Evolution of humans

May 30, 2015
5 minutes read

A colleague asked me if I believed in evolution. The (obvious?) answer is to say yes. We’re adapting quite rapidly these days - which led me to think about our past and our future as a species.

Evolution in the past

We’ve all heard about evolution from single celled organism to monkeys and chimps. There was fish involved somewhere in between. We have fossil records for these transitions. From monkeys to apes is a more closely studied and well documented. All of this happened until about 2 million years back - that’s when the first human-like species evolved.

This bit of evolution starts with Homo Habilis and H. Erectus finding their roots primarily in Africa. They started living in hunter-gatherer societies. Naturally available food was all they had. H. Erectus was the first definite homonid to walk earth - that too on just feet. They co-existed with H. Habilis for around 500,000 years. Some archeologists also suggest they were the first ones to control fire - but this is debated.

H. Habilis went extinct - we’re not sure exactly when. Some put the date at 1.5 millions years ago - other fossil records put this number at about 200,000 years ago. Estimation of populations is not possible. Some researchers suggest many more species to have existed during this timeline - 200 million years to 200,000 years back.

The next definitive species to show up on the planet were the Neanderthals - around 350,000 years ago. They lived in modern day France and Germany. The tools created by this species are better than older species and are specialized in their use as well. Studies also suggest they were the apex hunters for a variety of animals - using their tools not just to make clothes/skin animals - but also to using them to hunt. Some even suggest they had a rudimentary language - but this cannot be verified by evidence.

They co-existed with some variants of H. Erectus but eventually went extinct around 50,000 years ago. Some studies suggest climate change from a catastrophic climate change caused this. Others suggest humans out smarted the neanderthals.

It was during this time that the modern human showed up - H. Sapien. The species that changed the face of the planet and exploring beyond. The humble beginnings were shared with Neanderthals - they traded and fought with each other. Humans learned making tools from the Neanderthals, cooked food, had advanced tools and even domesticated dogs.

Excavations suggest that Neanderthals had better tools than modern humans at a point in time. In fact, Neanderthals had bigger brains than us. If the climate change did not happen - the domestication of dogs would have caused problems for them. Dogs tracking the prey and humans using their tools to skin the hunt. It was a win-win as humans shared the meat.

Based on these four species - it is safe to say that H. Sapiens might evolve into a new species in the future. When they do - we will have two homonids walking the earth again. Is this assumption correct?

Evolution in the future

We’ve seen a consistent pattern in evolution. 200 million years, 200,000 years, 50,000 years. This means we’re due for another species in the next 50,000 years or so. To put that in perspective, we’ve got written record of history for only the past 5,000 years. We’ve been changing our environment rapidly over the past few centuries - and this is exactly what stimulates evolution.

More complex cultures, improved lifespans and drastically new ways of living already marked the birth of a new species - but these have been biological changes. We’re already doing these with technology without altering our genetics. This means we’re not technically a new species just yet. Let me go over a few different ideas that might happen in the future.

Could this mean we’re done evolving biologically? We’ve come to the earth from evolution - does that mean we’ll continue evolving? There’s a chance it may not be true. Evolution requires a certain level of isolation to do its thing - like when amphibians showed up. Or when mammals decided to live in small groups. That is no longer the case for humans. This means globalization led to stopping evolution.

Maybe biological evolution is still happening? There still is isolation at the social level - the rich/poor divide and the caste system. They could lead to specializations through means other than physical isolation. Certain biological traits like mental agility, eyesight, etc might be passed on to future generations making them specialized. In a dystopian future, the rich might take control of a certain genetic trait and isolate it for power.

Electronic immortality? Classic futurism - you upload yourself onto a silicon chip and it traverses the internet. You download yourself into a chip, do your thing and back onto the network. This would bring about a drastically faster form of evolution if we have enough computation power. This would also put us at risk if the network goes down! More fundamental shifts would be - not requiring food, immortality, changes in property owning laws, etc.

Evolution on a different planet? We’ve established that isolation is necessary - maybe the next isolation step is doing a one-way trip to the nearest solar system. We’ll have to take with us a bunch of other species - plants, micro-organisms, animals. This would be a totally new environment with absolute isolation - just like a few million years ago in Eurasia. This might trigger new ways of living and cultures totally different than ours.

Conclusion

We still have a while before all of this materializes - which is soothing and frustrating at the same time. Does it excite you that we may have a new species among us today? What do you feel the future holds for us?