[FoRK] futurism and human evolution

Lucas Gonze lucas.gonze at gmail.com
Wed Oct 13 11:33:33 PDT 2010


How recognizable will humans be in five hundred years?

Alex reports:

Tyler and I argued recently about whether or not humans will be
recognizably human in 500 years.

Let us assume that scientific progress continues.  My view is that
parents don't so much like "difference," unless it is very directly in
their favor.  Using technology, parents will select for children who
are taller, smarter in the way that parents value, better looking, and
perhaps also more loyal to their families.  The people in the wealthy
parts of the world will look more like models and movie stars, but
they will be quite recognizable.  These children may also be less
creative and some of them will be less driven.  It's a bit like the
real estate market, where everyone wants their house to be special,
but not too special, for purposes of resale or in this case mating and
career prospects.

Assortative mating can increase the variance of appearance (and other
characteristics), but a) assortative mating is not obviously a
dominant effect, b) not necessarily doing much over the course of five
hundred years, and c) future science is more likely to reverse the
boost in variance than to support it.  One short person could marry
another short person, without having such short children because of
genetic engineering.

People will in various ways be cyborgs, but more or less invisibly
from the outside at least.

Dogs look different than they did five thousand years ago, but that is
because humans controlled their breeding and opted for some extremes.
How would they look today if the dogs themselves had been in charge of
the process?

Posted by Tyler Cowen on October 9, 2010 at 08:11 AM in Science | Permalink


Since the reproduction cycle of humans is so much longer than for
dogs, maybe 5 or 10X as long, to compare 500 years for dogs should be
a 2500 to 5000 year span for humans.

Posted by: liberalarts at Oct 9, 2010 8:19:49 AM

The human race will devolve Into two classes: those offspring whose
ancestors opposed genetic engineering and selection mechanisms and
those who did not.

The former will work for the latter.

Posted by: Bill at Oct 9, 2010 8:28:55 AM

I'd guess that the human form will remain part of the
inter-intelligence communication stack for a good time yet.

Posted by: Rob Spear at Oct 9, 2010 9:05:22 AM

If we move forward significantly as a people over the next 500 years,
people who freeze their heads now may come back as the underclass when
they revive them in the future...

Posted by: liberalarts at Oct 9, 2010 9:10:31 AM

Don't forget that history is full of societies where "elites" were
rounded up and killed. French revolution, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc

Physical markers that demonstrate social class could lead to increased
discrimination and conflict. Unless you want to breed super soldiers
to protect society. And how long before the super soldiers become

Or one possible explanation for why we don't see a 400 hitter in
baseball is that as more skilled players have entered the field the
increased competition has meant less extreme variance in baseball
without much changing the collective average. Players as a group are
better but any single player has a harder time consistently be

Posted by: DanC at Oct 9, 2010 9:17:25 AM

Had dogs controlled their genetic destiny, all dogs would have scoops
for mouths so they can wolf their food down faster, an arm coming out
of their back in order to throw sticks and Frisbees and their rear
ends would all be at exactly dog nose height.

Posted by: DaveyNC at Oct 9, 2010 9:18:56 AM

Why is it taken for granted that genetically engineered humans will be
superior to natural humans?

Certainly you could not prove that thesis by looking at dogs. There is
no evidence what so ever that domesticated dogs are superior to wolves
or other wild dogs. To be sure, some domestic dogs are superior in
some respects to their wild cousins, but they pay for those things
with trade offs in other areas. For example, some dogs bred for flock
protection are far bigger than their wild cousins, but they don't have
the endurance or speed that wild dogs have either.

The idea that humans as they currently are would be farsighted enough
to "build" truly better versions of themselves is hard for me to
swallow. Most likely they would select for things that they felt would
give them a social advantage (such as zero body fat for males or large
bosoms for females) and deselect socially awkward but eminently useful
traits such as the quasi-autistic brilliance of Einstein.

In other words, genetically engineered humans will be like domestic
dogs. Specialized versions of the natural (or wild) type that have
lost much of their versatility.

Posted by: Ape Man at Oct 9, 2010 9:54:45 AM

What would the world be like if beavers were the dominant species?

Posted by: FrankR at Oct 9, 2010 10:15:18 AM

Oh I think you guys are missing one of the "fun" speculations that I
actually think has a chance of happening...

Today attacking people for being obese is in fashion - and taxing
people for being obese either directly or indirectly will only grow in
appeal in the coming years..

