Thursday, October 19, 2006

Giants, goblins, unihumans and all that

Today, my good friend Bronwen introduced me to a very interesting article that appeared, just a few days ago, on the BBC news website. Titled ‘Human species may split in two’, it discusses Oliver Curry’s research on the possible future evolution of Homo sapiens (you can access the article here). It’s not a new area of speculation: see, for example, Stebbins (1970) and Dixon (1990), but Curry’s take on the subject is, err, innovative, and already various bloggers have been making hilarious comments on it.

Apparently, human evolution is due to ‘peak’ in the year 3000 (quite what that means I’m not entirely sure), then there will be some sort of decline due a ‘dependence on technology’, and then, in the distant future, H. sapiens will diverge into two separate taxa: one consisting of tall, slim, highly intelligent super-hominids, and the other consisting of dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like hominids (see accompanying picture, taken from the BBC website). In other words, we’re talking about something a bit like the eloi and morlocks of Well’s The Time Machine.

There’s more in the article: it also discusses what will happen within human evolution over the next 1000 or so years. Symmetry in facial features is apparently set to improve, and squarer jaws, deeper voices and larger penises in men will evolve, as will smoother skin, more pert breasts and glossier hair in women. Racial differences will disappear as we all merge into one homogenous global gene pool.

Curry is of the London School of Economics, and is fairly well known for writing on evolutionary theory and how it relates to moral philosophy and so on. Anyway, many – but not all – media reports announcing new science discoveries appear because a new technical paper has appeared, so I immediately wondered whether Curry’s research might have appeared in a technical journal… Journal of Human Evolution perhaps, or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or Nature. Errr, no, Dr Curry ‘carried out the report for men’s satellite TV channel Bravo’. Ah. Oh dammit, I knew it was too good to be true :)

You don’t need me to tell you that there is little here that warrants a serious look. It’s science fiction. There is – to my knowledge – no indication that humanity might somehow diverge into beautiful smart giants vs stupid ugly goblins, nor, in the short term, are there good reasons for thinking that men might be evolving bigger penises, squarer jaws or deeper voices, or that women’s hair is becoming glossier, their breasts more pert and so on (please correct me if you know otherwise). Supposedly, there are a number of derived morphological characters within H. sapiens that make some populations, and some individuals, appear more recently evolved than others (they include absence of ear lobes, blue eyes and an asymmetrical crown), but is there any indication that these characters are becoming more prevalent? No. I might seem a bit naïve here, but isn’t there a general agreement that the absence of selection within our species means that we are no longer evolving? Sure, the potential for future evolution is always there, but we don’t yet have information on that.

Will racial differences disappear due to interbreeding? Evidence apparently shows that cultural diversity is decreasing, and leading experts on biodiversity, such as Duke University’s Stuart Pimm, have been quoted as saying that humans are becoming more homogenous. Some articles on this much-asked question have speculated that the result might be the homogenous ‘unihuman’ (see adjacent reconstruction), leading us to become less resistant to diseases and increasingly unable to cope with potential environmental changes.

While this might seem logical, I think people fail to realise just how much integration there would have to be in order for H. sapiens to become morphologically uniform. Sure, people of different racial origins are more inclined to interbreed than ever before, but this still leaves populations of literally millions of people that will, actually, never mingle with other populations of literally millions of people. We (as in, we members of H. sapiens) are not all jetting around the world, crossing oceans, and breeding with people from other continents. The vast majority of us don’t really move much, nor will we. There is a possible analogue in studies on language: some research indicates that dialects are becoming more distinct, not less so, and in an age where the world is becoming proverbially smaller, I wonder if increasing numbers of populations may become more provincial, not less so.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a big fan of Dougal Dixon and his three books on hypothetical future evolution (for the latest evidence go see Naish does Dixon, if you’ll pardon the expression at my flickr site). Naturally I can’t therefore help but compare Curry’s future humans with the hominids that Dougal invented for Man After Man (1990). In a future where all megafauna is extinct and where technologically advanced humans are highly skilled at genetic engineering, future people 500 years hence genetically create ungulate-like grassland people, cold-weather tundra people, scansorial forest and woodland people, and gilled, seal-like aquatic people (Dixon 1990). A future ice age and magnetic reversal then lead to the collapse of civilization, and for the next several million years the book follows the evolution of the genetically modified humans as they diversify and evolve new species. We see the evolution of eusocial desert humans, high-altitude snow humans that have co-evolved with telepathic woodland people, and later still giant sloth people and the saber-toothed people that prey on them. And more. Of course, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a work of science fiction.

