Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.







28 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Human Evolution”

  1. It’s strange that you mention devolution,because often the best SF that deals with the theme of evolution,shows it to be only a cyclic pattern.This can be because of interbreeding with other human species in our ancient past,that means we carry impure genes,that will produce throwbacks.

    1. I tend to believe gene diversity provides for more improvements not less. They say mutts are healthier dogs than pure breeds. I think people think in cycles because they can’t imagine breaking out of them.

  2. With gene modifying technology and Artificial Intelligence I think humans will be vastly different 100 years from now. I’m in the process of considering two different surgeries–one to eliminate my CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure machine) for my Sleep Apnea…and the second to rid myself of my rosacea). I already am well on my way to be a cyborg with two titanium knees.

    1. They can surgically fix sleep apnea? I have several friends that use CPAP machines. I wonder if they would consider it. I think there is a definite trend to adapt our bodies to as much technology as they need and can handle.

  3. “The new conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy . . .”

    Jim, that’s not a new philosophy, that’s human nature, sometimes masked by a thin veneer of civilisation.

  4. If a new species of humans were to arise, it would probably evolve out of a subset of the human population, while many other humans will stay normal Homo sapiens. Consider, Homo sapiens arose from a larger set of hominids. Hominids arose from a larger set of apes, apes arose from a larger set of mammals, and so on. Diversity within populations causes this subset effect. So, within the human population the forces that would split a subpopulation off from the rest is economics. The workings of capitalism. The rich elite would be able to afford genetic enhancements. It might start with guaranteeing smart and beautiful children. Their rich and successful descendants continue the process. The movie Gattaca seems close to a probable course of such events.

    1. Jeroen, what you describe is essentially what happens in Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Have you read it? In nearly all science fiction stories about emerging Humans 2.0 species, homo sapiens hate and persecute them. The same is true for stories about emerging AI beings. And since we killed off the Neanderthals, I guess the fears might be justified. But does it have to be that way?

      People have always wanted their children to be better off than themselves. We have commercialized DNA scanning quickly. We could commercialize CRISPR technology just as fast. What if a large segment of humanity had the opportunity to produce super-babies? Would the resentment be averted?

      1. Well, I am afraid that the divide between the rich and poor is so immense when you consider the whole world that some people already live in the future while millions and millions of others still live as subsistence farmers. Who was that writer who said that the future was already here – it’s just unevenly distributed?

        With the pace of technological change accelerating all the time, the rich parts of the world would keep on sprinting ahead. In Stross’s Accelerando, the rich, highly technological part of humanity moves into space, changes into swarms of nanobots, and subsistence farmers on Earth are kept in reservations as wildlife.

        1. I’m not sure I buy Stross’ vision of the future. If inequality continues to grow it will eventually cause a collapse of civilization. The rich want to believe in trickle down economics, but it’s always been trickle up. The rich depend on a Ponzi pyramid to support them. They believe they can keep fueling this Ponzi scheme with automation and robots, but I have my doubts it will work.

  5. As interesting a story as Beggars in Spain is, it’s just another fantasy. Extra time is supposed to make the difference? I don’t think so. There’s a fundamental mismatch between the intellectual and emotional aspects of human thinking and behavior. Or, I should say, an imbalance between the two. Humans are inclined to short-term thinking, plus primitive drives that short-circuit any notion of the basic unity of the species. From The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata: “The tragedy of the world is that for all the clever minds and brave hearts that have ever been, no one has figured out yet how to forge a lasting peace.” The species is a failed experiment because it operates with a brain that hasn’t truly evolved since prehistoric times.

    1. That’s why I was comparing us to Neanderthals, like them we haven’t changed. What is different is we’ve spawned culture and society that recursively works to reprogram us. Culture and society change all the time. Society even grows in complexity. We adapt to it.

      Our blank slate is pretty much what it was hundreds of thousands of years ago.

      To reprogram ourselves we have to reprogram society. And that does happen. I’ve seen countless changes in the last fifty years.

  6. There are anthropologists and geneticists (Greg Cochran, Harry Hapending, John Hawks) who argue human evolution has accelerated in the last 10,000 years. It’s not just the environment that influences evolution. Cultures influence who passes on their genes and what number of descendants because cultures vary on what they find useful or reward — for environmental and social reasons.

    As to eugenics — it’s just breeding with a purpose. It’s been done for ages when a man and a woman look at each other and decide the other will make beautiful babies and then procreate. IVF and sperm banks are just modern additions. As to government sponsored and directed eugenics, whatever the West’s squeamishness about it, the Chinese are unlikely to share it.