But the next logical step is attacking people for being too tall -
tall people make us all incur extra costs - if we evolved into a world
where females were 5' tall or less and males 5'6" tall or less [and
yes I know there is an argument to be made on giving men an extra 6"]
just think how much better life for everyone would be....

Smaller cars - smaller homes - more people packed into the same sized
airplane or better yet smaller more efficient planes...

So I am predicting we will next see increasing pressure behind a
movement to Downsize the human race - sounds like an interesting book
might be written on what a world of right-sized humans would look

And I don't think the concept is that outrageous - we already demonize
smokers - drinkers - obese - why not demonize tall people?

Posted by: LonelyLibertarian at Oct 9, 2010 10:53:00 AM

I would offer to consider how artificial uterus would affect the speed
of evolution.

To some extent this will help gays or autistic men shy of women to
have children grown without moms ( they will just purchase eggs ) so
this will increase diversity, and as those groups of people are
usually creative - that will drive the whole society to express
The same way rich men might want whole lot of children, not necessary
having dates with potential moms.

so there are quite a bit of opportunities

Posted by: Sergey Kurdakov at Oct 9, 2010 11:28:05 AM

What would the world be like if beavers were the dominant species?

It would be a world with no Cheese Danish.
Posted by: Steve C. at Oct 9, 2010 11:58:46 AM

I would be willing to genetically engineer my offspring, in theory. I
would argue, though, that Ape Man is closest to the salient point
here, which I'll attack from a different angle.

Physical reality constrains natural selection, artificial selection,
and "engineered" selection. This limits the number and nature of forms
life can take--no matter how brilliant we are, we're not going to be
able to engineer ourselves into mile-tall super humans. At more
moderate epsilons, it causes not so much an impossibility as a need
for trade offs. As we get taller, we run into more heart problems and
bone problems. There are also costs to being on the shorter side,
though I'd attribute most of them to being the result of
peacocking/the red queen's race. Regardless, there are costs and
benefits to every gene switched on or off. Maybe being smarter
inherently leads to more autism, another trade off in the same vein.

What's best, then? That's where the genius of self-organization comes
in. Evolution explores the selection landscape in a way that genetic
planners can only dream of. Billions of individual feelers poking out
in every conceivable direction of possibility, trying to figure out
that simple question, what maximizes reproductive utility?

Of course, a team of brilliant scientists can probably isolate a
particular gene and subsidize its natural occurrence. Longer femurs,
greater neural density, finer vellus hair. Which sounds wonderful if
that's your personal desire as a consumer, I guess.

I'll stick with my current reproductive strategy, though.

Posted by: Zephyrus at Oct 9, 2010 12:12:01 PM

Sergey, The artificial uterus you are describing is the Huxley Version
1984 available in Brave New World Health and Fitness Stores.

Speaking of the latter, it is interesting that people worry about
future genetic engineering, but not performance enhancing drugs and
muscle growth and other supplements and stimulants sold in health and
fitness stores--a current day, but not future day--event.

Talk about creeped out. I was in one of those stores buying vitamins
and listened to the conversation between a store owner and two
teenagers who were trying out for the football team. The manager
introduces the two teenage boys to some of the products, warns them of
taking too much, and then proceeds to tell them how to flush it out of
their system when they do take too much. Wink Wink. When he saw me
intently listening, he moved the kids to another part of the store and
continued his spiel.

Parents: Do you know what your kids are taking to become superman?

How recognizable will CURRENT humans be from what they will look like
tomorrow. Look at that Adams apple, will you, and that thick neck.

Sometimes markets work too well and involve risks kids don't
appreciate or don't balance well against their future.

Posted by: Bill at Oct 9, 2010 12:12:05 PM

This discussion presumes genetic modification will only be practical
at the fetal stage, practiced upon the next generation. Retroviral
technology may permit a broad range of chromosomal alterations in
mature adults, changes that would breed true. Some people demonstrably
fantasize they're covered in fur, as attested by the large furry
community in Second Life. Erik Sprague, the Lizardman, has had his
tongue surgically forked: http://www.thelizardman.com/

Then, too, it is easy to imagine some couples would be thrilled at the
prospect of parenting "an entire new subspecies," especially if the
offspring looked attractive in a fantastic way -- elvish, say, or

Posted by: Allen Varney at Oct 9, 2010 12:27:50 PM

Why do you think parents will be in control? Genetic manipulation and
selection is extremely ineffective except maybe for fixing a few rare
diseases. People will mostly modify themselves after birth like
they've always done.

Why would anybody care about genes for good eyesight when you can
laser eyes to much better than that? Or genes for height when hormone
therapy will be far more precise and effective while tweaking genes at
best give you a wide scattershot centered around better mean?

