Who writes these things?


Here’s an article to make you wonder: Future evolution: from looks to brains and personality, how will humans change in the next 10,000 years?. In my case, what I wondered is who would write a long essay on the topic, because if I were to do it, it would be one line, either “I don’t know” or “Incrementally, probably imperceptibly.” But no, in this case it’s written by a “Senior Lecturer in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology” — whoa, he’s qualified — but the answer is drivel.

Ten thousand years is nothing. Ten thousand years ago we looked roughly like we do now, and we have to go back a hundred thousand or more years before we might see some differences visible to the naked eye, and even those we wouldn’t be able to distinguish from environmental differences. Why would you expect major changes in the next ten thousand? Are you going to predict colossal environmental changes, which would make this a rather dire story? Again, no. It doesn’t talk about serious changes in climate, or catastrophic collapses of social structures…it’s all about mysterious trends that evolution predicts (it doesn’t).

So we get platitudes.

It’s hard to predict the future. The world will probably change in ways we can’t imagine. But we can make educated guesses. Paradoxically, the best way to predict the future is probably looking back at the past, and assuming past trends will continue going forward. This suggests some surprising things about our future.

If we’re basing everything on “trends”, how could that suggest anything surprising? Isn’t it going to be just more of everything going in the same direction?

We will likely live longer and become taller, as well as more lightly built. We’ll probably be less aggressive and more agreeable, but have smaller brains. A bit like a golden retriever, we’ll be friendly and jolly, but maybe not that interesting. At least, that’s one possible future. But to understand why I think that’s likely, we need to look at biology.

I’m at a loss. We’re going to be like golden retrievers? Why would you think we’re becoming less aggressive and more agreeable? I think he’s been reading Pinker.

I agree, though, let’s look at biology. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

Some scientists have argued that civilisation’s rise ended natural selection. It’s true that selective pressures that dominated in the past – predators, famine, plague, warfare – have mostly disappeared.

Starvation and famine were largely ended by high-yield crops, fertilisers and family planning. Violence and war are less common than ever, despite modern militaries with nuclear weapons, or maybe because of them. The lions, wolves and sabertoothed cats that hunted us in the dark are endangered or extinct. Plagues that killed millions – smallpox, Black Death, cholera – were tamed by vaccines, antibiotics, clean water.

Would you believe that he wrote this in March of 2022? Pollyanna lives!

He goes on and on. We’re going to live longer. We’ll get taller. We’ll become more beautiful, thanks to sexual selection. The “trend” says that our brains will get smaller. We’ll become more conformist. But maybe we’ll speciate!

In the past, religion and lifestyle have sometimes produced genetically distinct groups, as seen in for example Jewish and Gypsy populations. Today, politics also divides us – could it divide us genetically? Liberals now move to be near other liberals, and conservatives to be near conservatives; many on the left won’t date Trump supporters and vice versa.

Could this create two species, with instinctively different views? Probably not. Still, to the extent culture divides us, it could drive evolution in different ways, in different people. If cultures become more diverse, this could maintain and increase human genetic diversity.

Aaargh. Is the current American political divide going to be lasting and worldwide? Does he think Trump is a trigger for a speciation event? I give up. This article is just too stupid.

If someone were to ask me to write such an article, my first response would be “go away.” If pressed, I would say that what matters are entirely contingent evolutionary responses to material conditions which we cannot predict and therefore can’t use to estimate changes to our genes. And if an editor suggested just extrapolating from past changes in the last ten thousand years, I would point out that they are assuming that the patterns are a product of inherent biological processes and assuming that environmental forces don’t exist, and neither assumption is likely to be true.

Like I say, my version of this article would be very, very short. I don’t understand the reasoning behind any scientist’s decision to accept such a commission.

Comments

  1. StevoR says

    Article seems optimistic in asuming we’ll still be there at all in ten thousand years given the Anthropocene mass Extinction Event(s) we are causing for ourselves and so many other living things on our planet…

    Of course, I hope I am wrong about this.

  2. StevoR says

    Today, politics also divides us

    Just today polituics divides us? Huh. O really?

