George Orwell imagined a dystopian future. Philip K. Dick wrote about a world of augmented reality, while Star Trek saw us hurtling through the stars, boldly going where no man has ever gone before. But what will the future of Homo sapiens be like? Is evolution still taking place? Will we survive this ever-changing world?
Before we start looking into the future, we need to understand our past and how evolution works. Professor of evolutionary biology, Daniel Pincheira-Donoso from the Queens University Belfast talks more about the mechanics of evolution. “Natural selection is a biological law. What defines it is that you cannot escape it” he says. “Natural selection consists of every factor that can kill individuals within a species. So predation and starvation are sources of natural selection.”
However humans aren’t like other species. “We have developed the ability to protect our societies from natural selection” Professor Pincheira-Donoso says. “We have the freedom to walk around and not be scared of predators eating us. We have ring fenced our species from predators.” In the wild, natural selection would favour adaptations to better avoid being eaten, but as Daniel says, we don’t fear predation. “If you are starving, you’re not going to kill your neighbour to get food” Daniel continues. “You just open your fridge. If your fridge is empty, you go to the supermarket. There is no need to compete for it.” So we won’t see adaptations to advance our foraging abilities either.
But what happens when we take away these factors? “What natural selection does is reduce variation” Daniel explains. “When you do not have these components of natural selection, that variation accumulates because there is no natural selection eliminating variation that is not good.” But how will this effect our future? “Because we have relaxed natural selection, our variation is increasing” says Daniel. “Variation is going to be to a level that we cannot imagine today. There will be many different types of humans.”
In the wild, something as small as a river or as big as the ocean could isloate two populations. Which may ultimately lead to the evolution of new species through speciation. Humans however have managed to overcome this issue. “300 years ago, you had humans very geographically located. Today you have all mixes of races of genes around the world” Daniel says. “Multiculturality is a consequence of the ability to jump on a plane and fly from one side of the world to another” he continues.
With more societies becoming open to the idea that people can marry whoever they want regardless to race, our diversity will only continue to increase. “What will happen is genetic homogenisation” predicts Daniel. This basically means genes from distant populations will become more and more similar. “There will be a point where, you will still have very well defined races, but there would be many individuals who you won’t be able to tell the genetical geographic background” explains Daniel. With these physical and cultural barriers coming down, as we head towards the future, we will be closer than ever before.
With this freedom to move, it can make things like diseases spread more rapidly throughout the population. But humans have created another way to fence off natural selection on disease resistance in the form of medicines. “100,000 years ago, if you had a basic stomach bug, you could die” Daniel says. “If you got that today, you go to A&E and get some treatment then you’re back home. You survive because humans created this shield that is medicine.” He then explains how this might effect our natural selection. “Medicine is a massive way of reducing the impact of it, but it’s not perfect. There are still many versions of pathogens that we are fighting” says Daniel. “When there is an outbreak of a disease, some individuals will die. Those that survive have the ability to pass on that resistance into their offspring.” Therefore humans are still under natural selection for resistance to diseases.
As we head towards the future, technology and medical research will inevitably improve. “As medicine develops, what will happen is that less humans will die” says Daniel. “Imagine if we have great medicine where nobody dies of diseases and all live for 200 years?” ponders Daniel. “Medicine is critical but it’s not perfect” he went onto say. In order to improve things like medicine, information needs to be passed on and improved through generations. This is where some scientists suggest we are moving toward a more cultural evolution.
“One way of inheritance is the cultural transmission of information” explains Daniel. “If you teach your offspring to use a tool or to evade predators, that is cultural transmission” he goes on to say. This is seen throughout the animal kingdom, but humans have taken this to a whole new dimension, and this is because of language.
“Humans are humans because we have developed the ability to pass on information that is very complex from one generation to the next. We are this successful species because we have cultural evolution” Daniel emphasises. Technology and medicines are all things that are culturally transmitted down generations. What this could mean for us is that in the future is that rather than evolving physically, our technology will continue to evolve, And they’ll evolve more rapidly. Essentially, our lifestyle will improve and adapt to the times more than we will.
