Friday, 20 March 2009

Humanity in a 1000 years I: autoevolution

It is probably absurd trying to predict what will happen with humanity in a 1000 years. It is likely that even the smartest person living in 1000 C.E. would find it difficult to imagine the era we live in now.
Maybe armed with rationalism and the scientific method we are in a slightly better position to do it now. On the other hand, it is possible that the methods of thought or even the very apparatus of the mind will make so much progress that our descendands will create things we would never be able to dream of. In fact, I am (somewhat paradoxially) about to claim precisely that. At any rate, it appears almost inevitable the increase in body of human knowledge will lead to incredible changes in human society and the human way of life. Unless, of course, some terrible catastrope or a new dark age will prevent it.
If so, the task of imagining humanity in the year 3000 C.E. appears almost hopeless. Nevertheless, I still think it is worthwhile. Why? Because it is an amusing thought experiment. Because thinking about the future may change the future. Because trying to stretch our ability to predict or analyse to the limit may teach us something. Evef if it won't, it is still bound to be fun :-) Let me give a go at it, then!

I warn beforehand that my view of the future is somewhat optimistic. I am assuming humanity will not be destroyed by nuclear war, alien invasion, asteroid impact or any other calamity. I am also assuming scientific progress is not going to stop or reverse as a result of such an event. My entire "prediction" is something of a mixture between what I believe will happen and what I hope will happen.


Charles Darwin taught us that humans are not essentially different from any other animal. Like any other animal, or indeed, any other living creature, we gradually evolved from other species over vast periods of time. The governing principle of that process is natural selection. The princinple is so obvious it is almost a tautology: the speciments most adapted to survival are more likely to survive so each generation is adapted better than the previous one. Add mutations into the mix and we get evolution.

How long does evolution continue? As far as we know it is indefinite. External conditions change, different species compete and, most importantly from my point of view, nature never reaches perfection. There are always improvements to be made.

Improvements? Isn't home sapiens sapiens perfect? Isn't it the peak of creation?

What on Earth gave us the arrogance to think that? Oh, sorry, I know what it is: evolution ;-)

Homo sapiens sapiens can and should be improved. There's no reason to think we can't be more healthy, more enduring, more intelligent. The problem is, we are different from other animals after all. We change our environment, adapting it to our needs. This process is much faster than the self-adaptation resulting from biological evolution. The result: natural selection, the driving force of biological evolution is no longer valid for this species.

Not only that we are (apparently) no longer becoming better, we are probably becoming worse. Random mutation introduce noise into our genetic code. In the same time, in a modern society (I mean the developed countries) "weak" individuals are not allowed to perished (which is a good thing!) and have no problem of spreading their genes. Anyone short of a Nazi would agree that the situation in which each individual of society is protected and able to satisfy her basic needs is a healthy one, from a moral stand point. The downside is that in the long run the human race faces physical and intellectual degeneration (I recommend the amusing comedy "Idiocracy" on this subject precisely).

Luckily, this threat, created, in a sense, by modern technology, finds its solution in the same source. In recent decades, the field of genetics experienced vast progress. The extent of the progress is such that genetic engineering has become possible. Now, we are only making our first step in this direction. However, we are discussing a problem that will only become relevant in a the very long run and there is little doubt that by that time our ability to manipulate the genetic codes of living being including ourselved will be perfected.

Thus, genetic engineering of human beings appear to me inevitable in order to avoid degeneration. However, we can and should go beyond this and apply genetic engineering in order to improve ourselves rather than merely preserving ourselves on the same level.

OK, I thought it is going to be one post, but it would take me ages to complete in this rate. So I'm posting the beginning, to be (hopefully) continued...


Anonymous said...

Alternatively, we can decide that the rights to pass on our genes and to get pregnant the natural way are not taken for granted.

Squark said...

You are right that instead of artificial "mutation" we can resort to artificial selection. However, I think it would be more difficult to enforce. Most people would want their children to be better but many would disagree if you forebode them to have children at all.

Eli said...

Idiocracy is lame. It's too post-apocalyptic to be funny, too over-the-top to be realistic, and too scared to deal with touchy subjects (like religion or fascism) to be a real satire. Basically, it's just a string of lukewarm cliches posing as social commentary. Come on, professional wrestling and Wall-Mart? Bah.

And the premise itself is antiquated (18-19th century), racist and classist. Stupid people don't have more children. People from poorer classes/countries do. Look at Israel: do you really think that all Israeli Arabs and Haredim are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent?

In fact, the global trend is a gradual increase in IQ.

>> levsblog (lev?): human eugenics was already tried before, in the US and in Nazi Germany (btw, guess who was first). It wasn't a huge success, and I doubt it'll be attempted again any time soon.

Squark said...

I don't see why it should deal with religion and fascism when neither is the subject of the movie. Post-apocalyptic or not, it is funny.

