Saturday, May 5, 2007

Evolution Revolution

Musings on Humanities Future

Carl Sagan wrote in "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" that the human race as a species was now living a critical moment in its history upon which survival itself hangs in the balance. Unlike other species, mankind possesses in its own hands the seeds of destruction or of survival. If ultimately, as many of us conclude there is little evidence for a purpose in the universe, then humankind, for survivals sake, makes its own purpose.

Sagan worried that we are at a critical crossroads where one false move could trigger our rapid destruction. At the same time, optimist that he was Dr. Sagan noted that humankind had the capacity to dramatically step up its survival odds by shedding ways of thinking that could not keep up with the changing landscape. He liked to describe humankind as wanderers, always starry gazed and looking outward, implying that perhaps humankind might have what it takes to go beyond the common fate of life forms on earth which is exctintion. A disconcerting fact, this seems to be a general rule for species throughout earths historical record.

In broad terms, the general ebb and flow of life has had the pressure of time and change to deal with. For the most part, when one or both of these vary beyond a certain critical point, species perish. However, as Dawkins notes, life at the molecular level; meaning those miniature DNA replicators, threads through all of these periods of death and rebirth of the macroscopic. They "modify" and sculpt their replicating machines as needed throughout geological time in part through the force of natural selection adapting to circumstance.

If we think about the relationship between time and adaptation and connect this to human kinds explosive surge of information technology we can indeed speculate we are nearing a major crossroads or nexus for the hominid line. There seems to be a growing conflict between slow adaptation through time and the blistering pace mankind has set since the dawn of culture.

Stephen Hawking discusses in "The Universe in a Nutshell" a second non-biological "layer" of information expansion that has risen that is steadily driven by human kinds natural innate tendency to survive. He alludes to this as another form of information transfer, in a way like DNA, only faster. The thought of reaching a steady state in humanities activity seems unlikely to him and humankind will either wither away or move on.

In other words, as Sagan noted we were always wanderers, humankind is driven to keep moving. The question then, if we speculate beyond this, is how can humans keep moving as they reach that crossroads where rapid change is thrust against stark physical limitations threatening destruction?

If most life as we know it eventually dies due to some kind of change, if humankind holds in its hands the seeds of its destruction or success, and as new abilities for adapting beyond biological evolutionary constraints come to be, where could our species go from here? Our expanding technological advance may give a hint. If computers continue to follow Moore's law and double their speed and complexity every 18 months we may soon be faced with enormous questions dealing with intelligence, life, consciousness, and who or what is "alive". This allows a glimpse to a possible new kind of evolution.

One fascinating possibility, faced with the exponential increase in cultural and informational complexity, is to continue to merge the slower biological evolutionary mechanisms with external non-biological means. The memes conjoin with the genes and two types of replicators merge toward something totally new. This immediately brings about all sorts of nightmarish Orwellian nightmares, Stepford Wives scenarios, The Time Machine destinies, or Hitleresque eugenic hells to mind. Indeed the risk is there.

Hawkings thought that if humankind had a future, it would not be the static Utopian world of Star Trek. In essence, an unchanging fate for humankind is just not in the cards and change is worth the risk. He alludes to a world of artificially modified humans, and beyond that, a human/machine/computer interface. With today's advances in gaming, Internet capabilities, and "virtualization" one can envision what he might mean.

In "The Ancestors Tale" Dawkins describes the concept of a ring species and provides a realistic mechanism for a new kind of speciation. The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull are two distinct species.

"The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull in Europe never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way around the other side of the world."

He goes on to describe a ring speciation concept using time instead of space involving humans and chimpanzees and extinct intermediaries. With respect to a new human speciation, consider the "Arrow of Time" and the effect of an artificial non-biological form of rapid selection. It may be reasonable to palpably grasp how a new kind of evolution could sculpt the future.

An optimist can envision this change, though alien and strange, as human kinds next evolutionary step. A pessimist, perhaps other darker paths. Boring as it may be, that old used cliche (slightly modified) comes to mind:

"our fate may very well be in our own hands..."

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