The Man Who Predicted Our Evolutionary Future

By Scott Solomon

brownr_time_macine60

 

“It is not what man has been, but what he will be, that should interest us” – H. G. Wells

On this day 150 years ago in Bromley, England, a child was born to a family of modest shopkeepers. Known to his family as Bertie, he broke his leg at the age of seven, an accident he would later describe as a pivotal moment in his life. To pass the time while recovering from the injury he read incessantly, fostering a love of books that would persist all his life. He would go on to become one of the most influential authors in history and help launch the modern genre of science fiction.

Herbert George Wells became an instant success with the publication of his debut book, The Time Machine, in 1895. His timing was impeccable. The idea that species change through time through a process called natural selection was still new—Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published just seven years before Wells’ birth. The implication that humans had evolved too—and that we might still be evolving—was spreading through polite Victorian society faster than cholera.

 

portrait_of_h-_g-_wells

 

H. G. Wells was fascinated by evolution, having studied biology under T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s most outspoken supporter (whose grandson, Julian Huxley, founded the biology department at Rice University where I am now on the faculty). In The Time Machine, the protagonist travels through time to see humanity’s past as well as its future. Arriving in the year 802,701 AD, he discovers that humans have evolved into two distinct species, known as Eloi and Morlocks. The Eloi have diminished physical and intellectual abilities due to generations of disuse, and are tended like livestock by the ape-like, subterranean Morlocks. It was a grim view of how our ongoing evolution might unfold, meant as a criticism of class divisions in Victorian England.

Wells was an educated man, and his dystopian vision was an extension of the latest scientific knowledge of the day. At the time, there was very little information available for forecasting our future evolution. Yet many of Wells’ other imaginative ideas—he predicted technological advances such as lasers, cars, automatic doors, and nuclear weapons—have since come to fruition. What about our future evolution?

Today, the evidence that has accumulated from the fields of anthropology, demography, human genetics and genomics, medicine, and microbiology allow us better insight than ever before into our evolutionary future. This is the premise of my new book, Future Humans. As an evolutionary biologist, I wanted to know what science can tell us about how humans will continue to evolve based on what we know about our past and what is happening today. My research for the book spanned more than two years and included trips to England, Scotland, Quebec, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and a simulated Martian colony in the Utah desert. My sources include peer-reviewed research articles, seminars, and dozens of interviews I conducted with researchers.

My overall conclusion would not come as a huge surprise to H. G. Wells—as a species we are indeed still evolving. But we are entering a new phase in our evolutionary history—one that I believe makes the future more interesting than ever before. Our ongoing evolution will be influenced by whether we maintain our massive population size (currently 7.5 billion and growing), our global transportation network, how we respond to the constant threat of infectious disease, and our use of technology and medicine—including precision gene editing, assisted reproductive technology and contraceptives, and even online dating.

Socioeconomic divisions play a role in our ongoing evolution, too, but there is no reason to believe that we will become like the Eloi or Morlocks. In fact, if recent trends continue we are more likely to become extinct before any new human species could evolve. That is, unless the efforts currently underway to establish permanent colonies on Mars are successful and we become spread across the solar system (or beyond, to places like Proxima b). Our descendants on other planets may indeed evolve into new species adapted to local conditions, just as plants and animals so often do when they become isolated on islands.

Should that happen, Wells would be at least indirectly responsible. Modern rockets were invented by Robert H. Goddard, who was inspired to find a way to send people to other planets after reading another of Wells’ books, War of the Worlds.

 

Scott Solomon will be will be at HMNS on October 25th to present his fascinating lecture: Future Humans. Tickets are available for purchase HERE

Hummingbirds of the Night

A few nights ago I saw what I thought was a hummingbird – out way past its bedtime – whirring around the fragrant, long-tubed blooms of the Rangoon creeper in my back yard.  As I watched, several more of these curfew-breakers appeared, working the flowers all up and down the fence.  I soon realized that these were not in fact hummingbirds, but were their nocturnal analogs:  hawk moths or sphinx moths.

Pandorus Sphinx Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: August Norman
 Pandorus sphinx

Talk about convergence!  If they hadn’t been flying at night – and there are some day-flying sphinx moths, by the way – I would have been hard put to tell they weren’t ruby-throated hummers (the most common hummingbird species in our area).  The sphinx moth in question (probably the five-spotted hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata) is about the same size and shape as a ruby-throat, with a bullet-shaped, streamlined body, and has exactly the same behavior.  The powerful wings of both hummers and sphinx moths beat so swiftly (up to 50 or so beats per second) that they are just a blur in flight.  Both can hover up, down, back and forth, helicopter-like.  Instead of a hummingbird’s long bill, sphinx moths have a long tongue or proboscis, kept rolled up when not in use and extended when reaching for nectar at the base of a long-tubed flower. 