What does it mean that the premise is "antiquated"? Are Newtonian physics or the Maxwell equations less correct because they were invented in the 17th / 19th century respectively? "New" doesn't always mean "good" and "old" doesn't always mean bad.

What precisely is racist / classist? Whether stupid people have more children or not, I do not know. It is irrelevant to the point I was making. Also, it is conceivable that poorer classes/countries are genetically more stupid on average, since intelligence is one of the causes for becoming richer (but that's just guessing).

The increase in IQ is interesting but we don't know the cause: it might be related to education for instance. Also, it appears that in some places it is stopped or even reversed: see "Has progression ended?" in the wikipedia article and also

Eli said...

Why religion or Fascism? Because they are realistic and interesting results of a collapsing society, which is very clearly the subject of that movie. If human civilization falls to the hands of uneducated imbeciles, the result would be much more profound than a huge Wall-Mart or a Pro-Wrestler-president. But Idiocracy plays it safe, clinging to non-controversial superficialities and cliches.

Funny? Eh. Insightful or interesting in any other way - certainly not.

The premise (of the movie, if that wasn't clear) is antiquated simply because it was proven wrong (even more than Newtonian physics :). When a 19th-century Brit is talking about "fertile stupid people" who do you think he's talking about? He's talking about the lower classes, about the Indians and the Chinese. (in fact, the analogy I remember was between a British lord and a Chinese coolie). He's certainly not talking about his social and racial peer - even if he was a moron, he would have the same average number of children, and would still be considered to be vastly superior to a member of any other class or race.*

But guess what? Many great people came from lower classes. India and China regularly produce geniuses (as well as some of the richest people on the planet).

So no, it's not conceivable that poorer classes/countries are genetically more stupid, Squark. It's just a result of lack of perspective. A 12-century Arab would've concluded that the (illiterate, filthy) Europeans are a stupid race - while the 21st-century European might think the same about the Arabs.

I mentioned the Flynn effect because it's obviously not a dramatic decrease in IQ, as you would expect if fertility was linked to genetic stupidity. The fact that it actually an increase is just the icing on the cake.

* I hope that answers your question about why I consider it classist and racist.

Squark said...

I think that the society portrayed in the movie is more a parody on current US culture than the analysis of a hypothetical future dystopia.

I do not see how your remark about 19th century Britons, whether correct or not, has any relation to this movie.

Your examples don't rule out a the correlation I was alluding to, although they do show that is probably considerably weaker than other effects.

Once again, I don't claim fertility is linked to genetic stupidity. I think that you take the movie way more seriously than the movie takes itself. I mentioned the movie because it is related and because I liked it. I didn't mention it because I consider the movie to be some kind of a deep social / scientific analysis backing the point I was making: very far from it!

Eli said...

Of course it's a parody of US culture. A shallow, lame parody. I wasn't expecting deep speculative fiction. Just a passable piece of satire.

The relation to 19th century Britons and the like is simple. First of all, AFAIK, the idea in its "modern" form dates from that time (the Briton was just an example - it was the example I read about). Even more importantly, the basic idea/moral of that movie relies on archaic notions about society. The Victorians didn't invent those notions (obviously classism and racism exited since ancient times), but they are the most recent, and the most eloquent example.

Anyway, of course I'm taking the movie much more seriously than it takes itself. I'm sure that I've put more thought in these blog posts than the creators put in the script. So what?

I have no idea why you keep mentioning your idea, though. At no point was I talking about anything but the movie. I just happen to think it's crap, that, well I give you that - is related to "intellectual devolution", but only as "the most fucking stupid way to talk about 'intellectual devolution'".

Squark said...

The fact that some idea appeared somewhere the 1st time doesn't mean any reference to that idea is a reference to that 1st appearance. In particular, additional premises occurring in that 1st appearance do not necessary apply to further appearances.

Anyway, you hated the movie: I GOT THE POINT. I don't think it is genius but it is amusing and got a few points. I didn't like it enough to spend my time defending it to the last drop of blood :-)

Eli said...

The fact that some idea appeared somewhere the 1st time doesn't mean any reference to that idea is a reference to that 1st appearance. In particular, additional premises occurring in that 1st appearance do not necessary apply to further appearances.

Of course it doesn't (although it does make it somewhat likely). As I said, the Victorians probably didn't invent the basic idea - they were just the most recent and eloquent people who had it. For example, I can't say that they invented colonialism, self-aggrandizing opinions, or thinking about everyone else as inferior savages either. But if there was a movie with a "white man's burden" theme, I would certainly mention them.

And you shall defend it to the last drop of blood. Soon, your blood is going to become a very scarce resource indeed! The revolutionary tribune finds you guilty in crimes against the republic of good taste and sentences you to the Guillotine (of... good taste?). Off with your head!