    How about in Tudor England circa Henry VIII & the Catholic / Protestant wars? Or Civil War England or Civil War USA for that matter? Did that result in speciation events into separate Cavalier and Roundhead sub-species or new Homo queenbloodymarius versus Homo annboleynensus species? No.

    Well, there’s your answer! If it didn’t happen back then – especially given the factors of the smaller and more geographically separate and less easily interconnected populations which I gather makes some difference and easier speciation (though I might be mistaken?) it likely won’t now.

  3. AussieMike says

    Speciation at a Trump branch conjures images of a ‘Homo Republicus Blanco Supremitus’ species that is all white (or orange) with thick skulls and a predisposition to weapons and religious tendencies. So who knew speciation could happen in only 4 years!!!!

  4. woozy says

    Who writes these things? We could more pointedly ask who reads these things. Okay, sorry, that was uncalled for but seriously, The Conversation.com? Who has ever heard of that?

    Then again we could be undervaluing the art of creative inanity. Just look and the stock photo art to illustrate this drivel. It’s actually … genius in its stupidity. I especially like the reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Sorrowing Old Man” when talking of psychological issues. (The brain in the jar, dogs in the grass, and hyper electric modern city are pretty good too.)

  5. anthrosciguy says

    Anyone who has paid much attention at all, especially at any level of academic engagement, to the study of human evolution should know that even “predicting” our past is incredibly difficult and requires constant tweaks in the light of new data and interpretations. Doing that into the future has to be much much harder – at best – and should make one just a little reluctant to make grand statements.

    Never seems to stop them though; people love to make grand statements about human evolution.

  6. R. L. Foster says

    The only way we’ll be radically different in 10,000 years is if we purposefully do it to ourselves. We’re already seeing researchers engaged in genetic tinkering, albeit on the margins. Some are looking at how to deal with inherited diseases in utero. The day may come when more profound changes to our genomes are attempted.

  7. René says

    I predict speciation between Homo sapiens habeans and Homo sapiens servus. I don’t think it would take long to have these gene pools totally separate from each otther.
    On the other hand (I hate in-crowd abbreviations), I don’t think humanity will survive another half century.

  8. robro says

    feralboy12 @ #2 & PaulBC @ #5

    Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. (Niels Bohr)

    And yet my colleagues in the so-called “machine learning” field talk about the machine making predictions all the time.

  9. hemidactylus says

    To the extent temperament may have a genetic source, wouldn’t underlying predisposition toward political orientation already be there too? And the actual outcome occurs in a sociocultural and historic context that changes across generations so the progressive/conservatiive split will manifest in differing ways.

  10. Nancy Mannikko says

    Why would anyone write such drivel? Money. I doubt he did it just for the glory of having his name attached to a piece of fluff in an obscure online publication.

  11. PaulBC says

    robro@12 It depends on how far you need to predict as well as the kind of prediction. Predictions about local weather in the next 10 hours are feasible though not perfect (but way better than I remember in the 70s). Predictions about the climate in 25 years may also be feasible, though they apply under fixed assumptions that could change. Predictions about the local weather exactly a year from today are meaningless, though you could try to assign odds.

    In the case of longterm predictions about technology (let along evolution), the assumptions are likely to change and may not have made sense to begin with.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    The first event that needs to happen for subspeciation to occur needs to be geographical separation. People probably left Africa over two million years ago, but even with all those years of physical separation, our physical differences are fairly negligible (despite what the racists believe) — there are no “sub-species.”

    However…
    @3 StevoR

    How about in Tudor England circa Henry VIII & the Catholic / Protestant wars? Or Civil War England or Civil War USA for that matter? Did that result in speciation events into separate Cavalier and Roundhead sub-species or new Homo queenbloodymarius versus Homo annboleynensus species? No.

    During the English Civil War, when the Cavaliers were on the losing end they tended to emigrate to the southern American states, and when the Parliament side was losing they tended to emigrate to New England, which is why the culture of the former was based around “The best way to make money is to own lots of land and get other people to work it for you” and the culture of the latter was “Build lots of factories and ships.” So the geographical separation did take place, and I’ve seen it argued that the American Civil War was simply a continuation of the English Civil War on another continent.

