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.
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:
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.
- 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;
Indeed, fairly closely-related humans can turn into
gymnasts, sumo wrestlers, go players, or opera singers
under the influence of environmental factors.
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 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
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
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
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
The result of this will be greater relatedness between
organisms - and more reuse of inventions in different
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.
- Janet Wiles, James Watson, Bradley Tonkes - Strange loops in learning and evolution;