Where is humanity going? Is a new evolutionary leap just around the corner, as popular entertainment and some members of the scientific community suggest? The philosopher Nietzsche postulated the coming of a superman, and Hitler tried to actualize that vision by breeding superior specimens and eliminating inferior ones. Affluence and improved medicine have reduced the amount of chlorine in the gene pool of privileged societies. Since natural selection has more scope in the poorer countries, perhaps they will be the source of the new, improved version of homo sapiens.
According to Professor Jacob Palme, the saga of our species is just beginning, and our future existence is a question mark:
“The earth has been capable of supporting life for about 3 billion years, and is expected to continue being able to support life for about 5 billion years in the future. Thus if we view the period of being able to support life as 24 hours, then we are now about 9 o’clock in the morning, humans diverged from the apes about a minute ago and the human species started to exist 1-2 seconds ago.
“The average life span of a species on earth is a few million years. Every year, thousands of species cease to exist and thousands of new species are created. Will thus the human species cease to exist in a few million years, like most other animals? If so, why, and what will replace it? Or are humans so unique and different from other species, that experience from other species cannot be applied, and humans may continue to exist for a much longer time?”
In the usual order of things, species disappear because their habitat ceases to exist; they are out-competed by other species; natural selection favors a new species; or large or microscopic predators exterminate the species. In the case of humans, a substantial element of choice is involved. We are the ones who have ravaged the environment and exterminated each other, while heroically battling the epidemics of infectious diseases that threaten us all. Given that the consequences of our actions up to this point are not irreversible, we are the ones who must decide what to do about reversing the damage of greed, arrogance, ignorance, and overcrowding.
Modern Homo Sapiens originated in Africa between 110,000 and 50,000 years ago. Then, with relative suddenness, things changed. The species expanded into Europe and Africa, eradicating previous humanoids like the Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Was this caused by a genetic mutation which gave Homo Sap the edge? They continued to live as hunter-gatherers until about 10,000 years ago, when agriculture began. Was the trigger another mutation? Perhaps a change is brain size or capacity, allowing a more refined use of language which allowed ancestral lore to be passed on?
Natural selection takes millennia. Humans now have the capability to tamper with their own genes and make changes in one generation. This is regarded as forbidden knowledge in many quarters, but this is not a genie that governments or lobby groups will be able to put back in the bottle. Genetic engineering, cloning, and gene therapy are facts of life. If we can abstain from killing each other, we will hold our own future in our hands.
We have eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but wisdom continues to elude us. If we want to be something more than a blip on the evolutionary history of planet Earth, we have two choices. One group will have to exterminate or dominate the others, or we will all have to change our values from competitive to co-operative.
If homo sap manages to exist for another 10,000 years, what will he look like? He will probably be more intelligent. He will bear the evidence of both failed and successful experiments in genetics. He may be able to communicate in new ways, sail through the stars, or live as pure energy. He may even have learned the ways of peace and collectivity. Perhaps he will have been decimated, and once more live in small communities. Natural disasters may have caused him to devolve to a primitive state, ready to repeat the cycle of civilization all over again.
The final fate of our species is not entirely in our hands, but we will have more opportunities for input than any other species on earth has ever enjoyed. Together, we will journey, boldly or in fear and trembling, where no one has been before..
Further thoughts on the issue:
talk by Professor Jacob Palme (2006)