In a new book that favours fact over speculation, the future man is tantalisingly sketched out.
TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY evoke visions of human futures. H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in the midst of Victorian England’s shift fever, in which humans had split into subterranean, orc-like Morlocks and elfin, forest-dwelling Eloi. The arrival of Marvel’s superpowered X-Men mutants in the cold war 1960s, and the massive popularity of Avatar in 2009 revealed that a surprising large number of people secretly wanted to be blue, 4 metres tall, and have a telepathic ponytail.
But, for ordinary mortals, what does the future man bring, and how can we adapt?
What may Homo sapiens really become, given our genome and the physiological, anatomical, and mental worlds it conjures – and what is forever beyond our reach?
Future Humans by Scott Solomon only provides partial answers to these interesting questions.
Anyone hoping for an examination of how we could respond to climate change’s aridity or inundation options would be disappointed.
He also doesn’t go into detail about how our experience as a competitive but social primate could restrict our ability to devise strategies to deal with future challenges.
He also ignores the evolutionary potential of turning on ancient genes to access previously untapped choices, as well as a review of the benefits and drawbacks of gene therapy.
Surprisingly, such an effort is likely to be required. The notion that humans have reached a point of no return is widely held, and it has been endorsed by figures as diverse as Ernst Mayr, Stephen J. Gould, and David Attenborough. Yes, the argument goes, humans have changed in the past: skin colour was once highly adaptive, linked to the need to prevent developmental defects in the foetus through vitamin D synthesis. Real, they say, adaptations to high-altitude oxygen deficiency have occurred three times, each with a unique solution. And reversing lactose intolerance so that adult humans will profit from the calcium and protein content in dairy products is such a brilliant concept that it has developed twice.
“Antibiotics and ambient chemicals are wreaking havoc on our wonderfully coadapted microbiota.”
But it was before the industrial revolution, the telephone, and the opportunity to exchange data over the internet with another future man on the other side of the globe.
Antibiotics, healthcare, plenty of food, and a lack of predators, according to the statement, have placed humans in a state of stasis.
Evolution has come to a halt.
However, as Solomon points out, when we succeed in separating cultural and genetic influences, science reveals heritable changes in things like the age at which an individual has their first child and the onset of menopause. Resistance to malaria and HIV is also developing. Antibiotics and ambient chemicals, on the other hand, are wreaking havoc on our beautifully coadapted microbiota. The changes are gradual and not visible from the outside, however, they are there.
As the extant water opossum and aye-aye, as well as the sadly extinct marine sloth and dwarf elephant, demonstrate, mammals will diverge into strange and incredible forms when the need arises.
Solomon believes that dark-skinned, light-boned, space-travelling humans are beyond the realms of possibility for our species.
The book only gives clues about how humans could fare on Earth, with its potential for supervolcano and asteroid-driven mass extinctions (never mind what we do to help the process along).
Nonetheless, it is entertaining and well-researched, and it wonderfully clarifies the fact that larger populations, greater genetic interchange, and ever-older breeding males all massively increase the amount of material for which evolution must function.
But what could happen and why seems to be the topic of a separate novel.
Yale University Press