Photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC
The tricky thing about biological evolution is that happens over prolonged periods making it difficult to monitor actual progress. Some experts even argue that the evolutionary period for homo sapiens has effectively ceased and has shifted from a biological to a technological basis.
Some even suggest that partly due to our increasingly sophisticated lifestyle we may see a deterioration in human intelligence and evolution will go into reverse. The Morlocks from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, anyone?
But then, of course, we come to directed evolution. Why should we wait for centuries of natural evolution to change us when we can directly tinker with our own bodies? Screening various conditions have already become increasingly effective, as has our ability to use early drug treatments as a result.
And then we have the rapid growth in understanding of human DNA from gene therapy to target relevant organs for treatment, or even altering the genome of an individual to deal with an underlying condition (germ-line therapy). Beyond this, we start to head into areas where ethical questions start to be raised: children with genetically enhanced intelligence, beauty, increased sporting ability, or even just being designed to be a nice person.
And what happens if we discover a way to turn off the ageing process? Where are the resources of an already strained Earth if people start living to 130 years, or even longer?
Then we have the exponential march of computing and the direct interfacing of this technology into our bodies. You could argue the smartphone in your pocket is just the current step of this ongoing process. There have been some remarkable developments in the area of robotic prosthetics, with sensors to convert nerve impulses into commands to control the robotic limbs' movements. But what lies beyond this? A direct computer interface to our brains. Maybe such systems will even directly augment our ability to recall facts and process information. Will future human beings increasingly look like cyborgs?
And what about a Matrix type future where our consciousness is uploaded into the computing cloud and we reach an immortality of sorts, for human consciousness. Nightmare or dream scenario?
Of course, out there are planets to be explored, the most immediate being the colonisation of Mars. Will future humans be engineered to cope better with that environment?
All of these questions have provided rich pickings for science fiction. And that is exactly as it should be – for us to gaze into our potential futures and explore the benefit and threats of these developments. Certainly, in our rapidly evolving technological times, we increasingly need to ask ourselves what it means to be human and what destination we want to evolve towards as a species?