Reshaping Humanity for Life Beyond Earth
Be it the result of climate change, population pressures or sheer curiosity, many of our descendants may find themselves living in drastically different environments than humanity evolved to survive in. This will pose serious challenges, but the solution, as Lucy Ingham hears from Professor Simon Evetts of Blue Abyss, may be to genetically engineer ourselves to thrive in these brave new worlds
Human evolution has been profoundly directed by our environment. Features such as our build and the colour of our skin are the result of the gradual shaping of dominant genetic traits by the world around us over generations, allowing us to occupy a more diverse selection of environments than almost any other species on Earth.
But our world is changing, and parts of humanity may find themselves living in very different surroundings in the future, such as the ocean or even space. Over time these would likely result in a similar sculpting of our genetics, but this would take far, far longer than any one lifetime. Not ideal for those early generations of settlers struggling to live in environments that we as a species never evolved for.
The answer, then, may be to actively direct our own genetic evolution to suit these new surroundings, and give us traits that make us better able to live, for example, under water or in radiation-rich space.
“What we're talking about here is we're talking about directed evolution,” says Professor Simon Evetts, space operations director of deep sea and space research company Blue Abyss, in a talk at Web Summit. “We've got the evolution that's happened to us all over the millennium, and now we're talking about being able to control and direct things, and that direction takes us towards a new form of human being.”
Adapting humans for space
With growing interest in settling other planets, as well as talk of the development of private space stations, it may not be long before a segment of humanity is living beyond Earth, but this brings its own problems.
“When you're looking at what happens to the body in space, we decondition. The muscles, the bones decondition, immunosuppression occurs, there's the challenge of radiation,” says Evetts. “There's a lot of challenges there that need to be dealt with.”
When you're looking at what happens to the body in space, we decondition. There's a lot of challenges there that need to be dealt with
Radiation in particular, is a severe problem. Some studies have suggested that astronauts could develop dementia on the way to Mars as a result of exposure, while others have gone so far as to suggest that we simply cannot travel beyond cis-Lunar space without facing a deadly dose.
Work is being undertaken to develop craft with adequate shielding, however Evetts believes directed evolution could provide a solution.
“We can optimise the human body to be able to deal with that. So what about transgenesis?” he asks, referring to the process of introducing genes from other species into living organisms.
“If we start looking at the ability to take characteristics from one species to another, radiation is a problem in space. So in the future 30, 40, 50, 60 years from now, can we be more able to deal with radiation through being able to take something like the water bear, the capabilities of that tiny little creature that can exist in space for so long, and enable ourselves to be more resistant to radiation by using their capabilities through transgenesis?”
Engineering humans to live in the ocean
While much focus has been placed on space-faring humans, Evetts believes the ocean may also prove to be a vital future home.
“What intrigues me is yes, space, we hear it being called the final frontier, but we've got this huge frontier on Earth and that is the deep oceans, and those oceans may get bigger with climate change,” he says.
“Are we going to see certainly an aspect of society moving into the oceans in the future? And if they do so, what will they do to optimise themselves to be in the ocean, to be able to work and live in the ocean?”
Can we somehow work out how the dolphins and seals hold their breath for so long, and enable ourselves to do that?
While this conjures up images of hybrid humans with an appearance reminiscent of dolphins, he argues that this could be something far more moderate that would improve our chances of surviving in such conditions.
“We could look at less extreme examples such as simply breath-holding. Can we somehow work out how the dolphins and seals hold their breath for so long, and enable ourselves to do that?” he muses.
“Currently there are external gill technologies. Not overly effective, but it's the start. Are we going to try and internalise those things and end up with large thoracic cavities because we've got internal gills sets?
“There's a few things that would be fascinating when thinking about, I don't know, Homo Oceansis.”
Are genetically modified humans still human?
While it’s easy to imagine such future humans developing appearances like nothing we’ve ever seen, Evetts believes they would likely be engineered to retain an appearance as close to their current equivalents as possible.
“I think human beings are going to try to look as much like we look now and the more capable the technology becomes, the more we'll be able to retain an outward look that is like this,” he says “But it's a question of what will this outwardly looking human be able to do in the future.”
However, if humans’ capabilities become so different, will they still be close enough to us to be described as human?
“That's the reason why we're here talking, isn't it? What will the nature of that human being be, and can we say that that is a human being in the future?” he asks. “If we've augmented ourselves to the degree where we are super effective and optimised for space travel, if we decide to move into the oceans and we're able to amend and modify ourselves so that we're optimised for the ocean, is that still a human being?”
While he anticipates this being a subject of debate, for Evetts, the answer is yes.
“For me, if I could use an analogy, if we think about a car; the Ford Model T car so many years ago, that car was a car,” he reasons. “Look at the Ford as it is now, say the Fusion: hugely different, massively different. It's still a car: it's a Ford car.
“And I see the same for the human beings. Whatever modifications we do, and they will be profound in later years, it'll still be a human, albeit human 2.0.”