The Man Who Predicted Our Evolutionary Future

By Scott Solomon



“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.




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

A Pinky’s Promise

In the summer of 2008, a multi-national team of Russian, European and American researchers found a small bone at a remote cave site in Siberia. At the time of discovery researchers had been working at the Denisova cave, located in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia for several years already. Moreover, the cave was open to visitors as early as 2000, when it was listed on the program of The Second International Conference on Bioinformatics of Genome Regulation and Structure, held in Novosibirsk.

Initially, the discovery of a bone did not raise eyebrows, as the presence of Neanderthal people in the area between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago was a well-established fact. Interesting thus far, but nothing out of the ordinary.

As it turns out the small bone, identified as one of the bones in one’s pinky, held some surprises. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig extracted DNA – specifically mitochondrial DNA — and concluded that this type of DNA represented “a hitherto unknown type of hominin mtDNA that shares a common ancestor with anatomically modern human and Neanderthal mtDNAs about 1.0 million years ago.”  [For those scratching their head over the term “hominin,” this refers to extinct members of the human lineage.] So we are looking at one bone of a previously unknown hominin? Possibly. Or maybe not. 

The notion that we had several hominins living side by side, modern humans, Neanderthalers, and possibly this third species, should not come as a surprise. This happened quite frequently in our past; our existence today as the sole representatives of the human lineage is seen as an exception rather than the rule. What would be remarkable is that we have evidence of a human ancestor or close relative whom we did not know existed.

The latter realization has created a lot of buzz among those interested in human evolution. As is always the case with this type of endeavor, we need to be cautious and outline what we know, what the limits of our understanding are and where we shift from scientifically supportable reconstructions to pure speculation. A number of topics need further clarification here.

First, where does the owner of the bone fit in on the family tree, especially compared to us and to Neanderthals?

 Location of Denisova Cave and presumed place
on the family tree of the Denisova Cave specimen.

Researchers compared the Denisova mitochondrial DNA to complete mitochondrial sequences from 54 modern humans as well as a human who lived in Siberia about 30,000 years ago, six Neanderthals from more than 40,000 years ago, a modern pygmy chimpanzee and a modern common chimp. The results indicated that there are about 400 differences between us and the DNA in the pinky. This is twice as many differences as exist between modern human and Neanderthal DNA. This has led researchers to suggest that our last common ancestor lived about 1 million years ago, about twice as long ago as the common ancestor to us and Neanderthalers.

A second question that begs an answer is:  “what creature does this DNA belong to?” Various scenarios have been suggested here. It is possible, that we are dealing with a new species, neither modern human nor Neanderthal. Secondly, it could be a Neanderthal child, resulting from a union between a Neanderthal and an unknown species. Lastly it could be a Neanderthal individual, carrying variations in genetic make up thus far not identified in predominantly European samples.

The possibility that we are dealing with a completely new species is the most exciting. It is also one that most people caution us against. “Too soon,” “not enough material,” are some of the more common reactions. Others disagree and support the notion that this is a different species. This argument between those who see few species in the archaeological record (“lumpers”) and those who prefer a larger number of species (“splitters”) is one that has been described in a previous blog.

Skeleton of an alleged
Homo sapiens – Neanderthal
hybrid child found in Portugal.
Image courtesy of donsmaps

The scenario raising the possibility of an interspecies affair (between Neanderthal and another species) is favored by some, who see parallels with an alleged Neanderthal – modern human hybrid child found in Portugal. In this case, however, we would be looking at a child of a Neanderthal and a yet unknown species. This still implies that we had an unknown creature wandering the Siberian wilds, one whose genetics were inherited by a mixed offspring. In other words, this scenario still requires acceptance of the existence of an unknown species.

Finally it is conceivable that the breath of Neanderthal genetic variation is such that we have not mapped all of it. Given that most research on Neanderthals has concentrated on European materials, rather than Siberian, perhaps these Eastern Neanderthals carried in them a number of genetic variations that hark back to the original population in Africa. This would support the third option, one which identifies this pinky bone as belonging to a Neanderthal individual, albeit it with genetic markers not encountered in European samples. If identified as such, then this bone would reinforce the notion that Neanderthals occupied a much larger territory than originally assumed.

This discovery is meaningful in several ways. It illustrates that science marches on, providing answers to questions and, in the process, raises additional questions. It also shows how meticulous one has to work as an archaeologist or paleoanthropologist. One small pinky bone has provided us with a “what-in-the-world-is-this?” moment. The decision to perform a DNA test warns us not to be complacent. Up until recently, the party line about who was around some 40,000 years ago would have been answered with Homo sapiens or Neanderthalers, and nobody else. We are now forced to entertain the possibility of a hitherto unknown species living side by side with the other two. That is the promise this one tiny pinky bone holds.

A few final comments and thoughts.

What most articles I have read do not elaborate on is the fact that research is now happening in Siberia. This is a huge territory, difficult to access for all kinds of reasons. When discoveries like these are made, we should not be surprised that they generate questions we cannot answer yet, as researchers are accessing a territory close to the size of the US (a fact appreciated more than a century ago). I hope this discovery will result in greater support for research in the region. One day I am sure we will have a much clearer picture of what it is we are dealing with here.

Pinky promise.

Science Friday: “The World Without Us”

We’re very excited to bring you a new weekly feature – Science Friday, a weekly science talk show produced by NPR. Each week, a new video will focus on science topics that are in the news, in an effort to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.

This week, the good people at SciFri sat down with award-winning science journalist and author, Alan Weisman to talk about his best-selling book “The World Without Us.” Find out what prompted him to write the book and where Weisman thinks the world is headed if we don’t control our population explosion.

Weisman is Laureate Associate Professor in Journalism and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona.

Credits: Produced by Carl Flatow. Special thanks to New Jersey City University in Jersey City, N.J. for providing an interview opportunity.