Human Evolution: Past, Present and Future
The Mysearch website has already made some attempt to discuss the concept of evolution within a wider definition of life, e.g. biological, human, artificial and extraterrestrial. However, while extraterrestrial life is possible, even probable given the size of the universe, any evolutionary form of alien life can only be speculative at this time and therefore will not feature further in this discussion. As such, this discussion will focus on the scope of evolutionary processes essentially centred on human evolution, past, present and future, but with the following caveat very much in mind:
"Evolution is an on-going process.
As such, humanity is a transitional result."
Even so, people may reasonably question whether putting all the focus on just one of the estimated 8.7 million species on planet Earth is too narrow a perspective in which to discuss evolution. However, while humanity is only but one result of past biological evolution, it may be the primary catalyst for evolution in the present era and into the future, although this future may well end up not containing humanity as we understand it today.
So what is the scope of human evolution being considered?
All the accumulated evidence of scientific research over the past few hundred years suggests that the human species, i.e. homo-sapiens, has genetically evolved from earlier hominid species by a process called natural selection within the last few hundred thousand years or so. As a generalisation, it might be assumed that the process of natural selection broadly continued up until the earliest signs of more complex social groupings, possibly around 10-12 thousand years ago. At this point, Neolithic society started to develop agriculture, which many believe to be a pivotal point in human history that led to the invention of the wheel, the planting of cereal crops and the development of cuneiform scripts.
Note: Sumer, located in Mesopotamia, is the first known complex civilization, developing the first city-states in the 4th millennium BCE. It was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared 3000 BCE.
Of course, the process of natural selection did not simply disappear at this point, possibly it never will, but there is an aspect in the development of human civilisation that ceased to be ‘natural’ as it changed the environment in which humanity would continue to evolve. Of course, from the perspective of the accepted model of modern genetic evolution and neo-Darwinism , the timeframe of 10,000 years has only allowed relatively superficial changes to the genotype and phenotype of homo-sapiens, e.g. eye and skin colour, to take place. However, this position possibly ignores the scale of change that civilisation has imposed on humanity in terms of its environment, especially in the last few hundred years. While, we must be careful not to confuse cultural development with evolution, it does raise the issue often characterised in terms of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, which might now be updated in terms of the present-day genetics versus epigenetics debate to be outlined further in this discussion.
But might we make some initial speculation as to why human civilisation has developed so much faster than its genome?
Let simply assume that mammals survive by instinct, while recognising that instincts must be a form of acquired knowledge. However, without any additional mechanism by which to pass this knowledge onto subsequent generations, each generation is forced to re-acquire most survival knowledge itself. Of course, given a limited lifespan, we might immediately understand the limitation of this process and therefore recognise the importance of the written word and the subsequent development of the printing press in human history to exponentially increase the amount of information and knowledge that could be passed onto future generations.
Note: It is estimated 2.5*1018 bytes of information are now created every day. Google receives over 4 million search queries per minute from its 2.4 billion users. Likewise, every minute, Facebook users share nearly 2.5 million pieces of information, twitter users tweet nearly 300,000 times, Instagram users post nearly 220,000 new photos, YouTube users upload 72 hours of new video content, Apple users download nearly 50,000 apps, Email users send over 200 million messages, Amazon generates over $80,000 in online sales.
While many of us might question whether the statistics above represents development, let alone evolution, it is undoubtedly representative of the changes taking place in human society. As such, most of us may now accept that we live within an man-made environment.
Note: The current extinction rate is approximately 100 extinctions per million species per year, which is estimated to be 1,000 times higher than ‘natural’ background rates. It is also predicted that future rates may be as much as 10,000 times higher. These extinction rates are attributed to loss of natural habitats and further climate change, all man-made. See Populations and Resources for more details
One way or another, it would seem that all this change in our present-day environment must be having some effect on the future direction of human evolution. So while aspects of natural selection are still at work, man-made selection, whether by design or mistake, is becoming increasingly significant and possibly irreversible without triggering a global humanitarian disaster. If you accept the possible direction of man-made evolution, driven by further technology advances and a failure of our political systems to address problems, you ultimately arrive at the next question.
What is the future of sentient intelligent life?
As such, we have returned to the premise of the first quote, i.e. that ‘evolution is an on-going process’, and possibly more unsettling is that humanity may have to consider itself only a ‘transitional result’. For we stand at a point in evolution in which humanity has the possibility to alter its own genome, for better or worse, plus augment its physiology with robotics and prosthetics plus extend its basic intelligence with AI systems. Today, many are predicting the future of sentient intelligent life, although there is no guaranteed it will be sentient intelligent life as we know it – Jim!