If humanity manages to survive as a species for more than a million years, we have possible scenarios; one of them is to transform our species into something completely different.
The panorama we have of life is usually reduced by the very short window of time we have to inhabit the Earth, and although a few decades sometimes seem like an eternity for humans, the reality is that life is completely ephemeral. The existence of species is usually transitory; they evolve, branch out, and some disappear forever.
While certain species of reptiles have inhabited the planet for practically hundreds of millions of years, the average lifespan of a mammalian species is limited to one million years. And as far as we know, Homo sapiens has been around for about 300,000 years since its appearance, so it is inevitable to wonder what the future of humans will be like, should we manage to survive as a species until a million years from now.
Humanity in a million years
To venture into the realm of the future of humans is to get into the realm of science fiction because it takes a lot of imagination to project what we will become. H. G. Wells was aware of this and was the first to realize that humans could become something completely different.
In his iconic essay ‘Man in a Million Years’ published in 1883, Wells captured the now hackneyed image of humanoid figures with gigantic brains and tiny bodies. Later, he also addressed the idea that the human species could split into two or more new species.
Although Wells’ ideas are more inclined toward science fiction than evolutionary theories, the fact is that the biology of species works in this way. We seem to have three paths already foreseen by Wells: go extinct, become various species, or evolve into something else entirely.
And this is where it gets a little interesting or obscure, whatever you want to call it, as it turns out that one of the ingredients added to the equation, is biotechnology. The latter is not only limited to the search for functional improvement of our organism, speaking in all senses from the neuronal to the biomechanical but has also made inroads into artificial intelligence and computer science.
Genetic Modification and the Birth of Posthuman Species
To talk about what is naturally human is to get into a spiral with no way out, as Michael Foucault said in his iconic debate with Noam Chomsky. We can either say that the path we have taken toward technology is unnatural, or it is also possible to say that if it happened it was precisely because it was part of the natural essence of humanity.
The fact is that there are two main positions on biotechnology: the first seeks to improve human beings, either through genetic modification, the incorporation of neural and biotechnological devices in the body, or artificial intelligence. While the second one looks with a reservation at the fact of evolving with the help of technology.
It is precisely from this segregation that the possibility of dividing us into species that evolve in different ways could arise. It is plausible that if even technologies that seek to lengthen the average lifespan and enhance human functioning become cheap, as smartphones are now, there will be a group of people who will reject the idea of becoming something else.
In the long run, the gap between the two positions could grow further and further apart, creating a series of ‘posthuman’ species separate from those of ‘real humans.’ It may sound like a far-fetched idea, but all the cards must be put on the table, and one of them is brain emulation, which is a speculative technology for now in which neural networks are reconstructed through the scanning of brain cells.
This means that it is likely that in the distant future, more artificial minds can be created per kilogram of matter and watts of solar energy than human minds. This alone is enough to establish an abysmal differentiation between one species and the other.
Of course, all this scenario is merely speculative, but it is a bit chilling to think that any of these futures could come to fruition in case we manage to survive as a species despite the problems that the planet is facing right now. For now, the only thing left for us to do is to question whether we are heading toward where we really want to be as a species and inhabitants of the planet.
Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera