Thursday, September 10, 2009

How Will We Know?

If you choose to be even moderately optimistic about the future of humanity, it's pretty much a given that at some point we'll end up in space, and we'll colonize all sorts of places, some very like parts of Earth, others... not. It's also pretty likely that sooner or later we'll be able to perform gene modifications, inheritable and otherwise.

Which inevitably brings up the question, will we still be human? And with it, if we stop being human at some point, how will we know?

There's any number of stories in that, ranging from near future SF all the way out to possible futures so bizarre they might as well be fantasy. The question of whether we'll end up as a whole lot of related species is its own subset of these.

At last year's WorldCon in Denver, I wound up in a fascinating discussion with an evolutionary biologist and several other scientists of varying flavors. I don't remember how we got to the question of speciation, but it seems the jury is still out on the question of whether you've got a separate species when two groups can breed but don't (because of geographical or morphological issues), when they can breed but the offspring usually won't be fertile (ligers and mules - which actually can be fertile but usually aren't), or when they can't breed at all. The obvious example here would be dogs and wolves - which are usually considered separate species but can produce fertile offspring - and of course the various breeds of dog, which at some extremes would have a lot of difficulty breeding. While a peke with a stepladder could mate with a great dane, it doesn't happen often, and for obvious reasons it's a unidirectional mating unless some really perverse person wanted to do a test tube fertilization with great dane sperm and peke ova then implant in a female great dane (because there's no way on earth a peke is going to carry those puppies to term).

So... when do we humans speciate, and what will happen then? If we engineer people to live comfortably in null-gravity, are they and their children still human? And of course, where does our old friend evolution fit into all this?

People tend to forget that evolution is still, well, evolving as we speak. Pale skin is an adaptation to living in climates where there isn't that much sun. Lactose intolerance is the human norm - only the cultures where milk is a major food source have a significant number of people who can drink it as adults. People who have been living in cities for generations have, on the whole, brain structures optimized for multi-tasking by comparison with people who have been living in small rural communities (don't ask me for references. This is the stainless steel lint trap in action. I remember weird shit with no idea how it got there).

Here's the thought experiment. Let's say three more or less uniform groups set off to colonize some newly discovered planets. We won't go into how they get there. Group A finds themselves a tropical paradise - big oceans, most of the land masses are in temperate to tropical zones - with plenty of edible plants and animals. Group B's new home has pretty distinct seasons, but adapts very well to Western style agriculture, and also has some large predators. Group C gets the booby prize - they find themselves in a hostile climate where they need to make the most of every drop of water, defend against filthy weather, and protect themselves against a range of predators, poisonous critters, and just plain nasty stuff.

Fast forward a few thousand years, assuming that all three groups have been pretty much isolated and managing without outside intervention, and what do you think you'll find?

Here's my guess. Group C will probably be either dead, or a collection of geniuses, because in that environment if you're not smart enough to do the right things and forward thinking enough to do them before you need it, you're dead. They've probably made a bunch of technological advances just to cope with the environment. Group B will be about... well, average. Seasonal variation requires a certain amount of foresight and intelligence, but not nearly as much as a situation that seems designed to kill you if you slip up. Group A, with their tropical paradise? With nothing to kill the not so bright, and a nice easy food supply, they'll probably have changed least, and be, as a group, the least intelligent. Meaning if you picked a random person from A, B, and C, chances are the person from C would be smartest (and probably kind of paranoid), the person from B middling, and the person from A not so bright and probably pretty relaxed and easygoing.

What do you think will happen? And will all three still be human?


Anonymous said...

Yes, they'd all be human, because all those environments are livable by humans. Pacifica, Europe, Siberia/Alaska or the Sahara/SW North America (Add in Pleistocene mega fauna if you wish). We can make it with stone spear points and clubs.

Now, if there was some serious environmental factors, such that Andean and Himalyan populations took on a planet with a very thin atmosphere you might, eventually evolve (or quickly engineer) something seriously more efficient in the way of oxygen transport.

Or Water World, and the Japanese Pearl Divers thought it was just right for them. A start toward Homo Sapien Aquatic?

How about a world around a dim red star? Would we use tech, or would we engineer/evolve to use a different slice of the spectrum for sight?

Would the eventually well adjusted populations be different, like breeds of dogs or races of human, or would they have reached the horse/donkey stage? We can only wait and see.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Fighting the environment is only one factor. Another is fighting against other humans.

John Lambshead said...

There have been two major driving forces in human evolution in the last ten thousand years or so.

1. Poor food quality as a result of shifting to agriculture.

2. Disease from living in dense cliusters as a result of agriculture and poor food.

3. Human conflict is a trivial evolutionary force in comparison.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I'm fascatinated by how society is shaped by environment and how society shapes people.

I found Jared Diamond's books, 'Guns Germs and Steel' and 'Collapse', really interesting.

Anyone else read them?

As I remember he listed 5 factors which, when taken together, lead to collapse of a civilisation.

Something like this:

Conflict with others/supportive friends
Shift in climate
Inability to adapt (rigid sticking to religious and cultural beliefs)
mismanaged resources

The values each of these 3 societies would hold as good would depend on what they needed to to do to survive.

Whether they could be called 'human' after a thousand years would depend on what level of technology they went into their new society with.

If they could manipulate their genes to create the optimum human for that environment, then they would, but once they could survive, what they did would depend on the type of society they created.

Anonymous said...

We so aggressively change our environment now, I wonder what we'll do when we do finally get someplace not quite habitable.

Terraforming is frequently mentioned, but how far do we dare change a working ecosystem? Just the usual marsh draining/irrigation network/forest clearing, or will we tip the whole globe's situation with the addition of large amounts of water from comets, or knock off undesirable amounts of atmosphere with some very large asteroids?

Or will we change ourselves to fit in, instead?

"They won't be human any more" if we can't argue over politics, exchange recipes, or cheer for the same sports teams. Gripe about our Mothers-in-law and brag about our children.

Kate said...


There's a lot of room to speculate there, especially if there's bioengineering in the mix. Even without it, apparently some Inuit can see into the infra-red spectrum - a very useful adaptation when you live somewhere that's dark for half the year.

My guess is they'd probably still be human - but ten thousand years later or with advanced tech? Maybe not so much.

Kate said...


Fighting other people is a factor, yes, although that tends not to be a major factor until you have settled agriculture (i.e. are tied to a particular patch of land) and/or the population is high enough that different groups are going to be competing for a limited resource.

Kate said...


Actually, I'd argue with you there - conflict in the form of war tends not to be a constant evolutionary factor, but because it periodically eliminates large segments of a population it can have a big effect on the end result.

As I understand it, evolutionary drivers come in two forms: the constant low-grade pressure that favors slow, incremental changes, and the occasional catastrophic event (like wars, famines, natural disasters etc.) that kill large numbers in one hit. War, at least until the last hundred years or so, tended to kill men who had less endurance and/or less agility.

On the flip side, modern life allows a lot of people to manage just fine with what would have been a crippling disability a few hundred years back - just look at how many people wear glasses.

Kate said...


Those are fascinating books. I'd also recommend Howard Bloom's The Lucifer Principle, and Global Brain. You might not always agree, but there's plenty of food for thought there.

Some of the other things that would influence those groups would be whether their diversity generators were favored over conformity enforcers (generally, in a thriving society this is the case - the experimenters aren't squashed before they can uncover something useful), whether the inner-judges and resource shifters were too quick to shift necessary resources (such as food) from apparently unproductive members, and how successful the inter-group tournaments are in establishing who is on top. The interplay of these elements actually fits in very well with Diamond's factors for whether a society collapses or not.

Kate said...


I think we'll do what we've always done: we'll change what's there to suit us more, and change ourselves to cope better. We're remarkably adaptable when it comes down to nuts, bolts, and not stopping breathing.

Chris McMahon said...

Maybe the ones in the tropical paradise will develop an entirely new art form of laying around - complete with a new language that has 20 different words for suntans.

This new art form might take the form of a religious experience, with the society driven to invent new and innovative suntan lotions - advancing chemistry and science - as they reach new heights of intellectual transformation.

Given half a chance the South American cultures could have rivaled the northern hemisphere for sophistication - and they are tropical - so they won't be necessarily backward.

Da Curly Wolf said...

to the whole thing..hellifino.

Dave Freer said...

Kate -the great Dane bitch lies down. No I''m not kidding (seen with daschund and alsation)
I'm not sure he slow large population gradual change in response to selective pressure is evolution per se, as it would seem that if the selective pressure is removed the genome gradually shifts back toward the old norm. Lot of argument about that one. Pinch-point evolution in small populations is at least more clear-cut. However, what is certain is there would be a lot of social evolution in the environments. The cultures would be very different, and probably struggle to understand each other.

Kate said...


I like the idea of the advanced suntanning culture! It sounds pretty good to me.

Kate said...


I have these geek out moments. If you close your eyes and wait a bit, normal insanity will resume. Eventually.

Kate said...


I think people would PAY to see that (the dachshund and the alsatian) - I certainly would!

The societal evolution would be fascinating. I personally suspect that has an influence on the purely genetic changes, but I don't know how strong it is. I agree they'd probably all have difficulty understanding each other - the cultural frames of reference would have shifted a lot.