Do they even expect world to be so stable for the next century that
their choices will make sense after that much time?

At any point in history genetic modifications available weren't even a
tiny fraction of a percent as powerful as what you can do after birth
- and the gap is growing very very fast - what we can do to people
regardless of their genes is just ridiculous.

Under what kind of assumptions would it ever reverse? There really
aren't any, not since we discovered how genetic code actually works.
This is all leftover of times before we got the clue, when people had
all sort of fairytale ideas about genes.

Posted by: Tomasz Wegrzanowski at Oct 9, 2010 2:35:38 PM

What would the world be like if beavers were the dominant species?

Posted by: FrankR at Oct 9, 2010 10:15:18 AM

I think we'd have deforestation issues.

Posted by: Beaver at Oct 9, 2010 3:23:38 PM

"And I don't think the concept is that outrageous - we already
demonize smokers - drinkers - obese - why not demonize tall people?"

Because unlike the other groups, people prefer tall people in a
disturbing number of ways.

Posted by: BPO at Oct 9, 2010 3:41:09 PM

What really spooks me about genetic engineering is a quick look at our
track record of non-genetic engineering of humans. Not just the
attempts at social engineering like Communism.

Look at the history of medical interventions -- basically all of it
made you worse, often killing you. And this continues, though to a
lesser degree, today -- they try to make you eat little fat (our
natural energy source) and instead boatloads of carbs (which cause
hunger and lack of vigor through sugar crashes). The national diabetic
associations even recommend that diabetics eat table sugar!

They also want your cholesterol level to be low, ignoring the fact
that this makes no difference for health outcomes, except if it's
sky-high or moderately low -- at which point your rate of being killed
or killing yourself shoots up. Plus low cholesterol means little of
the building block for all steroid hormones, including the sex
hormones and vitamin D.

And look at the attempts to make humans more physically impressive --
gym training and HGH / steroid use. Those guys look like freaks, not
Ubermenschen. For the latter, see any Classical or Renaissance
sculpture of men who did real physical activity like sports rather
than fake activity like bench presses and bicep curls.

So, why do we think that engineers using genetic methods rather than
these other methods would try to push humans in a different direction
from where they're pushing using non-genetic methods?

Posted by: agnostic at Oct 9, 2010 4:30:44 PM

Hopefully by then we'll have a reached "functional immortality" and no
longer need to reproduce. From a consent theory perspective,
maintaining all existing lives is far more moral than creating new
ones without them having the ability to consent.
Posted by: Burble at Oct 9, 2010 5:51:41 PM

Sounds like the genetically engineered future described in Robert
Heinlein's 1942 novel "Beyond This Horizon about a eugenic utopia
hundreds of years in the future: life for most people is a lot like
what it was for Hollywood movie stars in 1942. Everybody looks great,
the men are virile, the women sexy, the parties and vacations fun, and
there are lots of super smart people behind the scenes keeping things

Heinlein liked his vision of a eugenic utopia so much that he couldn't
think of much of a plot to happen in this world.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at Oct 9, 2010 7:48:44 PM


Posted by: Gordon at Oct 9, 2010 8:35:53 PM

We'll be more like giant-brained-bobble-heads. Finding the genes that
generates additional brain growth will make us all select for

Posted by: Shane M at Oct 9, 2010 8:53:38 PM

Dogs are a genetic outlier. There's vastly more potential for genetic
variance in the canine genome than in any other vertebrate species we
have domesticated. Note that we have been breeding cats sheep, goats,
pigs etc. for millennia too, but we haven't created anything like the
enormous diversity of dog breeds in those animals.
We also won't be able to create that diversity in ousrelves because
our genome does not have the poetntial for it.

Posted by: Jon at Oct 9, 2010 8:56:58 PM

Five hundred years is a long time. Optimistically assuming
uninterrupted technological progress and no apocalypses, we will
probably not even be recognizably animal by then, let alone
recognizably human.

A long-term constraint on possible human development paths is our
historical and ever-increasing desire for connectedness. Many people
already find it nearly impossible to disconnect from the Internet and
their mobile phones. Many current Internet services and online games
(and voice conversation) require very rapid response and low-latency
interactivity, and that will surely be even more true of the
yet-to-be-invented must-have applications of the future. The speed of
light becomes a constraint: we will not wish to be any further than a
fraction of a light-second away from the rest of humanity, because to
do so would amount to living on a desert island, cut off from culture,
entertainment and society. Low earth orbit is the limit; no human will
ever choose to live on Mars, and probably not even on the Moon.

