The Future of Human Evolution?

The Future of Human Evolution?

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What do you imagine when I say ‘the future of human evolution?’ A superbeing with powers beyond comprehension? A mutated oddity far removed from our idea of humanity? Or perhaps nothing but decaying remains left in the wake of our extinction? Scientists and sci-fi authors have long speculated on what our future selves will look like — and as technology advances, our species might evolve much faster than natural selection would typically allow. So, for this entry into the archive, we’ll explore posthuman scenarios from the absurd to the frighteningly plausible — and meet the many possible successors to humankind… Let’s say hello to our first potential offspring. I hope you’re excited… to meet Graham. Graham is a distant descendant of humanity whose body has evolved to survive car crashes. Despite appearances, he isn’t a CG model, but a life-sized statue made of silicon and real human hair. Graham was created by artist Patricia Piccinini, a sculptor known for her hyper-realistic depictions of altered humanoids. If you’ve seen clickbait on the internet of human-animal hybrids, chances are the image was actually one of her sculptures. Her work

can be disarming, unsettling — yet there’s an unmistakable tenderness to each piece, a humanity that underscores her themes of bioethics and future evolution. Unlike Piccinini’s other statues, Graham was created as part of a road safety campaign, and comes with his own website that allows you to look under his skin and study the anatomy beneath. Graham’s fictional biology is shockingly detailed. His skull has evolved crumple zones to absorb impacts, his neck is encircled by ribs that work like a brace, his torso is full of airbag-like sacs to protect his vitals. It’s, uh… I mean, it’s definitely memorable, as safety campaigns go. Looking past the weirdness, Graham does succeed in making you aware of how vulnerable your body is — how unequipped humans are for the dangers of modern life.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated two million people are injured annually in car accidents, and at least thirty thousand never make it home at all. The ecosystem that humans have built is so alien, so fundamentally different from the natural world, it’s difficult to say how evolution will react. It’s of course highly unlikely we’ll ever look anything like Graham, since evolution works on a very different timescale than technological advancement.

But humans are still evolving — our bones have gotten lighter as we’ve transitioned to a sedentary lifestyle. The average body temperature is dropping due to improved sanitation reducing infections. Even in our controlled modern environments, evolution is an engine that can’t be turned off... …But perhaps it could be sped up. Man After Man is a bizarre

artbook by Dougal Dixon that explores how genetic engineering could create new branches in the human family tree far sooner than evolution could. Like our friend Graham, the work is more of a surreal thought experiment than something that holds together scientifically. Over eons of genome manipulation, some humans become multi-armed oddities spliced from multiple bodies. Others become enormous blobs engineered to be a source of food. Still others become

genetically altered beasts of burden with these giant air-conditioner heads that are… practical, somehow? Some of these modified humans later evolve further via natural selection, taking on even wackier forms. There’s a… peculiarity to the art which has made it famous online. The project would even get a spiritual successor in the form of C. M. Kosemen’s All Tommorrows — a take on genetically engineered posthumans which is, in my opinion, more cohesive both aesthetically and thematically. Yet for all their eccentricities, Man After Man and Piccinini’s sculptures are unsettling meditations on humanity’s uncertain future — reminding us that change is inevitable, and not always pretty. Evolution doesn’t necessarily mean advancement, and depending on the choices we make today, we may not recognize ourselves tomorrow. Fascination with future human evolution isn’t anything new. Stories about humanity’s

successors go all the way back to the nineteenth century — with works like The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells, featuring humans separating into a predator and prey species. A few decades later, Olaf Stapledon’s novel Last and First Men chronicled eighteen future human species over two billion years. The book was adapted into an experimental film in 2020 — which depicts vast, black and white landscapes of crumbling monuments as a narrator reads from sections of the novel. They speak of elephantine humans with long, twisting trunks; bear-like humans who dwell in the wild; and telepathic superbeings who build an empire that lasts for untold millennia. The scope of Last and First Men can be overwhelming, even exhausting — a relic from an era where the chief limit to how long humanity had to evolve was the eventual collapse of the sun. But soon, a new invention would fundamentally alter our

confidence in the future. Narrator: “A Nuclear blast and the subsequent fallout will have many adverse effects on life as we know it. Intensive, prolonged radiation exposure may transform those aboveground into decrepit, rotting beings that have lost their ability to reason.” Our vision of humanity’s future often reflects humanity’s present, which

is why during the Atomic Age, fear of nuclear devastation gave rise to a very unique type of posthuman. Throughout the 50s and 60s, sci-fi films about the far future depicted the Nuclear Mutant – descendants of humanity transmuted into inhuman brutes from exposure to radiation. These post-apocalyptic humanoids were often monstrous to the point of absurdity, with radioactivity portrayed as an all-powerful catalyst for evolutionary change. In the 1955 film The Day the World Ended, nuclear fallout rapidly turns humans in, uh, whatever this is. Yet beyond their silly appearance, Nuclear Mutants gave a face to the existential threat of atomic annihilation, turning abstract dangers into something tangible that human survivors could overcome. Narrator: “It is the unfortunate truth that when you go above ground, you will be faced with many post-nuclear nuisances.” It’s notable that alongside mutants, most

