The Chronicle Review

Where Are Humans Headed?

March 19, 2017

Andy Potts for The Chronicle Review
Like a lot of academics, I have long harbored the desire to write a popular book — in my case, something like Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. But sadly, I have come to realize that I just don’t have it in me, mainly because, like all philosophers, as soon as I say something interesting I want to qualify it with all sorts of escape clauses. Death by a thousand footnotes.

In Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution, the Rice University evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon suffers no such wounds, but he nonetheless finds himself trapped. Refusing to speculate on such a speculative topic, he ends up wandering into an unsatisfying mist of possibilities. For instance, he notes that humans have rapidly evolved to digest milk products and grains since the advent of agriculture. But what now, given the nigh-unlimited powers of genetic modification? Are we still evolving to exploit newly available food options? Will the Scots be able to live indefinitely on a diet of fried Mars bars?

Remaining true to his scientific parameters, he is restricted from venturing into the wilder but potentially more meaningful leaps of imagination enjoyed by fiction writers and even bolder scientific authors.

The future of our species is surely rich material, something many of us have speculated about. Will we have massive brains, dwindling little bodies, and highly functional genitalia? I tend to think so. In fact, with five kids, I rather pride myself on being an advanced specimen. Then again, maybe I’m not. From Darwin on, experts have worried that big brains are not that adaptive. Think of all of the great philosophers — Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Plato, Wittgenstein — who died childless.

REVIEW

Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution By Scott Solomon

(Yale University Press)

A safer bet is that diseases are still shaping our future. It is limited conjecture along these lines that Solomon takes up, and I do not intend to damn with faint praise when I say that he comes across as informed and sensible. He’s the kind of guy I wish I had as a professor when I was in college, lucidly explaining threats from Ebola or HIV; how vaccinations can be effective, but to only a limited degree, in arms races between the disease and the cure or prevention; and how longer life spans, contraceptives, and shifts in diet might influence the development of our species.

But when you add up all those factors, are we likely to turn green? Grow tails? Have eyes that glow in the dark? Place your bets and lay down your cards, Professor Solomon! But when he does, his bets are not terribly revealing.

It’s not that Solomon is ignorant of brash approaches to biological futurology. In his introduction, he refers to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, written at the end of the 19th century. Wells supposed that we humans would evolve into two forms, the beautiful but idle Eloi, above ground, and the degenerate but clever Morlocks, below. Fiction, but a great idea and backed by some evidence and informed conjecture about both biology and inequality. One would expect no less from an author who was a student of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. Wells worried that his society was headed in an unhealthy, unseemly direction, with the toffs above doing nothing and the proles below doing everything.

Though fanciful, his vision was provocative and wise. I kept thinking about it when I read Solomon’s chapter on sex (which, as a good Darwinian, I tackled first). I was intrigued by his discussion of internet dating — something I never did but know my students do all the time. It wasn’t around when I was young, and I much envy them. It would have saved me from a lot of lonely evenings with Playboy. Solomon makes clear that such changes in behavioral patterns are likely to affect natural selection and human evolution. Someone on an internet date is closer to reproduction than someone, um, entertaining himself at home with a magazine. So will the web rewire our reproductive patterns?

He also brings up the question of body odor, something that Americans were doing their best to eliminate or change even before the internet. There is evidence that the smell of male sweat can act as a sexual trigger, positive or negative. But you can’t sniff your cyber playmate. Might a couple now find themselves dating and finding that they like each other, whereas previously the initial smell might have triggered an aversion and thwarted an encounter?

Yes, suggests Solomon. But he doesn’t give himself license to extrapolate much from that. If only he could gene-splice his narrative imagination with Wells’s — envisioning, say, the division between sweaty, sexy Eloi like myself and olfactory-challenged, hypercalculating Morlocks like my graduate students.

That’s silly, you say. Yes, but as Wells and, later, Isaac Asimov demonstrated, silly can make serious points about society and the possibilities and limitations of science. Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life, and others show that nonfiction, too, can push boundaries and excite the imagination.

Solomon, this time around, plays it too safe. But then, he’s young and, no doubt, still evolving.

Michael Ruse directs the program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. His latest book is Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution, just published by Oxford University Press.