    If Cruz, Greene, and Boogaloo boys get their way and there is a new, successful secession movement that splits the US up into smaller countries at war with one another, then I could see a future where those nations might show the same kinds of ethnic differences that exist now between the English and the French, or any other two nations that squabbled for centuries. Which is to say, not much.

  13. says

    In case anyone didn’t recognize it, that is a quote from the legendary Yogi Berra.

    My quickie search attributed it to Nostradamus, Niels Bohr, and Yogi Berra. I mean, we can’t even keep the past straight. To be fair, I’ve always confused those three myself.
    But I’m pretty sure it was sportscaster Curt Gowdy who said of the (then) Baltimore Colts, “It looks like their future is ahead of them.”

  14. macallan says

    I don’t understand the reasoning behind any scientist’s decision to accept such a commission.

    It’s a paycheck. Who hasn’t done things for money that they aren’t proud of…

  15. tacitus says

    The only safe assumption (based on the far less safe assumption that will be no significant hiatus in scientific progress) is that technological change is going to far outpace evolutionary change over the next 10,000 years.

    If we live longer, grow taller, or become more intelligent, it’s because we’ve figured out how to do it to ourselves, overcoming any warnings and moral misgivings raised along the way. More specifically, if we don’t figure out how to live longer, it won’t be for want of trying.

    I have no idea whether pushing significantly past the current 120 year limit is even possible, but as the Western population ages, the ever increasing focus on finding treatments and cures for all the major geriatric diseases gives every incentive in the world to put millions, or even billions, behind any sniff of a chance of some heretofore unknown way to increase a healthy lifespan more efficiently and effectively than playing whack-a-mole with cancer and dementia. The twin financial imperatives of private profit and government cost savings, along with enough billionaires with the hubris to believe the world isn’t ready to lose them, will ensure no stone remains unturned.

    Would it be a good idea to let it happen? It doesn’t matter. If it becomes possible, it’s going to happen. There would be no way to stop it.

  16. planter says

    The Conversation (so the outreach folks at my University tell me when they want me to write something….) is supposed to be a forum for academics to write rigorous but widely readable and accessible articles about their research. Hopefully this individual isn’t putting this junk on their CV as they go up for tenure….

  17. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    But I’m pretty sure it was sportscaster Curt Gowdy who said of the (then) Baltimore Colts, “It looks like their future is ahead of them.”

    Looks like the Mayflower moving vans were juuuuuuuuuuuuuust outside his field of vision.

  18. PaulBC says

    Now I’m sorry I quoted Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr (or whoever) in @4 because the first thing that really popped into my head was Criswell’s intro to Plan 9 (linked as a video in @4).

    Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable…

    Now continue as read by Criswell:

    We will likely live longer and become taller, as well as more lightly built. We’ll probably be less aggressive and more agreeable, but have smaller brains. A bit like a golden retriever, we’ll be friendly and jolly, but maybe not that interesting. At least, that’s one possible future.

    Or, you know, grave robbers from outer space may come and reanimate our corpses to further their nefarious plans.

    Which future will it be? That is what we are all here to find out but we must wait… for the future… to find out for certain.

  19. Larry says

    As Abraham Lincoln once drawled, “Don’t believe any predictions you read on the internet”.

  20. birgerjohansson says

    R L Foster @ 9
    We will – If we avoid worst-case scenarios about the near future- make considerable deliberate changes to our genomes once there is a mature understanding of the mechanisms behind cancer, ageing and dementia.

    Judging by the bowhead whale (whose older specimen are not in “shadow” for selection pressure) a life span approaching two centuries is feasible.
    There will not be a sudden singularity but cumulative change will certainly speed up, with genetic alterations becoming mainstream.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    In ten thousand years, the Guild navigators will have made substantial progress with forced evolution, becoming able to fold space and maintaining the Empire across the known universe (the navigators do not look remotely like the illustration).

  22. says

    anthrosciguy @ 8
    Yep. We can’t even “predict” our past, and we know what happened.
    What we don’t know is what mattered, and I doubt that’s knowable at all in the present – because if you knew it, something else would inevitably matter.
    Especially if we include in our evolutionary future the likely possibility of artificial germline modification and body augmentation.
    One thing that isn’t likely to happen is a significant change to the size/mass of our brains, so no bulging skulls and pulsating temporal veins. Whoever did the art for that article watched too much old science fiction.

