Adventures in Ethics and Science

The future of humanity?

It’s “Ask a ScienceBlogger” time again, and the question of the week is whether the human race will be around in 100 years.

Folks, I don’t want to get all Clintonian on you (William Jefferson, not George), but I’m going to have to say, it depends what you mean by “human”.

Certainly, it’s possible that nuclear mishap, poorly scheduled meteorite, or disease (ask Tara) will take us out in the next 100 years. My predictive powers in such matters aren’t so good. Yours probably aren’t either. It wouldn’t surprise me if the coakroaches are the ones left to tidy up, but 100 years seems relatively quick for that. The more interesting question, as far as I’m concerned, is whether we will persist as humans 100 years from now. And for that question, we need to figure out what it actually means to be human.

Are we human in virtue of our DNA? That may well be different (if only slightly so) in 100 years. I’m not sure how different the genome would have to be for it to be reasonable to say that we’d become something else. (Certainly, there would be a historical connection to our biological “humanity” circa 2006.)

Is what makes us human the peculiar way we understand the world and our place in it? That, too, may change significantly in the next 100 years. (Indeed, there are some ways in which one might hope rather vehemently that it would change — so we could get over the whole fighting-each-other-for-resources thing.)

Maybe what makes us human is that we are capable of a kind of self-awareness and self-reflectiveness. In other words, we can ask ourselves what it means to be human and what we want (or ought) to be doing to make our lives meaningful.

But being able to do this may not be enough. We might actually have to flex our self-reflective muscles rather than killing them with TV and beer.

My sense is that (barring thermonuclear disaster or bad bird flu outbreak) humanity will persist as long as we keep questioning what exactly it means for us to be human. We’re trying to live good lives without a users manual, and that requires a bit or work.

The future of humanity is in your hands. Take a moment to think about what you’re doing.


  1. #1 Greco
    May 16, 2006

    I’m not a fan of cockroaches. If any group will inherit the Earth after we’re gone (assuming we own it, that is), it’s gonna be beetles. They number in the 300,000 known species, some look really cool, and some of them even make great music.

    Oh was that “beatles” with an A?

  2. #2 Matt McIrvin
    May 17, 2006

    There are almost certainly individual people now living who will be alive in 100 years.

  3. #3 Larry Sullivan
    May 19, 2006

    Certainly, “thinking about what your doing” is cogent advice for the maintainance of civilization. The more of us who do so, the slimmer the possibilities that we will engage in those activities – creating mayhem in Third-world societies, stealing from our neighbors in this one, or pushing the red button – which could remove our species from the face of the planet.

    Barring that eventuality, however, the question can be answered definitively: yes, Virginia, we will still be here in 100 years. The genome identifying us as “homo sapiens” is not going to change in any definitive way in that blink of the cosmic eye. It’s just not the way evolution works with species. Even after we appeared, it required half a million years for us to complete the differentiation from the chimps. That’s evidence of a very slow and careful process.

    As to the question of our “humnanity,” who is going to approve the definition? We have been thinking along the lines that we have been “human” since we appeared, or at least since we fully differentiated ourselves. But in that period of time, we have changed enormously. We had no lanmguage at the beginning, and no tools of note. Over the span of some millions of years – two to eight, depending on where you want to place the markers – we mastered fire, developed tools and agriculture, created more and more sophisticated technologies of manufacturing and building, and finally learned to speak. We were building cities with sewage systems serving a population of 50,000 people even before we learned to articulate the metaphoric human languages we speak today.

    Which is to suggest that we seem to define ourselves by what we do, and what we do changes over time. By the measures we have been employing, we will remain “human” until we become significantly different, biologically, from how we are today, and have been since we wandered onto the savannah.

  4. #4 Larry Sullivan
    May 25, 2006

    Wow! This track died quickly, didn’t it? Someone must have mentioned evolution.

New comments have been disabled.