality – ESCAPE.

We have survived wonderfully for two million years on earth. Our curiosity and daring to explore bought us advantages over other species in the race. So is it possible that we may continue to survive, away from this land? But where will we go?

We may go up

Humans have been on space explorations and faced tremendous adversities out there and survived. Long stays in spaceships/space stations have been attempted. Studies on the long-term effects of these conditions on our bodies are underway. Maybe, one day, we will escape the ravages of a ruined planet to live in extra-terrestrial ‘houses’ where Earth-like conditions are simulated. These will lead to a gradual adaptation and maybe evolution in a zone with significantly different gravity.

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We may go further up and beyond

Well, there are an increasing number of quests for Earth-like planets, there is hope to sustain lives in other known planets and their moons and our own moon as well. Though not ideal, but in order to provide more space to the ever-increasing human population or to escape Earth all-together, we may colonize other planets. Already, there are exciting projects for Lunar and Martian colonies. If we were to start living in these places, we might evolve into a new species altogether. Thousands of years of inhabitation on different worlds with different conditions could cause some far reaching changes between humans. Varied gravity, a difference in atmospheric composition, and a host of other factors could have humans differentiating into a whole new subspecies.

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Or can we say the essence of humans will continue, just not in the planet of their origin. After all, when we migrated to different continents, lived separated for thousands of years, we didn’t speciate differently. We all remain humans.

Or… we may go down

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The Armageddon is not happening tomorrow. We have means to tide-over various problems. But we can’t survive here indefinitely. While it may still be difficult to go up and beyond, the idea of going underground is doing rounds. We know that our engineering abilities and technical advancements can help us survive underground during extended stays, like during bomb raids. Can that be a permanent solution? Can we, one day, be able to replace sun as an energy source and crawl downwards – not to hell but to a fresh breath of life?

The study of evolution is marred by controversies. So it is expected that no generic conclusions can be drawn when it comes to our future possibilities. But the imagination of researchers has painted many pictures – inviting as well as scary. Hopefully, our evolution will take a course that will lead us to our super-human forms and not to our annihilation.

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