Another long-term constraint is our historical and ever-increasing
appetite for energy consumption, of which a very large fraction will
eventually be dedicated to computation and powering server farms.
Again, this ties us to the inner solar system and its warm bath of
irradiation and solar wind; we will not venture into the energy
deserts of interstellar space.

Our never-ending appetite for interesting sensory stimulation will
eventually lead us to fully disintermediate the physical world.
Already with the invention of television we began to lose interest in
the mundane day-to-day raw and natural world and focus instead on what
our screens and speakers can offer us. At some point we will probably
figure out how to interface our nervous system with our devices, and
at that point the process will be irreversible. Just like moviemakers
found that it is easier to use CGI and digital effects to paint a
visual spectacle pixel by pixel rather than building elaborate sets
and physical props and then pointing a camera at them, humans will
eventually find it easier to "paint" a sensory "picture" directly onto
our nerve endings instead of constructing physical artifacts and
"pointing" our eyes, ears, noses, hands and tongues at them.

A hundred years from now we might all be genetically perfect Barbie
and Ken dolls, but five hundred years from now the external aspect and
appearance of our physical bodies (to the extent that we'll have any)
will be of interest only to anatomists. Nobody cares today what your
esophagus, colon and bone marrow look like, and in the distant future
that will probably be true of your face and skin as well, since hardly
anyone will ever gaze directly at them.

Disintermediating the physical world will lead to drastically lower
per-capita natural resource usage, and this will support a larger
population. Much of the current physical infrastructure will fall into
disrepair: you won't need cars or highways or street lights or hotels.
Just like the fraction of the human race directly involved with
agriculture has drastically declined after the industrial revolution,
the fraction of the human race that deals with "atoms" will be reduced
to a handful of engineers overseeing automated factories and low-speed
transportation of raw materials. Perhaps the continent will be
criss-crossed by canals, with cargo barges powered by giant kites.

The final question is whether it will be possible for a non-organic
medium to support consciousness. Can we create true AI, can we upload
our minds into silicon (or whatever the computers of the future are
made of)? It may be that it is impossible -- we know so little about
the fundamental nature of consciousness; perhaps we are already living
inside a simulation. But if it did prove possible, five hundred years
would be plenty of time to make it happen. We'd cut our final ties to
the physical universe and move into "The Matrix" (and we'd have an
answer to the Fermi Paradox's "where is everybody?").

Further developments would depend on whether we merged into a
collective Borg consciousness or remained as individuals. Assuming we
remained individuals, the definition of wealth would probably be the
amount of parallel computing power and processor speed that you could
command. You would literally be able to "buy time"; a rich person
might subjectively experience 72 "hours" in each "day" by investing in
faster chips; a famous person might rent a large computing cloud and
be able to hold long and meaningful individual conversations with each
and every fan.

The population could grow drastically. Just like the transition from
hunter-gathering to agriculture enabled the global population to
expand from millions to billions, the transition from physical to
virtual existence might enable the global population to expand from
billions to trillions.

Life would not necessarily be pleasant. Just like the invention of
agriculture made civilization possible but resulted in lives of
backbreaking toil and serfdom for most, we might find ourselves living
in some kind of cybernetic North Korea, a surveillance society with no
hope of escape.

Within its new cybernetic medium, the speed of thought would be
drastically accelerated from what we're currently capable of, with our
plodding organic consciousnesses rooted in slow electrical discharges
and chemical processes. Rather than needing to be within a fraction of
light-second in order to stay connected to the rest of the human race,
we'd need to be within a fraction of a light-millisecond. Perhaps the
entire human race (or what passes for it) would exist within a single
sprawling solar-powered server-farm "city" somewhere in the
(cloud-free and quasi-equatorial) Sahara.

This accelerated consciousness would mean that if this future
civilization is doomed to experience a rise and fall cycle like all
previous ones have in the past, then it would happen in record time.
Perhaps even literally overnight according to real-time clocks in the
physical universe (and if intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy has
followed this course, we'd have another answer to the Fermi Paradox).
We'd have a "singularity supernova", and then wink out of existence.

Posted by: anonymous at Oct 9, 2010 9:56:34 PM

By choosing to focus on genetic engineering, most of you are really
answering the question of what humans might be like 50-100 years from
now, not 500 years from now.