Atomic Age apocalypses had survivors — pure, unaltered humans descended from those who took shelter in bunkers before the bombs fell. The trope echoes Cold War attitudes towards preparedness — implying that with a little good old fashion preparation, you and your family won’t have to become mutants come the end of the world. The 1956 movie World Without End epitomizes this concept, presenting an Earth cleanly split between an advanced group of beautiful humans who had the foresight to take shelter when the bombs fell, and a horde of surface-dwelling mutants who were caught in the blast. The idea that all of humanity might change or die out, that no amount of preparedness might be enough to protect the status quo, is rarely confronted in such stories. You don’t see many radiation-born mutants in modern media. There are exceptions — especially in retro-future franchises

like Fallout — but that’s a series that delights in recreating the tropes of Atomic Age sci-fi. Most modern depictions of nuclear devastation are more subdued and somber — perhaps because real disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima have brought the reality of radiation’s long-term effects further into the world-wide consciousness. Radiation doesn’t produce campy monsters. Its effects aren’t charismatic — most mutations, if they occur, are quiet and tragic. And there’s no conquering it — not really. You can react — evacuate and quarantine the best you can, but ultimately, it’s a force, like a car crash, that humans simply haven’t been evolving to survive. One option for humanity’s future, perhaps the first one that came to mind when you saw the title of this video… is that we don’t get one. That if the end of civilization comes, it will be the type of ending that doesn’t

leave survivors. Nuclear mutants certainly don’t seem like an optimistic vision for future humanoids — but I think they are, in a way. Because in order for there to be mutants, there has to be something to mutate — some form of humanity that endured into the post-apocalypse. But what if we don’t even get that? There’s an animated short

film from 1939 titled Peace on Earth that depicts humanity’s total extinction with shocking directness for its time. In the short, the last humans perish on a grim battlefield that echoes the imagery of World War I. A remake of the film titled Goodwill to Men was released in 1955, featuring an updated atomic arsenal. At the end of both narratives, after humanity is completely wiped out, a group of cute cartoon animals crawl from the wreckage and eventually take our place on planet earth, evolving a society and building a civilization from the helmets of fallen soldiers. It’s so deeply bizarre, with a huge amount of tonal dissonance — especially since this was apparently shown to children.

Yet there’s an undeniable power to both shorts, which convey the same theme of humanity’s impermanence. Humans aren’t sacred, and the world will continue to turn in our absence. And as freaky as many of the posthumans are that we’ve explored so far, this ending to humanity’s story — though simple and understated — is probably the one that unsettles me the most. Turning into a monstrous oddity might not be an ideal future… but it seems better than turning into a fossil. Human extinction as our evolutionary future can be better understood by looking into our past. In the game Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, you play as a series of hominin species within the human evolutionary lineage. And while not everything in Ancestors is scientifically accurate, it is an exceptionally unflinching look at the grinding slog that is evolution. You die a lot in this game. Like our ancestors, you are given almost no

instruction — the only way to figure out which plants are poisonous and which animals will try to eat you is through slow, agonizing repetition. In the early stages your screen will flash with images of gnashing teeth, a representation of your primate brain being overwhelmed by fear. If ever there’s been a piece of media that captures our vulnerability as a species and the randomness that we made it at all, it’s this one… What the game doesn’t capture — what it can’t capture with its gameplay of continuous forward progress – is that evolution isn’t just a single line. There were other branches in the hominin family tree — just three hundred thousand years ago, as many as nine other species of humans walked the earth alongside us, many of whom may have been our intellectual equals.

And now, well, now there’s only one. We know extinction is possible for hominins, because it’s happened before. Homo sapiens aren’t the rule… we’re the exception. The concept of humans eventually fading out like the other hominins is famously explored in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the film begins with three astronauts landing on a mysterious planet that is dominated by a group of advanced apes, who regard their planet’s human population as nothing more than mindless animals. Through this inversion, the film investigates how humankind has historically mistreated other animals and each other. It’s a theme especially highlighted by the ending, where — spoiler alert for a film that’s over a half-century old — it turns out the characters were on Earth in the future the whole time. “Oh my god, I was wrong - it was Earth all along.”

