How recognizable will humans be in five hundred years?

Alex reports:

Tyler and I argued recently about whether or not humans will be recognizably human in 500 years.

Let us assume that scientific progress continues.  My view is that parents don't so much like "difference," unless it is very directly in their favor.  Using technology, parents will select for children who are taller, smarter in the way that parents value, better looking, and perhaps also more loyal to their families.  The people in the wealthy parts of the world will look more like models and movie stars, but they will be quite recognizable.  These children may also be less creative and some of them will be less driven.  It's a bit like the real estate market, where everyone wants their house to be special, but not too special, for purposes of resale or in this case mating and career prospects.

Assortative mating can increase the variance of appearance (and other characteristics), but a) assortative mating is not obviously a dominant effect, b) not necessarily doing much over the course of five hundred years, and c) future science is more likely to reverse the boost in variance than to support it.  One short person could marry another short person, without having such short children because of genetic engineering.

People will in various ways be cyborgs, but more or less invisibly from the outside at least.

Dogs look different than they did five thousand years ago, but that is because humans controlled their breeding and opted for some extremes.  How would they look today if the dogs themselves had been in charge of the process?


Since the reproduction cycle of humans is so much longer than for dogs, maybe 5 or 10X as long, to compare 500 years for dogs should be a 2500 to 5000 year span for humans.

I'd guess that the human form will remain part of the inter-intelligence communication stack for a good time yet.

Don't forget that history is full of societies where "elites" were rounded up and killed. French revolution, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc

Physical markers that demonstrate social class could lead to increased discrimination and conflict. Unless you want to breed super soldiers to protect society. And how long before the super soldiers become tyrants?

Or one possible explanation for why we don't see a 400 hitter in baseball is that as more skilled players have entered the field the increased competition has meant less extreme variance in baseball without much changing the collective average. Players as a group are better but any single player has a harder time consistently be outstanding.

Why is it taken for granted that genetically engineered humans will be superior to natural humans?

Certainly you could not prove that thesis by looking at dogs. There is no evidence what so ever that domesticated dogs are superior to wolves or other wild dogs. To be sure, some domestic dogs are superior in some respects to their wild cousins, but they pay for those things with trade offs in other areas. For example, some dogs bred for flock protection are far bigger than their wild cousins, but they don't have the endurance or speed that wild dogs have either.

The idea that humans as they currently are would be farsighted enough to "build" truly better versions of themselves is hard for me to swallow. Most likely they would select for things that they felt would give them a social advantage (such as zero body fat for males or large bosoms for females) and deselect socially awkward but eminently useful traits such as the quasi-autistic brilliance of Einstein.

In other words, genetically engineered humans will be like domestic dogs. Specialized versions of the natural (or wild) type that have lost much of their versatility.

Oh I think you guys are missing one of the "fun" speculations that I actually think has a chance of happening...

Today attacking people for being obese is in fashion - and taxing people for being obese either directly or indirectly will only grow in appeal in the coming years..

But the next logical step is attacking people for being too tall - tall people make us all incur extra costs - if we evolved into a world where females were 5' tall or less and males 5'6" tall or less [and yes I know there is an argument to be made on giving men an extra 6"] just think how much better life for everyone would be....

Smaller cars - smaller homes - more people packed into the same sized airplane or better yet smaller more efficient planes...

So I am predicting we will next see increasing pressure behind a movement to Downsize the human race - sounds like an interesting book might be written on what a world of right-sized humans would look like...

And I don't think the concept is that outrageous - we already demonize smokers - drinkers - obese - why not demonize tall people?

What would the world be like if beavers were the dominant species?

It would be a world with no Cheese Danish.

Sergey, The artificial uterus you are describing is the Huxley Version 1984 available in Brave New World Health and Fitness Stores.

Speaking of the latter, it is interesting that people worry about future genetic engineering, but not performance enhancing drugs and muscle growth and other supplements and stimulants sold in health and fitness stores--a current day, but not future day--event.

