next level

Humans have a tendency to believe that the most fundamental forces of nature can be mastered, and with some good reason: light, darkness, cold, heat, gravity – these forces have all been vanquished by human ingenuity.

Evolution is a different proposition altogether, a systemic outcome rather than a manageable phenomenon. Nevertheless, humans are likely to master even evolution through biological tinkering. Biotechnology is still in its relative infancy, but for generations now we have been keeping people alive who would certainly have been “selected out” in prior eras. This may seem like an effort to forestall evolution, but it is really a precursor to accelerating it. And whether through natural selection or human innovation, the systemic outcome will be as it has always been in nature: the portion of the species that evolves will survive and thrive, the remainder, if they survive at all, will subsist at best in a hardscrabble existence.

We are likely to witness at least the beginnings of a split in our species during the lifetimes of some people living today. One could argue that it’s already happened for most practical purposes …

Let’s remember what high school biology class taught us about genus and species. Humans are Homo sapiensHomo is the genus and sapiens is the species. “Genus” is a grouping of life forms that is even closer than the higher order grouping named “family” – but “species” is the closest grouping of all, defined by the fact that members of the same species can reliably breed and produce fertile offspring.

It’s a biological truth that all humans on the planet are the same species, but as a practical matter, inequalities of wealth and privilege have created classes of humans that will almost never interbreed with others. The richest man in America is as unlikely to produce offspring with a pauper in Calcutta as he is to breed with a sheep in New Zealand. We can regard this as a social issue that has nothing to do with biology … until we consider how humans are likely to evolve. Because humans will control evolution through science, societal barriers will become indistinguishable from biological rules with regard to evolution.

Evolution occurs when environmental conditions create an opportunity – or requirement – for species with differentiating features to thrive. Our environmental conditions today are so daunting that even discussing them can seem unhinged. Apocalyptic speculation has probably been around for as long as there has been any kind of storytelling, but today there’s more reason than ever to give credence to wild-eyed prognostications of planetary destruction. Nuclear war or terrorism, climate change, superbugs and biohazards, runaway artificial intelligence – all are real phenomena, and any of them could end human life as well as many many other species.

At the very least, some of these existential risks will result in an environment that gives great opportunity – or requirement – for humans with enhanced capabilities. Skin capable of absorbing greater levels of ultraviolet light, lungs that easily filter polluted air, even gills that pull oxygen from rising seas; these are all features that should be within the realm of evolution – but humanity need not wait for the plodding pace of natural selection, we can instead achieve these powers and more through advanced biotechnologies.

These ideas are only somewhat fantastical today, and more mundane but still impactful features are already within reach: height, strength, intelligence, coloring. And wealth, which of course isn’t a biological trait, is passed down just as effectively as if it were, and is just as crucial to survival in the coming environment. Only the wealthy will be behind the sea walls that keep out the rising oceans; only the superrich will be spirited to underground fortresses at the first sign of apocalypse. We are going to evolve through science and money, and some of us already are, living a life so far beyond the norm of human existence that it begins to look like evolution.

Only those with access to technology – which is the same as saying only those with access to wealth – will be able to evolve to the next species of the human genus. Homo sapiens is going to split. The humans with wealth and therefore access will make themselves into their own new species, Homo technus. The rest will be left behind, for technus won’t interbreed with sapiens, or if they do, they’ll apply technology to their mates to bring them into the new species.

This vision may seem like a dystopia, but being left behind only matters if you believe that what’s ahead is better than what’s past. Many people will react to the idea of having gills, for example, as disgusting and unnatural, and would rather cling to a notion of humanity that is unevolved from the one they’ve always known. Rather than view that opinion as regressive, we could regard it as calm, deliberate, and confident. We could regard it as a rational choice for happiness.

There’s just one small problem. Our genus has a demonstrated tendency to trend towards a sole surviving species. Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, and others in our historical family are all gone from the earth, with sapiens as the sole survivor. Perhaps that happened as a peaceful matter of natural selection, but we don’t really know. It’s possible that Homo sapiens simply had the best adaptive qualities for the prehistorical environments, and the other species all died away peacefully. It seems a little more likely, given the repeated patterns in the historical record, that our ancestors survived because they were the most genocidal, directly wiping out the competition for resources. If this trait continues through to Homo technus, it doesn’t bode well for the sapiens left behind.