The Man Who Predicted Our Evolutionary Future

By Scott Solomon

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“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.

 

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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

Do you mind passing the hand sanitizer? I think I’m coming down with a touch of the plague.

Today, as I sit and tidy up the Plague curriculum for the upcoming ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday I can hear the children in the classroom next to me coughing….. just a bit.   I begin to think, maybe I need to make that appointment to get the flu shot.  I mean, it’s the least I can do to protect myself and the others that come into contact with me, right?  Hmm…,  I wonder.

In the year one thousand three hundred and forty eight when the Black Death set her dark sights upon the unsuspecting West, I wonder what the good people of Europe were thinking?  It sure wasn’t “Pass the hand sanitizer and warm me up a cup of Theraflu.”

The plague boasted the following symptoms: aching limbs, vomiting of blood, and lymph nodes that swelled to the size of chicken eggs before bursting.  I would have been first in line for my plague vaccination, had there been one available at the time. 

The Crow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kessiye

As a plague victim in the Middle Ages, you would count yourself lucky if your family didn’t abandon you in the street to die alone.  If you were really lucky (so to speak) a doctor might pay you a visit.  If you were luckier still, maybe he wouldn’t.  Common treatments for the plague included, but were not limited to:  bleeding by leech or blade (sometimes until there was no blood left), purging by laxative (better to die of dehydration, right?), and various herbal treatments. 

In the stead of drugstores, the Medieval town might have had a local apothecary.  Check out some of the herbs that were used, mostly in vain, to treat the plague:

Thyme – a natural disinfectant used in the “nosegays” carried by doctors in an attempt to ward off the plague.

Rosemary – burned like incense, it was thought to ward off sickness of all types.  It was hung around the neck to protect from the plague.  It was also thought a twig of rosemary could ward off the evil eye.

Sage flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: tanakawho

Sage – among the most important medicinal herbs of Medieval Europe.  No covenant garden would be without a substantial patch of sage growing to treat the ailing masses.

Angelica – according to legend, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the powers of this Nordic herb to the Benedictine monks.  During the Middle Ages it was commonly cultivated in monasteries and used to treat symptoms of the plague.

Lavender – thieves who made a living stealing from the dead and infirm used lavender as an ingredient in their “Four Thieves Vinegar,” a concoction they used to protect and cleanse themselves after a hard night’s work.

During the plague in the seventeenth century, you might have even scored a visit from this guy (pictured below).

17th century plague doctor

And if that wasn’t enough to scare you to death, wait three days and the plague might get you anyway. As the poet Boccaccio said, “one could eat lunch with friends and have dinner with ancestors in paradise.”