by Don Simborg: We Homo sapiens are the result of 3.8 billion years of Darwinian evolution…
The first humans appeared on earth about two million years ago and the first Homo sapiens somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. But the Darwinian process of natural selection will no longer lead to future species of humans. Instead, the next human species will be the result of the convergence of two technologies: artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering.
This isn’t to say that we’ve stopped evolving. In fact, just the opposite has occurred in the most recent millennia. During this time we’ve evolved faster than ever. But it’s not fast enough. Two factors have changed that are putting the brakes on the natural selection process.
- It took about 300,000 years for our population to reach 1 billion, but only another 100 years after that to exceed 6 billion. As a result, our population is too dense and geographically distributed to allow the most usual mechanism of speciation (the creation of new species) that has occurred historically in our lineage. Physical barriers to interbreeding amongst us cannot develop — an important factor in previous speciation events leading to new humans.
- Our advances in hygiene, sewage management, infection control, nutrition and medical capability have reduced the effect of the selection component of Darwinian evolution in the most recent two hundred years. Simply put, we keep a lot more people alive long enough to have children than we used to. That has dramatically reduced the impact of negative natural selection.
The most significant factor, however, is that our technologies have advanced exponentially and will continue to do so. They will intervene before any of the slow Darwinian processes have a chance to act.
At the rate technology is advancing, the singularity — when we can no longer distinguish between the human brain and a computer — will happen some time in the next two centuries, although some predict it will happen much sooner. This achievement in AI will solve one of the biggest problems affecting all sciences today: the rate of scientific research exceeds the ability of any researcher to keep up. The result is fragmentation, duplication and retardation of progress in all fields of science.
Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, envisions a version of the singularity in which nanobots are embedded in people’s brains to solve the glut of information problem. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has founded a company to develop a product called “neural lace” to allow the brain to interface with computers. These solutions are really one of information rather than intelligence, which relate to augmented information rather than artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, the impact will be great acceleration in all sciences, including genetic engineering.
The singularity will enable advances in genetic engineering that will overcome the public resistance to germline cell therapy, not only for genetic diseases, but also for human enhancements such as treating “natural” conditions associated with aging. Once these procedures become routine and ubiquitous in medicine, unintended consequences will inevitably result. It’s reasonable to hypothesize that one of those consequences could lead to the inability of a subset of humans to have viable offspring except when mating with others who have had the same genetic modification. Over time, this could result in the emergence of a new human species, which I call Homo nouveau
When will this new species appear? It’s possible that it will happen within a century or two after the singularity is achieved — a blink of an evolutionary eye. The new humans will coexist with us. That in itself isn’t unusual. During most of our existence, at least one other human species has overlapped with us. What will be unusual is the nature of that coexistence. I predict it will be quite different from our previous overlap with the Neanderthals and other early human species.
Only one thing is certain: in this new era of unleashed technology, evolution has moved into warp speed.
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Dr. Don Simborg is the author of the newly released book,What Comes After Homo Sapiens? (DWS Publishing, 2017). Simborg has a background in medicine and scientific research. He’s an expert in clinical information systems and has devised computer-based solutions to many biomedical problems. He has served on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins and University of California, San Francisco schools of medicine and published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. Learn more at www.whatcomesafterhomosapiens.com.