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    … more lightly built. … less aggressive and more agreeable, but have smaller brains. A bit like a golden retriever, we’ll be friendly and jolly…

    Longrich does cite HG Wells’s Time Machine, from which he seems to derive this extrapolation of Eloi-oids (though what if the Morlocks decide to breed them for higher fat content?).

    For a while I enjoyed contemplating a future of universally-available highly effective contraception, in which human females had complete control over which males would beget their babies, and wondered how long it would take until we had a population of Brad Pitts and Denzel Washingtons, Toshiro Mifunes and Antonio Banderases. I never quite got to the point of supporting the hyperchristian crusade against women’s reproductive autonomy, even though they were and are the only ones working to prevent the extinction of us ugly guys.

  24. unclefrogy says

    it is very easy to fail to make the distinction between cultural differences and biological differences, we do it all the time. there was no biological differences or biological events in the described moving to the American south and the american north there was only a social / cultural distinction. In all the talk about human evolution there seems to be one aspect that undoubtedly is over looked which has deep cultural roots and that is humans and sexuality. people move around the planet and continue to have sex with any of the people they find where they go.. In this the nazis were partially correct we are a mongrel species it is one of the things that marks humans as a social species. the results are every where you look. We even have to have elaborate rules to try and control our sexuality which have some moderate success but not enough to absolutely control parenthood.

    thanks for reminding me of Criswel who reminds me Prof. Irwin Cory

  25. dstatton says

    I have a book by Dougal Dixon called After Man, that speculates what speciation will occur in the next 50 million years. I rather enjoyed it.

  26. petesh says

    @7, 15, 19: No money directly — The Conversation does not pay. It’s open to pretty much anything written by a credentialed academic, and has actually published a few interesting articles, which I only know about because I get pointed to them, sometimes by the authors themselves. I suppose this, I dunno, neo-Pinker wannabe (why?) maybe, is hoping for fame! A yuuuge book deal!! A review in Pharyngula!!! Well, one of three ain’t bad in baseball, and bad publicity is a kind of publicity I guess.

  27. answersingenitals says

    As mentioned in previous comments, there will be continuing efforts, both numerous and well funded, to develop germ line genetic modifications to greatly enhance intelligence and longevity. But these technologies will first be tested on lab rodents. When a strain of these rodents is developed that has greatly increased intelligence and opposable thumbs they will become the dominant species on earth. Planet of the Apes had the right idea, just the wrong species. The future of humankind is exercise wheels and lab experiment subjects.

  28. says

    Two separate species? Sounds like he’s been reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine. Now there is some evidence for this idea. Morlocks are already with us but we call them Republicans. There are also some signs of the Eloi in the Dumbocrats who slavishly do the Republicans bidding in the name of reaching out across the board. Based on this I don’t think it will take 10,000 years.

  29. says

    Man, when I mentioned what evolution might do in the next 10k years a few days ago, I was thinking stuff like carnivorous plants with weird leaf shapes or more mobility or something.

    Honestly, this stuff reads like they call up Answers in Genesis to write these.

  30. christoph says

    @birgerjohansson, # 26: “…the Guild navigators will have made substantial progress with forced evolution, becoming able to fold space…”
    They’ll also be able to bend and shove it, as well as spindle and mutilate.

  31. John Morales says

    Even I know ten kiloyears ain’t much in evolutionary terms.

    In human populations, generation time typically ranges from 22 to 33 years.

    So. 10,000 years at 22 years (lowest bound of estimate) is 454 generations.
    Can’t expect that much change in that time.
    OTOH, genomic studies are a thing. Knowledge is power.

    (I note how ‘generations’ fits nicely with ‘evolution’; the unfolding proceeds at discrete steps in individual lineages. It’s quantum!)

  32. StevoR says

    @11. René :

    I predict speciation between Homo sapiens habeans and Homo sapiens servus. I don’t think it would take long to have these gene pools totally separate from each otther.
    On the other hand (I hate in-crowd abbreviations), I don’t think humanity will survive another half century.

    Yikes. That’s not far off.. Extinction in 50 years? It wouldn’t altogether surprise me but I’d give us longer than that personally..

