Assessing the Future of Human Evolution

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"Assessing the Future of Human Evolution"
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Of animals known to the world of the scientist, few have been more well-studied than humans; the field of anthropology is in fact devoted to us. An interesting study in evolution, to be sure, as humans are quite possibly the most well-adapted of all species living on this planet. This occurred through the evolution of general adaptations to our environment, namely things like bipedalism, terrestrialism, encephalization, and so forth. It is argued that these traits, along with the culture that followed encephalization, allow humans to creatively solve problems and adapt quickly to new surroundings. However, is culture the only way to ensure the long-term survival of a species? Are humans the only species to have survived tumultuous oscillations in the environment? A cursory look at the advantages and disadvantages of culture versus physical adaptation, while not providing an answer to the question of which is better, shows that evolution does in fact not have any specialized "telos" or goal; the type of adaptation does not matter, as long as it serves the function to ensure the survival and longevity of the species.

The advantages of culture versus physical adaptation are obvious on the surface. Culture enables a species to overcome environmental difficulties with no need to wait on a random variation that might help them to cope with problems they encounter. Furthermore, culture seems to build upon itself in an exponential fashion; as it grows and develops, it helps humans to become even more adept at solving problems and makes existing methods more efficient. It could be said to be a different kind of evolution, as opposed to physical evolution; our current environment is one that favors skill and intelligence such that humans with those traits will do well and excel.

The benefits of culture, then, are quite obvious. There are, however, disadvantages to culture as a form of general adaptation. The first is that culture must be taught. Many adult humans would have a very hard time if dropped off in a place where there was no technology and no one to teach them how to live off the supplies around them. Granted, the human's problem solving skills would help, but it may not be enough; the human would not instinctively know what to eat and not to eat, for instance. Thus, culture is not necessarily a completely generalized adaptation; it is still somewhat specialized to the environments that the humans reside inasmuch as their ability to solve problems may not be up to the task of learning to live in a completely foreign environment.

If not culture, then, what physical adaptations could be so general as to allow a species to live in varied areas over long periods of time and survive those environmental oscillations that happen often? The first species that seems well-adapted physically is the cockroach; it is famously resilient and can be found on every continent save Antarctica. It seems to be indestructible; it can survive for up to a month without food, can function with its head cut off, and can withstand doses of radiation that would easily kill a normal human (Kunkel). It has in fact been argued that cockroaches will outlive humans simply because of their natural physical hardiness and ability to reproduce quickly. Notice too that all these physical adaptations are general adaptations as opposed to specific environmental adaptations; the ability to survive long periods of time without food in particular makes cockroaches well suited to live in a variety of places and conditions that would be inhospitable to other creatures. Their three hundred million year track record of surviving only proves that they can adapt and cope with their surroundings extremely well.

It can be argued that culture is a better adaptation simply because we can devise solutions to cockroaches that can best them; we have pest control and so forth that is able to kill even the strongest cockroaches infesting our buildings. However much scientists may argue that point, it is clear that nature has no one way of ensuring species longevity; both humans and cockroaches are species that became well-adapted in very different ways. Humans are a bit on the younger side from an evolutionary standpoint, and no one knows what the future might bring; perhaps the next three hundred million years will have us sporting radiation resistance and food storage abilities along with the cockroaches.

Kunkel, Joseph G.
2006 The Cockroach FAQ, electronic document, http://www.bio.umass.edu/biology/kunkel/cockroach_faq.html, accessed 5 February 2007

More about this author: Alexander Lourenco

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