Talk about creeped out. I was in one of those stores buying vitamins and listened to the conversation between a store owner and two teenagers who were trying out for the football team. The manager introduces the two teenage boys to some of the products, warns them of taking too much, and then proceeds to tell them how to flush it out of their system when they do take too much. Wink Wink. When he saw me intently listening, he moved the kids to another part of the store and continued his spiel.

Parents: Do you know what your kids are taking to become superman?

How recognizable will CURRENT humans be from what they will look like tomorrow. Look at that Adams apple, will you, and that thick neck.

Sometimes markets work too well and involve risks kids don't appreciate or don't balance well against their future.

Why do you think parents will be in control? Genetic manipulation and selection is extremely ineffective except maybe for fixing a few rare diseases. People will mostly modify themselves after birth like they've always done.

Why would anybody care about genes for good eyesight when you can laser eyes to much better than that? Or genes for height when hormone therapy will be far more precise and effective while tweaking genes at best give you a wide scattershot centered around better mean?

Do they even expect world to be so stable for the next century that their choices will make sense after that much time?

At any point in history genetic modifications available weren't even a tiny fraction of a percent as powerful as what you can do after birth - and the gap is growing very very fast - what we can do to people regardless of their genes is just ridiculous.

Under what kind of assumptions would it ever reverse? There really aren't any, not since we discovered how genetic code actually works. This is all leftover of times before we got the clue, when people had all sort of fairytale ideas about genes.

"And I don't think the concept is that outrageous - we already demonize smokers - drinkers - obese - why not demonize tall people?"

Because unlike the other groups, people prefer tall people in a disturbing number of ways.

Hopefully by then we'll have a reached "functional immortality" and no longer need to reproduce. From a consent theory perspective, maintaining all existing lives is far more moral than creating new ones without them having the ability to consent.

Dogs are a genetic outlier. There's vastly more potential for genetic variance in the canine genome than in any other vertebrate species we have domesticated. Note that we have been breeding cats sheep, goats, pigs etc. for millennia too, but we haven't created anything like the enormous diversity of dog breeds in those animals.

We also won't be able to create that diversity in ousrelves because our genome does not have the poetntial for it.

By choosing to focus on genetic engineering, most of you are really answering the question of what humans might be like 50-100 years from now, not 500 years from now.

In that case, screw the Hollywood physique. I'd like cat's eyes (or owl eyes), echolocation, bloodhound olfaction, the navigational abilities (magnetic sense?) of migratory birds, a grossly hypertrophied brain, and the ability (of nearly all other animals) to internally biosynthesize my own vitamin C.

If we look at humans from about 5000 years ago, and we have preserved humans from that time frame, we find them "noticeably human", so suggesting human evolution would be so much more than ten times faster in the next 500 years, even with the aid of genetic engineering is rather a stretch.

The genetic engineering of plants and animals where interspecies gene transfer has been done does not change the modified species into something noticeably different - the GMO corn, soy, wheat are still corn, soy, wheat. Even the bacteria, plants, and animals with human genes (used to make them express human proteins) remain unchanged in our perception.

On the other hand, when the Spanish invaded the Americas they weren't recognized as humans, but were considered possibly gods.

So, if environmental damage is severe enough to disrupt society and as a consequence the ability to produce the technology which maintains global trade, isolation of some regions of the planet might lead to cultural divergence sufficiently large to recreate that New World contact situation.


Scroll down to the "consistency and change" box.

This was written over 20 years ago. But I think it is a reasonably conservative depiction of what we will be like in the future.

We will still be "biological" and recognizably human. That is, no "uploads" or "dry" nanotechnology. However, we will have more capabilities that today. For one, no aging. The aging process will be an artifact of history, much like the horse and buggy today. Secondly, we will have robust regeneration. You loose a limb or suffer extensive body injury, say in a car crash or motorcycle accident, you will be able to regenerate the lost limb and damaged tissue. Whole body regeneration (e.g. revival from cryonic suspension) should be available. Cryo-preservation will be properly understood by society as nothing more than medical stabilization (an ambulance into the future), rather than the pathological opinions people have of it today.

Biological metamorphosis will be common for those who choose to migrate into space.

What would the world be like if beavers were the dominant species?

It would be one dam thing after another.

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