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June 16, 2013 / bpeveril

Thinking about the future is hard

                A friend once told me that human beings would have no hair in the future. Specifically, he pointed to the current trend of more and more people thinking that pubes are icky in every context, not just when they turn up in my burrito. If everyone decides that they only want to have sex with hairless people, only hairless people will reproduce, everyone will eventually be hairless. Evolution! This wasn’t an argument about the existence of evolution, we were drunk, not, you know, stupid.
                My counterargument was that this was not the case at all. How could it happen? As a species, it’s been pretty much conclusively proven that we are not above any indignity, and we will put up with just about anything to get laid. We also have the science of depilation on our side. Nothing as easy to overcome as a heavy bush is going to keep anyone from splattering their genetic material around. One could argue that we’ve evolved to adapt ourselves in whatever way we’re able to ensure someone touches our junk, but as a force that effects physiological changes over time, it kind of looks like we’ve broken evolution.
                A lot of things that , for most of history, would have removed someone from the gene pool don’t any more. A host of physiological barriers to healthy vaginal birth are a non-issue now that we’ve figured out reliable c-sections. For that matter, surgical birth is so routine that a lot of people choose them over the traditional “walking on eggshells, ready to drop what you’re doing and run out the door for three weeks” method for convenience’ sake. At the time I was asked whether I thought this was wrong; people who wouldn’t be able to have babies in the wild are having babies. Is it wrong to go against nature like that? Are we weakening ourselves genetically by “playing God”? Either way, right or wrong, it shows that we have broken evolution, even if only a little bit.
                How can evolution touch us now? People talk about transhumanism (I mean, transcendental humans, humans becoming something more, taking a step forward, not transitional humans, people in a state between “norms”. That’s a whole different discussion, and as much as I love hate mail, I’ll talk about it some other time) with a mix of wonder and dread, but that’s really where we are right now. Physiologically we’re not really different from people who were entirely subject to nature. They slept on the ground, they scrambled for food where they could, and they worried a lot about being eaten by wolves. As time has passed we haven’t entirely lost that, but I almost never worry about being eaten by wolves. We’re no longer as completely subject to nature, for better or worse, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Take, for example, one of the greatest physicists of our time, or any time. He is, due to genetics, in a state where, were he more subject to nature, he would be completely incapable of survival. He lives in the modern world, though, so he is allowed to thrive as best he’s able, and even to reproduce, and we are all better for it. From the gene pool’s standpoint I think my friend’s mistake there was to assume that any sense of right or wrong would come to play. Morality is so ambiguous, variable, and constantly up for debate that it’s barely worthwhile discussing it.
               The central point remains, though, evolution is broken, so where does that leave us? How can we predict where humanity is headed without being able to point to some reliable and logical mechanism of change? The fact is, we can’t. We can’t even reliably predict the fickle tides of fashion and societal trends. Let’s look at the Seventies in America. Do you think that a young, happening couple having a baby forty years ago would expect things to turn out how they have? That their offspring would live in a world where continuing to truck has no meaning, people think that a glorious thicket of pubic hair is ugly and unsanitary, and that this war on underpants stuffing would happen simultaneous to skinny jeans and a baffling resurgence of Evangelical Christianity? What the Hell is going on? Why would I even bother worrying about what humanity is going to look like in thousands of years (frankly, if I had to make a bet, I’d say “fossil record”) when I can’t make an educated guess as to what kind of pants I’ll like wearing in a decade.
               Of course, I can think of a couple of writers who nailed down the past ten years when it was still the future pretty well. “The crazy years” went on (are still going on?) for longer than Robert Heinlein expected, though, and Philip K. Dick didn’t have many details, but he captured the feeling pretty exactly thirty years early. Literary types like slinging rocks at both of them, but they’ve never been as worried about the future as they should be.
As a later note, I mentioned this article to the friend in question as I was writing it. It turns out that he was actually headed toward something like my broken evolution conclusion but we got side-tracked, because we were drunk.

One Comment

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  1. sfscient / Jun 16 2013 9:08 pm

    I like your take on the end of evolution for humans. Having said that, in the manner of discussion, I would like to point out the – intended?- irony of the title. Of course it is difficult to think about the future. Never before has such a large proportion of human population had access to live-sustaining and promoting facilities, healthcare and peace (more or less). Only now we are actually at the thresholds of our potential, trying to speed up evolution by technology etc. Only now we are having to divorce ourselves from the concept of a fantastical distant future because we feel we are powerful enough to affect our near future in magical new ways. This is the added pressure of trying to conform to our present understanding of the world in trying to explain our vision of the future.
    This is what gives us the self-assuredness to question the continuance of evolution when we should also be asking ourselves, if our definition of evolution itself is getting fast outdated. As an unstoppable natural force shepherding life throughout the ages, certainly evolution will find a way to catch up to human ingenuity.

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