Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Disturbed by Stories about the Future of Mankind

I watched the third season of Doctor Who last week. There were some really decent episodes from a science fiction perspective. Another episode showed how good an actor David Tennant really is. However, the last stories are deeply disturbing, perhaps because they are based on some sort of false belief that Homo sapiens sapiens is the ultimate survivor even at the end of the Universe 150 trillion years from now. While at my Mom's house over Christmas, I chanced upon her current book collection. In Illium, Dan Simmons creates an epic yarn of a far future Earth populated by Homo sapiens, while post-humans play God on Mount Olympos on Mars and reenact the Trojan War. AI machines live and explore the environs of the outer solar system. Both stories bothered me. They share at their core, the belief that H. sapiens is a survivor, and possibly superior to whatever species of Homo comes next. This is not how evolution works. Evolution is not static, ever. The changes may not be seen outwardly, called a phenotype, but they are there. It is just that mutations affecting outward appearance are easiest to spot and manipulate by breeding. Many a dog breed has been ruined because of bad breeding practices as people selected for looks over health. Likewise, whatever species we evolve into will be better than we are. It will have an advantage over us enabling it to outbreed and outcompete us. The changes may be neurological, affecting behavior or psychology, or they may be physical such as resistance to a plague germ or virus. Who knows what the future is, but I know what it is not.

Our species is fairly young, perhaps 250,000-100,000 years old. We coexisted with H. sapiens neanderthalis and perhaps caused their demise, if not directly, then indirectly. One could argue that it was direct since humans are so good at killing other humans perceived as different. The Neanderthals would be different since they preceded us into Europe and other parts of the world in a previous migration from Africa, and they liked natural shelters like caves rather than building their own (as far as we can tell).

Genetic studies suggest that the genus Homo split from the genus Pan around 4 million years ago, yet, there is about a 98% similarity between us and chimps. What a difference a few genes and their expressions make! White skin and red hair color within Europeans could have occurred within the last 10,000 years, making those mutations quite recent. Dogs evolved from wolves around 100,000 years ago. Cats are almost as old a species it turns out, yet they easily revert to their feral ancestors without humans. Modern Homo sapiens will be lucky to exist another 100 years. Chances are if progress continues that some form of augmentation and genetic manipulation will render our species quaint and archaic in many ways. If we colonize Mars or the Moon, the positive selection of a weaker gravity and no radiation protection of those environments will cause speciations to occur, just as living in a zero-g environment would.

If Buddhism, the New Testament, and Tolle are to be believed, then the next evolutionary step is psychological and neurological, the "humble" inheriting the Earth - those humans without egos. This is in contrast to Dan Simmons' post-human, nano-equipped, egocentric "Gods", his resurrected humans, their illiterate descendants, or Doctor Who's humans surviving unchanged 150 trillion years into the far future watching the stars dwindle and die. I think that the idea of consciousness evolving and no longer being asleep in the dream of form is a much more vivid and realistic vision of evolution than the stories I've seen or read thus far.

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Comments:
This is all pretty wide ranging cosmic stuff JB. Way out of my safety zone of current intelligence.

I sense the opportunities of human evolution, yet tremble (a tad) that the wrong race may rule.

Out of nostalgia I always preferred the second oldest Dr Who, Patrick Troughton, who starred from 1966 to 69. He had that aged weathered look. He had some serious service in the Royal Navy in WWII but died fairly young - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Troughton

I think Dr Who is a profound subject to cover - as it has a rich heritage.

Pete
 
I think we are only now discovering what it means to be human in a biological sense. I suppose I was trying to point out that each generation is different from the previous one genetically, and so, in that sense, humanity is always evolving. Evolution never is, or was static. Since psychology arises or emerges from biology, human psychology must evolve as well even though culturally mankind has built traditions, laws and institutions that try to preserve certain behaviors and/or enforce them. I suppose the question arises as to when is it time to discard a tradition, law or institution when its usefulness is past. But then, this is another reason wars happen. Wars, especially revolutions, bring about change either due to destruction of the old society and people, or their institutions. Conversely, wars can preserve certain institutions such as armies and navies, but even those institutions change with the times.
 
Pete,

Since the BBC wiped many of Troughton's episodes, he isn't well known. However, my first introduction to Doctor Who was watching a Troughton episode in England during my first visit to my grandparents. I finally saw that episode replayed within the last 5 years (I think) and the video was horrible. I don't remember it being that bad when I first watched it, but then I was remembering through the eyes of an impressible 6 year old. Doctor Who was different than anything I'd ever seen, even Star Trek. I got to watch Tom baker on public TV here in the States when I was in grad school and I was hooked. It didn't hurt that Douglas Adams was writing many of those episodes. "Eureka is Greek for the water's too hot" had to have been his line, though I have no proof.

John
 
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