Photo of a homemade robot

Post-human world

Homo technologicus, Homo modificasis or Homo survivor – what does evolution have in store next for Homo sapiens?

Life has existed for 3.5 billion years; humans have existed for a few hundred thousand. If those 3.5bn years were compressed into 365 days, with life on Earth beginning at the start of 1 January, humans would appear in the closing hours of 31 December.

So it is early days in our evolution. We have removed many selective pressures, but we are still evolving (see ‘Are humans still evolving?’). What will the next stage of intelligent life be?

Science-fiction writers have speculated endlessly about the emergence of artificial intelligence. We already have genetic algorithms – computer programs that learn as they go along.

Along with developments such as neural networks, which simulate how neurons operate in the brain, and fuzzy logic (decision-making in the face of uncertainty, something else the brain is very good at), artificially intelligent systems are coming on in leaps and bounds.

Whether or not they can ‘think’ is not clear – and might not even be a relevant question. ‘The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim,’ said Edsger Dijkstra, an influential Dutch computer scientist.

The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.

In most fiction, the artificially intelligent creations take over. Futurologists such as Ray Kurzweil talk in terms of a ‘technological singularity’, a point at which artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence and begins designing ever-smarter machines. The consensus is that the creation of genuine artificial intelligence would lead to profound social change.

Better humans

So what of people? One possible route might be genetic enhancement. It is theoretically feasible for us to alter the germ line (eg DNA in sperm or eggs), permanently changing our genome. Given that unborn children can’t consent and owing to the profound implications of changing future generations, plus the lack of a good reason to do it, germline modification is not yet done.

Another option is to use technology to enhance human capabilities – such as prosthetics to enhance our physical powers or neural implants to improve our mental abilities. This would not change us permanently, but using enhancements could become the norm, effectively changing the nature of humans.

Or the whole issue may be taken out of our hands. Some eminent scientists, such as Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, believe that we have only a 50:50 chance of surviving this century.

Global climate change or some other cataclysmic environmental event – another supervolcano explosion, perhaps – or even widespread human conflict could fundamentally change our environment. Who knows what factors would then be selected for?

Lead image:

Michael Dain/Flickr CC BY NC ND


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think humans should seek to enhance themselves? Are there acceptable and unacceptable methods of enhancement?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Ecology and environment, History, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development