This TED Talk below by Juan Enriquez is one of the most thought provoking, scary, exciting, and explanatory talks that I have seen. (And believe me, I have seen a lot.) He very convincingly postulates that we are in the throes of a major evolutionary change and that our kid’s kids or grandkids may be a new species.
He points out that throughout human evolution, multiple versions of humans co-existed. Then dives into some of the things being discovered by genome mapping.
… we’re actually beginning to find things like, do you have an ACE gene? Why would that matter? Because nobody’s ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak without oxygen that doesn’t have an ACE gene. And if you want to get more specific, how about a 577R genotype? Well it turns out that every male Olympic power athlete ever tested carries at least one of these variants.
I’ll let you hear the rest on the video, but he goes into some pretty convincing arguments.
Now part of why I find this all so fascinating is how it dovetails into some other things I have been thinking about and discussing with other people.
Earlier tonight my partner was expressing his incredibility that some people can and do believe statements like Todd Akin’s “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” [and thus cannot get pregnant from rape and that therefore all abortion should be illegal.]
What if maybe the huge gap we see between the religious extreme right and the more strongly scientific left are actually on the way to becoming two different species or at least subspecies? Think about it; we do tend to marry within our groups. We probably cross cultural and ethnic lines with marriage and procreation more than we do between the extreme right or left. Or maybe humans are becoming many more than two distinct species?
Enriquez is actually coming at it from a different direction than I have taken it.
[He thinks] we’re transitioning into Homo evolutis that, for better or worse, is not just a hominid that’s conscious of his or her environment, it’s a hominid that’s beginning to directly and deliberately control the evolution of its own species, of bacteria, of plants, of animals. And I think that’s such an order of magnitude change that your grandkids or your great-grandkids may be a species very different from you.
But will the way different groups use those tools create even greater differences and divisions?
So what will humans evolve to? And if we evolve to different species or even subspecies will one become dominant and annihilate the other? Or will one become dominant and the other(s) just become extinct because they are not as fit for the world the Homo evolutis (or whatever they are called) created? Or will multiple species co-exist on the planet? Or, for that matter, will there be a planet any of the species can exist on at all?
Then there is the question of where the boundaries would/will be between species or subspecies. In truth there does not seem to even be a clear definition of species that is universally accepted. Wikipedia has a detailed entry on the debate around definition of species.
Darwin concluded that species are what they appear to be: ideas, which are provisionally useful for naming groups of interacting individuals. “I look at the term species”, he wrote, “as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other … It does not essentially differ from the word variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, and for convenience sake.” 
The most common definition that I can find is that species follows Ernst Mayr’s definition as “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups”.
But labeling anything is an artificial act in of itself – which is why the definition is arguable in the first place. Most of us will well remember when the use of tools was one of the defining elements of humans . . . that is until enough proof was presented that other animals make and use tools (crows, octopuses, apes, dolphins, elephants, sea otters, etc.).
Then conscious state and self awareness was used to define humans. That just got blown out of the water too. In July, a group of leading neuroscientists made an official declaration recognizing the consciousness in animals. The declaration, which was made at the Francis Crick Memorial Confernce at Cambridge University, in part says
We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
It has always struck me as odd that humans on the whole tend to think we are the pinnacle of evolution and that the rest of the history on earth will have us – us as we are now – on center stage forever. Umm, I don’t think so.
We – as we are now and as we have been for the last couple of thousand years – we are just a small blip in the evolutionary timeline. Will Homo evolutis be able to control evolution’s progression and make themselves the be all and end all for all time. Or will they even end all time or at least the reign of Homo whatevers?
Time will tell; unless of course we manage to figure out how to control that as well in some not so distant future.
- Juan Enriquez, Will Our Kids Be a Different Species? (April 2012), TEDx Summit. (Interestingly, TED has something in the code to embed the video above that makes it impossible for me to put in the link here without it putting a big black box that says Download File. And I am not interested in trying to figure out the problem! So, you can go to TED.com and search on his name for the transcript of his talk.)
- Todd Akin, . . . just Google the phrase and you will have many sources for it. Todd Akin said this during an interview aired August 19, 2012 on Jaco Report, KTVI-TV.
- Enriquez, Will Our Kids Be a Different Species?
- Louis Menand, (2001). The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 123–124. (as sited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species#Definitions_of_species)
- Kevin de Queiroz, “Ernst Mayr and the modern concept of species” (May 2005).Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102 (Suppl 1): 6600–7. doi:10.1073/pnas.0502030102. PMC 1131873. PMID 15851674