In that case, screw the Hollywood physique. I'd like cat's eyes (or
owl eyes), echolocation, bloodhound olfaction, the navigational
abilities (magnetic sense?) of migratory birds, a grossly
hypertrophied brain, and the ability (of nearly all other animals) to
internally biosynthesize my own vitamin C.

Posted by: anonymous at Oct 9, 2010 10:13:30 PM


Dogs have been with us since hunter-gatherer days: they helped us hunt
and served as a poor man's perimeter security alarm system. All the
other animals you mention have been with us only since the invention
of agriculture. Including cats, since they first made themselves
useful by killing the vermin that swarmed around crops and granaries.
So we've had an order of magnitude more time to shape the evolution of
dogs. Perhaps that accounts for their astonishing diversity? Or is
there something special about the original wolf genome?

Our own genome lacks diversity because we went through a
near-extinction genetic bottleneck around the time of (and likely as a
result of) the Lake Toba supervolcano eruption 70,000 years ago.

Posted by: anonymous at Oct 9, 2010 10:24:01 PM

If we look at humans from about 5000 years ago, and we have preserved
humans from that time frame, we find them "noticeably human", so
suggesting human evolution would be so much more than ten times faster
in the next 500 years, even with the aid of genetic engineering is
rather a stretch.

The genetic engineering of plants and animals where interspecies gene
transfer has been done does not change the modified species into
something noticeably different - the GMO corn, soy, wheat are still
corn, soy, wheat. Even the bacteria, plants, and animals with human
genes (used to make them express human proteins) remain unchanged in
our perception.

On the other hand, when the Spanish invaded the Americas they weren't
recognized as humans, but were considered possibly gods.

So, if environmental damage is severe enough to disrupt society and as
a consequence the ability to produce the technology which maintains
global trade, isolation of some regions of the planet might lead to
cultural divergence sufficiently large to recreate that New World
contact situation.

Posted by: mulp at Oct 10, 2010 12:31:28 AM


Genetic engineering is still in its infancy, and even today it is
constrained more by cultural factors (squeamishness and an abundance
of caution) than by technological limitations. Can you really be
confident that the current status quo will last five hundred years
into the future?

We've mostly been careful to avoid altering the external appearance of
any genetically-modified organism (other than stunts like
glow-in-the-dark fish), precisely in order to increase acceptability.
And we've been careful to make one small change at a time, instead of
radically shuffling the genomic deck of cards. That is hardly an
argument that there is some inherent biological obstacle. You can
already radically alter appearance even without genetic engineering:
cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli are the same species.

And why do you even bring up the strawman of natural evolution? I
don't think anyone is predicting that it will somehow drastically
accelerate any time soon. If you posit significantly altered
capabilities or physical forms in the future, genetic engineering (or
cyborg technology or whatever) is how to get there.
Posted by: anonymous at Oct 10, 2010 10:20:56 AM

I responded here:

Posted by: Robin Hanson at Oct 10, 2010 11:19:04 AM

Most dog breeds have only appeared in the past few hundred years
through intensive breeding for a few favored traits. Direct
engineering would have probably been even faster.

Genetic engineering will probably be as prone to fads everything else
and each generation could have wide divergences in phenotypes. Some
traits could change very quickly if people get into arms races.

Posted by: Chris T at Oct 10, 2010 1:55:17 PM



Scroll down to the "consistency and change" box.

This was written over 20 years ago. But I think it is a reasonably
conservative depiction of what we will be like in the future.

We will still be "biological" and recognizably human. That is, no
"uploads" or "dry" nanotechnology. However, we will have more
capabilities that today. For one, no aging. The aging process will be
an artifact of history, much like the horse and buggy today. Secondly,
we will have robust regeneration. You loose a limb or suffer extensive
body injury, say in a car crash or motorcycle accident, you will be
able to regenerate the lost limb and damaged tissue. Whole body
regeneration (e.g. revival from cryonic suspension) should be
available. Cryo-preservation will be properly understood by society as
nothing more than medical stabilization (an ambulance into the
future), rather than the pathological opinions people have of it

Biological metamorphosis will be common for those who choose to
migrate into space.

Posted by: kurt9 at Oct 10, 2010 4:06:26 PM

Much of current culture (e.g. religion and philosophy) is based on
vulnerability. Biotechnology, by curing aging and offering
comprehensive regeneration, will reduce our vulnerability in such a
way as to affect cultural attitudes. Culture, including religion and
philosophy, will change and adapt to accommodate our increased
robustness and decreased vulnerability. Cultural constructs that fail
to adapt in this manner will slowly disappear.

Posted by: kurt9 at Oct 10, 2010 4:14:04 PM

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