Augmented evolution: Why the definition of “human” is about to change
If there’s other intelligent life in the universe, is it very different from us, or is it very similar? First we have to know where our species is headed, says NASA's Michelle Thaller.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
Michelle Thaller: You know, one of oldest questions I think humankind has asked is: “If there’s other life in the universe, is it very, very different from us, or is it very similar?”
And even when it comes to the microbial level, even like very small bacteria things—you know, right now we’re exploring the solar system looking for evidence of life on Mars or on some of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are oceans underneath the ice, and even if we found a microbe I think one of the first questions is: Does it have something like DNA? Is it similarly put together the way we are, or is it something very different, even at the microbial level?
And then you take that question and you move even farther. I mea,n what would aliens that are more evolved look like? Aliens that maybe even have advanced civilizations? And this is one of these things where I’m very aware of the limits of human imagination. Einstein famously said ‘the universe is not stranger than we do imagine—it’s stranger than we can imagine.’
And I think that a lot of times people say, Well, we have one evidence of how life started and how life can exist, and it sort of makes sense that maybe something similar would have started on different planets. I think actually when you think about civilizations, aliens out there that are advanced—that maybe even have more advanced civilizations than we do—the thing that I really can’t get around is, that I think that the definition of being human is about to change a lot in the next century.
I think that humans and A.I.s and computers will begin to merge and actually become somewhat indistinguishable from each other. This is not some Terminator scenario of the A.I.s taking over and destroying everything. But, for example, I have a friend who has cochlear implants. He was profoundly deaf and then had cochlear implants put in. And I’ve gone to classical music concerts with him—I remember we went to go see Carmen, and there were tears rolling down his face as he was listening to Carmen. And he knows that he doesn’t hear like a human being hears. There are wires that are directly implanted into his brain that stimulate the auditory section; it never goes through an ear. And he upgrades his software every now and then and then he hears differently. All of a sudden the sounds are different and he actually hears different ranges depending on how his software has been updated. But he always reminds me that what technology did for him was make him more connected, more emotional. I remember somebody was color blind but they actually have an auditory cue as to color, and so it sort of changed the way their brain responds. The implants that are coming, and they will be coming soon, you know.
Once you could implant artificial ears in people, why just hear with the range of a human, right? Why not hear with the range of a dog or a whale or a bird that can hear much higher and lower pitched frequencies than we can? That will come soon. And then when we can augment our eyes, why just see visible light? Why not see x-rays and ultraviolet and infrared light and everything that’s out there? I don’t think there’s any way around this. The aliens we’re going to encounter, if they are advanced from us by many centuries of technology, are going to be indistinguishable from A.I.s. And I don’t think we are looking for biological life. I think we should spend more time thinking about what life really will evolve into.
It may be that the biological being that I am was just a first stage in evolution, and a necessary and maybe even beautiful next step in evolution is for us to be augmented—and maybe someday to completely design our artificial bodies.
When you design your own body to suit any environment you want, why look like a human? Maybe you want to; maybe you want to be a piece of foil that spreads itself across square kilometers to fly on solar winds and actually move around through solar systems. Maybe you look nothing like a human. Maybe you have nothing like a human life.
So this is not a scary science-fiction scenario. I’m not saying that we’re going to be overrun and destroyed by the A.I.s, but I don’t know how you get around very advanced civilizations having gone through an augmentation stage. And I think the next stage in our evolution will most likely be that. And I think maybe we shouldn’t be looking in environments just like the Earth—that maybe where life started, but truly evolved civilizations left that biological necessity behind long ago.
It’s very interesting. But like I said, there’s this guy, his name is Michael, with the cochlear implants. I mean he’s like, “Why do we assume technology is going to keep us apart from each other and make us less human? It might make us even more human.”
If there are intelligent alien civilizations out there, would they look like us? To answer that question, we first have to ask another: Is our species about to take an evolutionary leap? "I think that the definition of being human is about to change a lot in the next century," says Michelle Thaller, astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication at NASA. Over the next few decades, Thaller speculates that humanity's augmented evolution will begin as we start to merge with A.I.s. Our biological bodies might just be a first step in human evolution, says Thaller, and high-tech implants and neural interfaces may make it possible for us to design our own bodies. "When you design your own body to suit any environment you want, why look like a human? Maybe you want to—[or] maybe you want to be a piece of foil that spreads itself across square kilometers to fly on solar winds and actually move around through solar systems. Maybe you look nothing like a human. Maybe you have nothing like a human life." So what does this have to do with aliens? Thaller posits that any advanced civilization that is more evolved than us would also have left its biological evolution behind. Expecting humanoid extraterrestrials might be too narrow minded. Maybe aliens are algorithms. Maybe we shouldn't even be looking for DNA and microbial life. Perhaps ET is a flat sheet of foil cruising through the universe on solar winds.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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