This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Brief Answers to the Big Questions" by Stephen Hawking. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Are we still evolving as humans? Why did Stephen Hawking predict that human evolution will soon accelerate?
Before he passed away, Stephen Hawking wrote that he believed humans were going to soon enter a new stage of evolution. Hawking believed that humans will move past the slow, Darwinian evolution phase and will speed up their evolution through genetic engineering. We may even become superhumans one day.
Here’s what Hawking had to say about the future of evolution.
The Future of Human Evolution
Hawking anticipates that the ongoing evolution of life on earth will give rise to new challenges for the human race. He says that, while Darwinian evolution of the human species continues, other processes may soon accelerate the evolution of mankind, if they haven’t already. He suggests three new types of evolution, which we’ll explore in turn.
(Shortform note: Hawking is not the only one to contemplate the challenges that the evolution of humans and human civilization may pose for the future. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari makes conjectures about future evolution that are parallel to Hawking’s ideas, but from a different perspective. As we examine Hawking’s predictions, we’ll compare them to Harari’s.)
Evolution Through Information
Are we still evolving? To answer this, first Hawking explains that evolution is characterized by information transfer: As each generation evolves and passes on its genes, the information contained in the genetic code of the species grows. But with the invention of written language, humans have developed other ways of passing useful information from one generation to the next. And now, thanks to digital information processing, the amount of information that humans can access and store is increasing exponentially. Hawking sees this as a new mechanism of evolution.
(Shortform note: While Hawking doesn’t say it explicitly, this paints a bleak picture of the future for people who aren’t literate, or who lack the technical competence to access digital information. Consider what happens when you combine his argument that digital information transfer has become a mechanism of human evolution with the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Together, they imply that humans who are more adept at taking advantage of available information in this digital age will be more “fit” to prosper, while others will tend to get weeded out by natural selection.)
Evolution Through Genetic Engineering
Hawking explains that one particularly important piece of information mankind has been able to decipher and pass on is our own genetic code. He predicts that, now that the human genome has been sequenced and increasingly powerful gene-splicing technologies are being developed, you will soon be able to rewrite the genetic code of your offspring. Genetic engineering will lead to much faster genetic advancement of our species than Darwinian evolution.
Hawking anticipates that first, genetic engineering will allow us to cure diseases and syndromes caused by deficiencies in single genes. Then, more cures for more genetically complex conditions will be developed. After that, we’ll be able to upgrade our children’s genetics for increased intelligence, natural immunities, and eventually capabilities we haven’t even imagined yet.
Hawking acknowledges that there are many valid ethical concerns about genetically engineering humans, and that many countries consequently restrict or prohibit it. However, he argues that civil laws cannot prevent this new form of evolution. He expects that, even if it’s illegal in most countries, sooner or later someone will do it. And once the first genetically engineered superhumans appear, the rest of humankind will be faced with a choice: Embrace genetic engineering, or become an increasingly inferior sub-species of humanity. Either way, genetically enhanced humans would become the dominant species by natural selection.
But even before that time comes, we as a society need to be scientifically literate so that we can make intelligent decisions as we are increasingly confronted with issues pertaining to genetic engineering.
|Genetic Engineering and Techno-Humanism|
Hawking surmises that, as genetic engineering becomes increasingly feasible, people will begin to take advantage of it whether it’s sanctioned by governments or not. Yuval Noah Harari echoes this idea in Homo Deus, in which he describes the rise of “techno-humanism,” or the belief that humans should use technology to upgrade their own mental capabilities.
Based on Harari’s exposition of techno-humanism, it seems likely that Hawking is right that people will improve themselves and their offspring with technology regardless of their governments’ positions. It also seems likely that techno-humanists will be the first to genetically reengineer themselves once the technology becomes available. Genetic engineering is one of the primary mechanisms whereby they hope to upgrade their minds. Other possible mechanisms include nanotechnology, integration of computer chips into the brain, and brain-altering drugs.
Hawking also says that genetic engineering will raise new ethical and technical questions for society to answer. Harari’s discussion of techno-humanism illustrates the type of questions Hawking is referring to.
To begin with, if people start to upgrade their brains, what parts or capabilities of the brain should they focus on, and what effect will it have on society? For example, if we improve people’s ability to make decisions quickly and calmly, will we lessen their ability to empathize and be patient with others? If a military was made up of these super-rational soldiers, would it end up an efficient but unfeeling force?
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- The final lessons from Stephen Hawking, published after he passed
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