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Both hummers and sphinx moths are important pollinators, and certain plants have evolved flowers that are specifically “designed” to attract these powerful fliers with their long beaks or tongues.  Such flowers typically have abundant nectar at the base of elongated floral tubes (the bottom part of the petals grows together to form a hollow tube).  But while hummingbird flowers are usually brightly colored (especially red) and often do not have any scent (since hummingbirds can’t smell), moth-pollinated flowers are typically white or pale-colored, and often emit a strong, sweet scent as the sun goes down.   

The family of sphinx moths, the Sphingidae, is a large one, with about 1200 species world-wide (most are tropical).  There are about 60 species of sphinx moths in North America, several of which occur locally.  Some of the most common species in our area are the Five-spotted sphinx, the Carolina sphinx, the Rustic sphinx, the Pink-spotted hawkmoth, White-lined sphinx, Tersa sphinx, Vine sphinx, and Pandorus sphinx

Another spectacular species, which occasionally ranges up from the tropics into our area, is the Giant sphinx.  This very large moth (over six inches across) is notable as the pollinator of the rare ghost orchid of Florida’s swamps, Dendrophylax lindenii.  Made famous in the book “The Orchid Thief” on which the movie “Adaptation” was based, this orchid has an extremely long, thin floral tube and depends on the giant sphinx moth to transfer pollen from one bloom to another in order to reproduce.  Take a look at the specimen of the giant sphinx from our collection.  Uncoiled, its tongue is almost nine inches long, almost twice as long as its body! 

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

This moth is the New World equivalent of the renowned “Darwin’s moth.”  As the story goes, when in Madagascar, Charles Darwin saw the orchid Angraecum sesquipidale (rather similar to the ghost orchid).  He postulated that there must be a moth with a tongue of equal length to the orchid’s 11 inch nectar spur that would serve as its pollinator.  Sure enough, 41 years later (long after Darwin’s death), such a moth was discovered and its common name acknowledges his prescience.

tomato hornworm
Creative Commons License  photo credit: naturegirl 78
Tomato hornworm
(Manduca quinquemaculata)

Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” because most of them have a distinctive horn that sticks up at the end of their abdomen.  If you are a gardener you may have encountered large, green hornworms devouring the foliage of your tomato plants; these turn into the five-spotted hawkmoth I saw visiting my Rangoon creeper.  Another hornworm frequently seen in the garden (if you grow pentas or star-flower) is the caterpillar of the Tersa sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  This caterpillar turns from green to brown as it grows, and has a pair of dramatic eyespots on its thorax.  People sometimes confuse it with the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail. While hornworms can eat a lot of foliage, I confess that in my garden they are welcome to it – I like the adult moths too much to consider destroying their destructive “baby” stage…  Besides, I think the caterpillars themselves are rather handsome! 

If you find a hornworm and want to rear it, be sure to provide it with a couple of inches of loose soil when it gets large enough to pupate.  Most sphinx moths pupate in the soil, and do not spin cocoons around the brown pupa.  Some sphinx pupae have the tongue pulled away from the body, resembling the handle on a pitcher or Greek vase!  Don’t disturb the caterpillar/pupa for several days after it burrows down or you may disrupt the pupation process. 

Whether or not you get into the caterpillars, it is always a thrill to see an adult sphinx moth in action.  To attract these nocturnal hummingbirds to your garden, consider planting some of the following.  As an added benefit, you’ll enjoy the wonderful fragrance on evenings when these plants are in flower.

Mirabilis
Creative Commons License  photo credit: sigusr0
Four O’clock (note long tube)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida)

Jimsonweed or Datura (Daturaspp.)

Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica)

Moon flower (Ipomea alba)

Four O’clocks (Mirabilis spp.)

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.18.08)

Robot Vista
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kiwi Flickr

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Robots: they’re so hot right now. A new surveillance bot looks really cool – but it’s also extremely noisy (and so not very good for surveillance.) And – this robot could save your life.

A humpback whale has lost its way, somehow ending up in the Baltic Sea – an area that lacks the food it will need to survive.

What’s it like to be an Olympian’s brain?

It only stood waist high, but it might have given Usain Bolt a run for his money – the small British Ornithopod Hypsilophodon foxii was so fast it had a special adaptation to keep its ribs from rattling at top speeds.

Shockingly, Bigfoot find turns out to be a hoax. (Though with a web site like this, I can see why major networks attended the “press conference.”)

The NASA spacecraft Cassini has taken “razor-sharp” images of 1000-meter deep fissures in the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons – a place believed likely to contain life (or at least, more likely than other places in space).

A new study from the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center indicates that low density foods may be the key to weight loss. Sponsored by the Mushroom Council, the study recommends foods that have a low ration of calories to volume, like…mushrooms.

As Arctic ice melts, Canada will search for the remains of a 19th century expedition that was lost in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.