Specialised Humans

The human colony

I suggested in my essay The New Organisms that the dominant organisms would become more colonial - such as ants and bees - and ultimately more like somatic cells. That they would become participants in a network.

Somatic polymorphism

Colony life often winds up being characterised by "somatic polymorphism" - the ability of an organism to adopt many forms depending on its environment.

To give some examples:

  • female ants divide into queens and workers - depending on how they are fed;

  • somatic cells turn into brain cells or liver cells - depending on developmental signals;

Humans already have a high degree of developmental plasticity. The same human is capable of performing a range of functions as an adult depending on its environment.

Indeed, fairly closely-related humans can turn into gymnasts, sumo wrestlers, go players, or opera singers under the influence of environmental factors.

Generalist ancestry

Our ancestors were generalists.

A major activity for our ancestors was feeding themselves and their families. Commutities of organisms were limited in size. The need to be able to perform a range of tasks was greater - and there was reduced scope for specialisation.

Modern specialisation

Modern humans are coming to play increasing specialised roles.

These days food is supplied to individuals by a global network that seems remarkably similar to the way blood sugar is delivered to cells. As a result, individuals are freed up from the task of finding food - and can focus more on performing other, more specialised tasks.

There are more roles to specialise into - since:

  • The greater size of communities and the existence of a global marketplace have created niches which would not have been economically viable in the past.

  • Many new roles have been created in recent times by the development of specialised tools. Typing and driving are both activities that only exist because of the existence of associated tools;

Some specialisation will be performed by tools

Some of the pressure towards specialisation is alleviated by the use of dedicated tools. Tools can sometimes remove the need to interface directly with the task at hand, and can transform the task into one more managable by a human. In other cases they can take over the task completely.

However machines are still at a relatively primitive stage. They have yet to master molecular nanotechnology, for example - something our ancestors got to grips with billions of years ago. As a result their capabilities are still limited in some directions. Machine dancers are jerky and unconvincing. Machine scientists barely exist. Machine programmers have just about managed the bubble-sort - and so on.

Also, even after tools are considered, some degree of specialisation is often needed to operate the tools effectively. This can be seen in the case of typing - for example.

The strategy of allowing machines to adopt the available roles is liable to result in machinery coming to occupy many of the available niches. That is not something all humans may be terribly happy about.

If humans fail to adopt niches that require morphological specialisations, then it is likely that machines will gradually expand into them.

However in the short term, it may make some economic sense to reuse existing highly-advanced technology to fill some of these roles - rather than throwing it away and starting again.

Ultimately, machine-like organisms will probably take over all the existing roles - but there may be some genetically modified humans around in the interim.


Since the specialisations that are in demand in modern times are fairly novel, evolution has not had much time to get to grip with them.

If our species sticks around at all, I think we'll continue to become more like somatic cells - diversifying into highly morphologically distinct individuals.

One way this is likely to happen is through increased developmental plasticity.

The "reverse Baldwin effect"1 may take effect: by turning instinctual functions into learned behaviour a greater range of possible functions becomes available - at the cost of slower development.

In addition "preferred developmental directions" are likely to become more pronounced; with organisms increasingly switching resources into (e.g.) brain development or body development - depending on the environmental stimulii they are exposed to during their early developmental stages.

The required specialisations

Looking at somatic cells, the specialisations there include, sensing, computing, muscular work, processing fuel, distributing resources, excretion, the immune system, reproduction - and so on.

Looking at the social insects, the specialisations there include soldiers, workers and reproductive castes.

These give some hints regarding what is likely to come in our own species.


Some of the first human clones are likely to be due to those with fertility problems opting to fulfill their desire for children by using modern technology.

Such cloning will produce asexual human strains divorced from the rest of the human gene pool.

Another source of new strains of humans is likely to arise from the cloning of celebrities. Celebrities are popular - and people like to see more of them. Cloning allows just that. If Jennifer Aniston and Michelle Pfeiffer clones were available, I'm sure uses could be found for them. DNA is probably available without too much difficulty. Indeed someone could probably track down some Marylyn Monroe DNA if they thought it might be useful.

If certain genetic combinations remain popular, then they may succeed in persisting unchanged beyond the normal human lifespan.

Specialised clones

Companies may construct genetically engineered humans for particular tasks. If one company comes up with a particularly good telephone operator, waitress - or whatever - they may find that their services are in demand.

Specialised clones offer a resolution of the problem that arises with somatic polymorphism - where every individual carries the genes needed for every specialisation.

While somatic cells each carry all the DNA for every cell type - and this does helps with stem-cell repair, immune self-recognition, and some aspects of development - it is ultimately wasteful of resources.

The situation may come to resemble that of those who make and sell crop seeds. There sometimes the fertile parents are kept with the manufacturers - and sterile hybrids are released for use in the field.

Construction recipies need not be distributed - they can be confined to the manufacturers - with the workers in the fields only getting a maintenance program.

Similarly, different types of workers need not be forced to carry around genetic programs for performing tasks which are irrelevant to them.


Practically every highly successful species that persists for very long speciates.

Our species - or its descendants - may do something similar by adopting a range of adjacent niches, by using adapted genetics.

There are a number of ways in which this could happen - even if there is no geographical division to act as a barrier to gene flow.

One fairly-plausible mechainism is the one described in the "specialised clones" section (above).

However, genetic engineering will have the general effect of destroying or bluring species boundaries. If you can combine genes from two organisms and make an offspring out of them, then that's a kind of sexual reproduction - and genetic engineering will mean that this can be done between practically any individuals - irrespective of their species.

The result of this will be greater relatedness between organisms - and more reuse of inventions in different lineages.

Thus, though we may see humans arise that are so morphologically and genetically distinct that they would normally be classified as separate species, by that time genetic engineering will have advanced to the point where they can trade genes with relative ease.


  1. Janet Wiles, James Watson, Bradley Tonkes - Strange loops in learning and evolution;

Tim Tyler | Contact | http://alife.co.uk/