A question central to Planet of the Apes, particularly the recent prequel films, is whether or not humans are capable of peacefully coexisting with another intelligent species. It’s a question that, tragically, may have already been answered. We can’t definitely prove the extent to which Homo sapiens were responsible for the extinction of our fellow hominins… but we do know that their disappearance correlates very closely with the spread of our ancestors. The ‘villain’ of the original Planet of the Apes claims humans are a destructive

and territorial species, that violence is intrinsic to human nature. And while one wants to push back, to point at how far we’ve come and say ‘no, we are more than just violent animals, we are special and we are going to make it’ — it’s hard not to look at all we’ve done, the weapons we’ve created, and wonder. Wonder if the last hominins Homo sapiens will destroy… will be ourselves. An equally harrowing vision of the future is that humanity’s own evolutionary successors will — in a bitter twist of fate — be the ones to wipe us out. This patricide model is prevalent in the wave of telekinetic sci-fi films that surged in the 1970s and 80s. In these narratives, humans born with telepathic or other related abilities often come to see themselves as the next phase in evolution — and seek to eradicate or change the rest of humanity. And the results are often cataclysmic,

with many films in this subgenre ending with the ushering in of a new age. How these posthumans are able to manipulate physics is a question rarely answered with anything approaching actual science. Probably the wildest explanation comes from the more recent film Lucy, where the main character develops the ability to do… pretty much anything by using more than 10% of her brain. It’s an interesting film visually, but as many of you are probably aware, humans already use more than 10% of our brains — we use the whole thing. But

while the science of these films is often dubious, the premise of strife between humans and posthumans seems far more plausible. In the modern era, the idea of the superhuman is probably most associated with the superhero — who contrasts with other models of the posthuman in various ways. The typical superhero is an expectational individual preoccupied with aiding a larger population of ordinary, un-special humans. Rarely is there a fear

of replacement, because the superhero is an outlier, unique — not here to usurp Homo sapiens but instead a benevolent superbeing sworn to uphold the status quo. Exceptions to this model exist, with the most famous probably being the mutants in the X-Men franchise. These characters are quite explicitly a new form of hominin, and due to their frequent marginalization, many mutants in the series wish to avoid or outright replace humanity. Scientifically, these mutants are, of course, fairly implausible. If mutations actually worked like this in nature, it would be impossible to even go outside, because the animal kingdom would be full of mice with laser eyes, or fire-breathing tigers. Yet the theme of conflict

between humanity and what comes next — both in this franchise and across sci-fi — follows a precedent set by our own evolutionary history. It is a fitting twist of fate that humanity’s successors might treat us the same way we treated our hominin relatives. If in a theoretical future superbeings came into existence, we’d have to hope they weren’t like us... Yet there is a final alternate path that sci-fi proposes — for humans to step outside the flow of evolution altogether and advance to a new phase of existence through technological augmentation. Next to severe mutation or extinction, casting off the weakness of flesh for the purity of metal might sound like an appealing option. The idea of ascension via technology

has been around since the dawn of cinema. The 1927 silent film Metropolis explores the concept of resurrecting a human in the form of a machine over a decade before the first programmable computer. Mind uploading and artificial immortality have long been cornerstones of sci-fi — and are still widespread today. It’s an alluring concept. Technology is already changing what it means to be human. If you’re someone who wears glasses or uses

the internet, you are, by some definitions, already a semi-artificial posthuman — your sense of self tied to a piece of technology. Of course, both in sci-fi and the real world, not everyone has equal access to new tech, which is a key reason most techno-futures aren’t as glamorous as they first appear. One of the most striking depictions of such a future comes from the video game Signalis, which stands as one of the more enigmatic yet moving pieces of sci-fi in recent memory. The game centers on posthumans called Replikas

— human neural imprints downloaded into the bodies of androids. It’s an imperfect process — with the artificial minds suffering breakdowns represented by sudden, bold flashes of text and shifting patterns. The gameplay feels equally unstable, glitching from retro survival-horror, to first person puzzles, to long cutscenes — all the while overwhelming you with these flashes of blurred text. If the game Ancestors simulates having the mind of an early hominin, Signalis simulates having the mind of an artificial posthuman that is breaking down with equal forcefulness. At one point the game overwhelms your senses with a rapid-fire montage of classical oil paintings. At another, just when a pivotal action sequence is about to start, you instead get text saying ‘violet scene missing,’ like your memory is short-circuiting. I’m not going to pretend I understand everything

Signalis is getting at — frankly, I don’t think anyone does. But I think it — like most works of techno-posthumanism, has a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to technological ascension. The next phase of humanity may very well be artificial, but no path into the future is without serious potential drawbacks. In the end, it seems that every option for the future of human evolution — both natural and artificial — could be its own type of catastrophe. While making this video, I kept expecting to find more optimistic visions of humanity’s next stage, but for the most part, across sci-fi, there are shockingly few positive examples of what Homo sapiens might evolve into. And maybe that’s a serious oversight. As something largely out of our control, evolution can be frightening, but

I think it’s important to remember that change — while unavoidable — doesn’t have to be negative. And if we ever want to improve, we need to start imagining what a better future could look like... As always, thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this entry, please lend your support by liking, subscribing, and hitting the notification icon to stay up to date on all things Curious. See you in the next video.

2023-04-09 07:02

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