    However, genetic engineering is not simple. A lot of genes have small effects. Current findings say about 500 genes are involved in IQ — but the most significant only has an influence of 3%. Also, genes sometimes do double duty so there’s tradeoffs involved. The high IQ of Ashkenazi Jews may be related to their predisposition to certain neurological diseases.

    I think Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon had an interesting take on government eugenics — you never know what biological factors will give a survival advantage in the future so you pay some people to be “unenhanced”.

      1. I presume they would say selection pressure on genes, i.e. the frequency of some genes reducing, others increasing, in a given population.

        Cochran and Hawks both have blogs. Cochran and Harpending (now dead)

        1. I’ll try to track them down when I have time, but what I should have said was how do they say those changes in evolution express themselves.

          1. Hawks also did a couple of courses for the Teaching Company.

            Yes, Cochran is terse and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Hawks if more inviting.

            Rhazib Khan’s Gene Expression is good too.

      2. In my limited understanding of reading some blogs and listening to The Insight podcast (run by a DNA analysis company), they would say evolution is tracked by a changing frequency of genes in a given population. (Those genes don’t have to produce a change in physical appearance necessarily.) Those frequencies would change because of the usual presumption that some genes lead to better fitness and more reproductive success. But you also have to figure that genetic drift (in sexual reproduction, only half of a organism’s DNA gets transferred — though, evidently, there are rare and freakish exceptions to that) is going to mean that random processes are going to eliminate some genes. Then there’s deleterious selection — less fit genes. And there’s founder effects — a species moving to a new location and breeding only there is limited to the genes they brought. And there’s environmental changes which could change what defines “fitter”. And there’s the good old sf standby — mutations. One of the most prevalent real-world examples being lactose tolerance as well as certain populations are more fit for high altitude living (though Tibetans and South Americans arrive at that through separate mutations).

    1. Genetic engineering or even eugenics might not succeed in ways science fiction has imagined. There might not be a miracle path to new and improved humans. I’ve always thought there were limits to intelligence. And quite often extremely intelligent people suffer poor social skills and other less positive traits. And I read something recently that even too much empathy can have unwanted side-effects.

      And even if everyone had IQs of 150 would that lead to a stable sustainable society?

      I suppose we need to really think hard on what a better person should be. Right now we could use people who don’t consume and pollute as much, or we need to stabilize the population at a much smaller size. Probably we’d have a lot less violence if there weren’t so many of us.

      The general consensus today is overpopulation wasn’t the problem it was feared to be because everyone is not starving today. But I think most of our current problems are related to overpopulation.

      1. Overpopulation is one of those 1950s concerns, like disruption via automation, that’s still with us just not on the timetable expected.

        However, these days it’s really only Africa that has a fertility problem. In Malthusian terms, they’ve forsaken “moral restraint”, so they’re left with famine, disease, war and invasion to settle the issue.

      2. High IQs would help — but they aren’t a silver bullet. A high IQ person can come up with the wrong solution if they start with the wrong assumption. They just get there faster. Some have also maintained that there is sort of aloof inability to relate to lower IQ individuals, an almost autistic inability to model their behavior.

        On the plus side, high IQ correlates with all sorts of good things you wouldn’t expect like lower death from accidents.

        However, I’m given to understand that there is some speculation that IQ may represent a generally better fitness in terms of health, a correlation (not a 1 to 1), of course) of IQ with life expectancy.

    1. I know several people that use a CPAP machine. My sister-in-law wrecked her car because she fell asleep. She now claims to be a new person because of her CPAP.

  7. I think a lot of science fiction – certainly the ‘golden age’ stuff – fails to properly consider how human evolution actually works: inevitably, the ‘next species’ is portrayed as solving the social problems of today. The most facile version I saw was the British kids’ TV series ‘The Tomorrow People’ (early-mid 1970s) where the next step in humanity was to become telepathic and caring. As you say, things don’t actually work that way. I think later sci-fi has come closer to the science as our understanding has developed, but a lot of it still comes down to reflecting current social perceptions and issues rather than the reality of the science as now understood. One issue is the fact that this same science basically is going to stall the evolutionary process, because it’s becoming possible to engineer it (probably!); but more particularly – as you say – the fact that we’ve failed to tackle some basic behavoural issues that follow when hunter-gatherer behaviours are scaled up to a global civilisation likely means it’ll never happen. Optimistically, we have the intellect to correct this – to focus on the arts, philosophy, kindness and co-operation. But I suspect it won’t happen to large enough scale, or in time, to save things.

    1. Have to agree that there are too many impediments to our actually putting scientific knowledge to work at any reasonable scale — time or population. Expectations always exceed what’s possible in reality. And at the pop level, it’s mostly wishful thinking and fantasizing.

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