With advancements in AI and robotics thanks to this cultural evolution, technology will be a big part of our future. Science-fiction has created these ideas that technology may take over humans one day. Despite how bizarre this sounds, the thought that humans came from apes was laughable 150 years ago. “I think technology is evolving in a direction that is making them more powerful” Professor Daniel Pincheira-Donoso says. “Technology will certainly replace humans in the short term. Like now you go to supermarket, in many places you don’t have someone taking your money. It’s a machine. There are Amazon lorries that don’t need a driver. They drive around with a computer” he continues. So we can already see that people are being replaced by computers.
Nevertheless, Daniel is still sceptical about whether singularity, the idea that technology will take over humanity, will actually happen. “I think humans will always be in control of it” he says. “The problem is the powerful people will have control of it. So singularity will affect some humans but not the ones who control the technologies”. If technology will replace many people, what effect might this have on our evolution?
For those people in jobs who will be replaced by machines, they will need to find jobs to sustain their lives. “It probably will push the need for skilful jobs to be more under pressure” says Daniel. “If jobs become so complex that machines cannot do them, then it might drive the evolution of very skilful societies” he went onto say. “If you apply for a job with a degree, it’s not as competitive as it was 20 years ago. A Masters makes you stand out today. Probably in another 20 years, everyone applying for jobs at basic levels might have PhD’s. That’s the way it’s evolving” predicts Daniel. Although computers won’t take over the world, it will massively impact the way our societies will develop.
Competition over jobs won’t be the only problem we will face. In the past 50 years, the population of humans has doubled to over 7.7billion. At this rate, by 2050 the population is expected to reach 10billion. This level of growth is unsustainable and will potentially cause more problems. “In nature, the more individuals you have in a population competing over resources, the more violent the competition becomes” explains Daniel. “And that’s what’s going to happen in humans.”
Oil, water and other resources of economic importance are what humans fight for. However, non-renewable resources will soon become limited and competition will arise as the population continues to grow. “We don’t fight against each other with sticks and stones. Humans fight against each other with atomic bombs and tanks” says Daniel. “Competition over resources is going to make the probability of destructive wars increasingly higher” he went on to say.
So competition will only get worse if nothing is done to control population growth or to find more sustainable resources. And through cultural evolution, our weapons will only become more powerful as Daniel Pincheira-Donoso explains. “Because we keep developing military technologies, the way of dealing with conflict it’s going to be through brutal wars. There probably will be a massive destruction of humans.” An evolutionary arms race is already afoot, and it will only get fiercer.
The future of humanity is still uncertain. What we know is that Homo sapiens are going to face some very tough times in the years to come. Some of which may happen in the short term. Professor Daniel Pincheira-Donoso gives us some of his advice to ensure the best future for humans. “Firstly, I think the population is growing too fast. There needs to be some rules about how many babies you can have”. It has been seen across nature that no species of animal can sustain exponential population growth without that population either crashing or going to extinction. By implementing this rule Daniel suggested, we can control the growth of the population to more sustainable level.
Daniel then suggests that politics could save humanity more than just biology. “Today, about 90% of money around the world is concentrated in 5% of people. I think that’s very wrong.” He urges that money should be more evenly spread throughout the population and governments should do more to do so. “You could charge insane amount of taxes to extremely rich people, so that money goes back to the governments. And that money can be used for preserving people’s human rights like, access to medicines, food and water.” Could capitalism lead humanity to extinction through over-exploitation of resources? Only time will tell.
Whether Philip K. Dick and the Star Trek stories become true, one thing is for certain. If we start to make changes to our lifestyle today, we can protect the environment for future generation, wherever they may be and whatever they may look like. We need to be aware of the threats to our planet and take action to safeguard a future for all humans, now and in the future, to enjoy. To finish off, I will leave you on a quote from George Orwell’s book “1984”. “Who controls the past, controls the future.”