    Habeans? Servus? Chiefs and servants?

    @17. brucegee1962 :

    During the English Civil War, when the Cavaliers were on the losing end they tended to emigrate to the southern American states, and when the Parliament side was losing they tended to emigrate to New England, which is why the culture of the former was based around “The best way to make money is to own lots of land and get other people to work it for you” and the culture of the latter was “Build lots of factories and ships.” So the geographical separation did take place, and I’ve seen it argued that the American Civil War was simply a continuation of the English Civil War on another continent.

    Interesting, thanks – first I’ve read of that. Guess that meant the Cavaliers / Slavers got to lose twice even if England did end up restoring the Monarachy at least without the Divine right of Kings quite so much..

    @35. garydargan :

    Two separate species? Sounds like he’s been reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine. Now there is some evidence for this idea. Morlocks are already with us but we call them Republicans. There are also some signs of the Eloi in the Dumbocrats who slavishly do the Republicans bidding in the name of reaching out across the board. Based on this I don’t think it will take 10,000 years.

    Actuallyif memory serves the Morlocks were descended from Britain’s lower classes of workers whilst the Eloi evolved fromtheir idle undeserving rich.. wonder how long that took inWell’s classic novel, lesssee :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Time_Machine

    A.D. 802,701, which seems abit more plausble than the mere 10,000 anyhow.

    Seems in this scenario the origin of the Morlocks would be the working poor now & the Eloi would be tehdescendents of both ruling parties – Dems & Repugs alike.

  33. wzrd1 says

    It’s interesting to claim to be a scholar, yet so utterly ignore current droughts and famines that are actually causing the very starvation that he denies!
    But, the author then goes on a merry chase, making fleeting passes around milestones constructed out of the author’s very own rectally procured facts.
    Given the sheer volume of different predictions milestones, one can safely arrive at one conclusion.
    That the author is more full of shit than a Christmas goose. That’s nearly enough to put me off from trying goose, but I’ve acquired a greater tolerance for such things, largely due to the excess of tripe within such writings and little can put me off of that rare treat.

    Without a driver, evolution tends to be minimal. What is to drive his mythical changes? Evolution via fad acceptance?

    StevoR @41, tastes like pork! ;)
    I’ll just get my hat…

  34. whywhywhy says

    I was confused from the get go. How does one make educated guesses about the unimaginable?

  35. Walter Solomon says

    When it comes to predictions about the distant future, it’ll probably be helpful to turn to Hollywood. Unfortunately I’m not referring to space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars. Those films, even the one with a despotic galactic empire, are a bit too optimistic.

    I’m referring to prehistoric classics like Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cavebear. At this rate, our distant descendents will be living lives far closer to our distant ancestors than to ourselves.

  36. birgerjohansson says

    Even assuming the progress of computers and the understanding of cognitive processes in the human brain are glacial, by AD 3000 – a tenth of the time span envisioned by the author- we should surely have “strong” AI.
    I do not believe in a sudden rapture, but AIs will be at home in the deep ocean, airless planets and other environments the “legacy humans” must avoid.
    The big brancing event will not be biological but substrate-related. Squishy biological humans and their AI cousins living side by side. And, no, I do not believe they will be hostile to each other despite a century of SF* (two centuries, if we regard Frankenstein’s nameless creation as an android) .
    * I think “Rossum’s Universal Robots was in the 1920s.

  37. davidb54 says

    On vacation in northern Spain in 2014. One day, we saw cave paintings in Altamira now thought to be ~40,000 years old. Next day we visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I don’t know if geneticists have established that people 40,000 years ago have significant genetic differences from modern day people, but those 40,000 year old artists would certainly feel kinship with modern painters and vice versa. Major genetic changes within the next 10,000 years would require huge environmental changes.

  38. DanDare says

    It would be interesting to compile a list of strongly evidenced selection pressures on humans. If possible the areas in our biology that are most variable and likely to be effected over time.
    However selection pressures are possibly changing very rapidly at present.
    Also, we are creating technological respinses to the pressures and also starting to make inroads into creating our own biology changes. Genetic changes are likely to be…um….chaotic despite best efforts but simple things like artificial hearts caause a removal of certain pressures on us.

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