In the evolutionary race, humans have pretty much nailed it. we’re the highest form of life, perfected after millions of years of conquering harsh environments and ferocious beasts. It just doesn’t get any better. Or does it? As recent discoveries remind us, evolution doesn’t sleep?not even for us.
It’s true that, as life forms go, human beings are pretty impressive. We’ve got opposable thumbs and uniquely complex abilities in language and thought. For example, even though animals can use language to communicate with us, and each other, humans are the heavy hitters?able to record that language, and even beam it into space on radio waves.
So if you could somehow travel a thousand years into the future, you’d expect that the humans you meet would look just like you. Except they’ll have much cooler gadgets and some shiny space clothes. It’s a comforting thought, but the truth is that we’re still an evolutionary work in progress. And a few thousand years from now, pictures of 21st century people might look an awful lot like Neanderthals to those humans of the future.
The proof that evolution is alive and well can be found all around us. In one study, researchers at the University of Ottawa showed the clear adaptation of bichir fish from life in water to life on land. As this New Scientist article reports, the land-raised fish not only became better at walking on their front fins, their skeletons changed as well, with “changes in bone structures that gave the land-living bichir something resembling the beginnings of a neck.”
But what about humans? Surely our final evolutionary form was reached some 100,000 years ago. Wrong. As this New York Times article reveals, some adaptations are as little as 3,000 years old, a mere blink on the scale of evolutionary time.
Even assuming that climate-controlled environments mean we don’t need to adapt to survive (say, by growing body hair to live through a brief ice age), our scientific advances have put the tools of evolution firmly in our own hands. The term “designer baby” might smack of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but the truth is that It’s getting more and more common to create and implant embryos that have been screened to prevent certain diseases or birth defects. And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, at least one company has already been awarded “a broad U.S. patent for a technique that could be used in a fertility clinic to create babies with selected traits.”
Outside the lab, technology’s also changing the way we mate. In a world where computers and machines have taken over much of the heavy lifting, It’s intelligence rather than brute strength that determines who gets the most resources. Desirable mates will be the ones whose brains, not brawn, allow them to hunt or gather the best food, shelter, and other resources. Over a few thousand years, those natural mating selections can’t help but be seen in the generations that follow.
Those changes could be small?mainly cosmetic alterations that would leave tomorrow’s humans still recognizable to us. Or evolution could move quickly as our use of technology speeds up. We could, indeed, end up with huge eyes (the better to see all the screens, my dear), tiny muscles, and elongated thumbs.
Whatever our evolutionary future holds, there’s only one way to find out. So climb into the stasis pods and get ready for a long nap. Just don’t expect to catch evolution sleeping when you finally wake up.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.