802,701 A.D.? A little short of that

7 minute read

UPDATE (2007/10/28): I wrote this post last year (the original datestamp is October 18, 2006), to critique some reports about what sounded like crazy future predictions made by an "evolutionary theorist" about the future.

Well, undead stories seem to rise from their graves this time of year, and the headlines say it all:

Penises to get bigger, breasts to get perter
Human race to split into elite and ugly species 11000 years hence
Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan Recruited by Al Qaeda!

OK, that last one has nothing to do with the story...I just thought I would go for the traffic trifecta!

All right, last year's post (reproduced below) does a good job of addressing this silly story. I haven't link-checked it, I would assume some of last year's stories will have gone dead. This year's versions (linked above) are essentially the same.

In the last year, the essay author, Oliver Curry, has come out on his website to let us know his work had been selectively quoted in last year's press accounts. I point that out here in the interest of accuracy, although after reading his essay, I still think that the basic scenario is all wrong.

The irony is that there are many stranger things that will likely happen to humans in the future, not only as a result of genetic engineering but also plain-and-simple natural selection.


Why, oh why do we have to deal with things like this?

Human species 'may split in two'
Humanity may split into two sub-species in 100,000 years' time as predicted by HG Wells, an expert has said.
Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge.
The human race would peak in the year 3000, he said - before a decline due to dependence on technology.
People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.
The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

No, no, no, no, no! Not gonna happen. Nope. No way.

In the November Scientific American, notable skeptic Michael Shermer has a column that muses on the famous Wolfgang Pauli proverb, "This isn't right. It's not even wrong."

Not even wrong. What could be worse? Being wronger than wrong, or what I call Asimov's axiom, well stated in his book <a href="The Relativity of Wrong (Doubleday, 1988): "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

To my mind, this is a case like that. Some people would probably argue that we simply cannot predict what the course of human evolution will be like thousands of years from now. The possible range of events is so great, ranging from genetic engineering to environmental catastrophe to space colonization, that any guess will certainly be wrong.

But that does not mean that all guesses will be equally wrong. Some of them will be more wrong than others -- the "world is flat" kind of wrong. Some will be, well, spectacularly wrong.

Like this stuff. Let's survey some quotes from different stories:

News.com.au: "Human master race is on way."
The Age: "HUMANS will grow to an average of two metres, live to the age of 120 and all have brown skin by 3000, an evolutionary expert says"
Independent Online: "Men's willies will be bigger and women's boobs will be more pert - by the year 3000."
New York Sun: "The analysis of technological, biological, and environmental trends suggests H.G.Wells may not have been too far off the mark in his novel "The Time Machine," in which mankind splits into a frail, wealthy genetic upper class and a downtrodden, ape-like worker class."
Zager and Evans: "In the year 5555, your arms are hanging limp by your sides. Your legs got nothing to do. Some machine, doing that for you."

OK, that last one has nothing to do with this story. But it's just as good a prediction!

Now, what makes these claims so wrong? When humans evolve into whatever they will ultimately become, they will do so because of natural selection. That means that people with some allele have to stop reproducing, or reproduce a lot more, or just die young.

We can start with the dying young -- basically, it ain't happening. To be sure, there are some alleles that are at low frequencies right now that will never, ever get to higher frequencies because they make people die young -- and by young, I mean, too young to have children. But those alleles are almost all at low frequencies already, so saying that they will never reach high frequencies is no great change.

Let's look at the Morlock prediction, this from the Sun article:

Dr. Curry predicts that 100,000 years from now, mankind will be divided into two distinct subspecies, with a genetic elite moving in ever more exclusive circles. The genetic upper class will, he argues, be increasingly tall, thin, symmetrical, clean, healthy, and creative, while the genetic underclass will be short, stocky, asymmetrical, grubby, unhealthy, and less intelligent.

OK, so if medical technology progresses to allow people to evade natural selection and evolve weak alleles, then why will they be unhealthy? Shouldn't they be super-healthy? If people are mating assortatively so that the beautiful always mate with the beautiful (and the ugly with the ugly), and if the ugly are unhealthy, then how do both the beautiful and ugly survive? In 100,000 years, even a miniscule difference in their intrinsic rates of increase would cause one to displace the other entirely.

I mean, at least H. G. Wells had an answer for this one -- the ugly were farming the beautiful!

And what accounts for the selection in favor of the asymmetry genes? If you're going to talk about ugly hermit-like humans, you don't have to go all literal and make them like hermit crabs!

Let's use some common sense, here. Domesticated animals depend on humans to survive. They can't evade predators in the wild. But they aren't unhealthy by any measure, not compared to their wild counterparts. Depending on humans works. We depend on technology. It works. It has worked for two million years. It hasn't make us asymmetrical and stumpy.

And why "short and stocky"? I just don't understand.

There is assortative mating by height now, and probably has been for a long, long time. But no human population has diverged into separate short and tall races. That's not because people at the short and tall ends face selective disadvantages. It's because people in the middle have at least as many kids as people at the extremes.

The point is that assortative mating doesn't cause population divergence. The population divergence here would necessarily be sympatric (unless all the ugly incipient Morlocks were shipped to an island), so it would require natural selection against intermediate phenotypes. But there is no reason at all to think that such selection would occur. I mean, really -- can you imagine that the most symmetric would have lots of kids, and the least symmetric would have lots of kids, but the people in the middle of the distribution would have none?

This is the "not even wrong" part. The whole scenario shows a complete lack of understanding of basic population genetics.

Consider this:

Further into the future, the outlook is less rosy, Dr. Curry argued, with humans declining physically thanks to excessive reliance on technology and medical interventions. By around the year 12000, he believes communication skills and emotional abilities such as love, sympathy, trust, and respect to have diminished, eroding the abilities of humans to care for others or perform in teams.

Now, if you are predicting this, then what you are saying is that the humans who are least capable of communication, love, sympathy, trust, and respect will be the ones who have the most offspring. There's nothing logically inconsistent about this hypothesis, but does it seem in the remotest bit likely? Our "excessive reliance on technology and medical interventions" is going to stop loving, caring people from reproducing? I just don't see the connection.

I don't think the vast majority of people who read this will believe it -- it's the sort of story that runs because it gets folks to chuckle. But, sheesh, if you think this is just as unlikely as any other possible future, you're wronger than wrong!