Anyway, time to move on. For the latest news on Tetrapod Zoology do go here.

Refs - -

Dixon, D. 1990. Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future. Blandford, London.

Stebbins, G. L. 1970. The natural history and evolutionary future of mankind. The American Naturalist 104, 111-126.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Roger B. said...

Thought-provoking stuff.

Oliver Curry's ideas sound like complete tosh - based on a very limited perspective. Do men with larger penises actually father more children? Do women with glossy hair and pert breasts have more kids? I doubt it.

We don't know what impact environmental factors may have on long-term human evolution. An increase in UV radiation might favour individuals who have higher levels of protective melanin in their skins.

In his sci-fi novels, Iain M. Banks takes the idea of genetic manipulation a stage further. Some of his 'human' characters actually get to spend time as other (alien) species - raising all kinds of issues about identity, self and consciousness.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Gufo said...

Darren, I contest your definition of the article as 'sci-fi'. I'd go more for self-indulging fantasy... or more appropriately may be, plain rubbish. Sci-fi is supposed to start from science facts and extrapolates them in a fictional, but plausible way. At least, that's the kind of sci-fi I enjoy...

roger: as for larger penises and perker(?) breasts, may be some (sexual) selection towards them exists... I don't know. one should compare pornstars fathering performances with those of 'normal' people..

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Mark Konings said...

I fail to see how there could be an "absence of selection" for the present human population. Societies with some degree of technological development are just as much environments as any "natural" environment would be and exert their own typical selection pressures. And far from halting evolution, an increasing rate of technological or cultural change might well accelerate its speed.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Nemo Ramjet said...

I've also written a book on future evolution, a billion years into the future, with pictures.

Of course it is all sci-fi, but go see it at http://www.nemoramjet.com/atindex.html

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Pavel Volkov said...

Hallo, mr. Darren Naish!
If you want to learn more about future evolution, visit these sites:

http://www.metazoica.com – site made by Cassandra Rivera (USA). It is a site about animals of Metazoic era – 60 MY in the future. Various mammals are described there, and there is one flash-film about futuristic flightless birds.
http://s7.invisionfree.com/Metazoica/ - it is a forum of this site. There are some references to other sites, but I’ll tell about them here.
http://s6.invisionfree.com/FutureWorld/ - forum about futuristic life, new dinosaurs and alien evolution, organized by And 1 (Germany). The language of forum is English.
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DinosaurMailingList-KilledThreads/ - the international and long-termed forum at Yahoo devoted to parallel world of dinosaurs and allies called Spec. Many topics are discussing there.
http://www.bowdoin.edu/~dbensen/Spec/Index.html the English site about world of Spec – the present-day world where dinosaurs rule. This site is plentifully illustrated. The new location of some pages of this site is here: http://www.unet.univie.ac.at/~a0000265/Spec/
Some authors of Spec project have their own blogs.
http://piatnitskysaurus.blogspot.com/ the blog of Tim Morris (Australia) created for various projects of futuristic evolution
http://spectim.blogspot.com the separate blog of Tim Morris devoted to Spec ideas
http://eobasileus.blogspot.com/ - blog of another Spec creator, Emile Mark Moacdieh (Lebanon). This blog tells about birds, reptiles and invertebrates of Spec.
Tim Morris created also the Yahoo group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/philosphica-dixonia/ where various topics of futuristic evolution and fantasy creatures are discussed.
Go to Links page at this Yahoo group to see some links to other sites. Some of them are too young and not completed yet.
And there are two another references. They both are about Neocene – the world 25 MY in the future.
http://www.sivatherium.h12.ru/englver.htm - the English pages and stories about ecosystems of the Neocene.
But if you know Russian, you may just click here:
http://www.sivatherium.h12.ru/rabota.htm and read the much more complete version in Russian. It is my site.

With best wishes, Pavel Volkov (nik Paul).

9:15 AM  

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