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

Tales of the Continental Divide: The Adventures of Mesosaurus

Mesosaurus was an unusual reptile. It looked kind of like crocodiles do today, with a long, thin body, eyes located on top of the skull, webbed feet, and an average length of about 16 inches. It also lived kind of like many crocodiles do today, in freshwater environments. Possibly one of the weirdest things about mesosaurus is that it did all of these things during the Permian period, 320-280 million years ago. That’s 130 million years before crocodiles (and dinosaurs as well) even existed!



Mesosaurus, next to an Ichthyasaur of a much later age, photo courtesy in the Internet Archive Book Images


                In fact, Mesosaurus is was one of the earliest reptiles discovered to have made the transition back into a marine environment. The earliest reptiles appear in the fossil record around 340 million years ago, so it seems that after a mere 20 million years, this retile was done with terra firma. In fact, one of the mesosaurus skeletons that have been discovered is the earliest reptile found with amniote embryos fossilized with it, meaning these are one of the ealiest animals known to have laid hard-shelled eggs. So we’re talking about the early history of reptiles here.


Lower Permian

Lower Permian Mesosaurus, photo courtesy of elrina 753


But speaking of reptiles, it should be pointed out that mesosaurus is not like most of the reptiles we see today. Ancient reptiles can be divided into different categories, based partly on the number of holes they have on either side of their skull. Snakes and lizards are diapsids, defined by two particular holes on either side of their skull, but mesosaurus was an anapsid, which means that it lacks these holes. Anapsids are very primitive reptiles, and in fact some scholars classify them as “parareptiles”. The only species of anapsids living today are turtles and tortoises, who have a fascinating history of their own.



Mesocaurus in matrix, photo courtesy of Museo Civico di  Historico Naturale Milano


The most common type of large reptiles found in the Permian were synapsids, like the dimetrodon in the Permian section of our Hall of Paleontology, and the Edaphasaurus in the great mural featured in that hall. The only synapsids that exist today are, well, all mammals. That’s right, that big, fin-backed lizard in our hall is more closely related to us than to a dinosaur. But of course he’s still a distant relative, like an old uncle.



Recreation of a Dimetrodon, photo courtesy of Rick Hebenstreit


But back to Mesosaurus… There’s another reason that this animal is notable, and that’s the 7,772 mile journey some of its fossils made after their deposition! During the Permian, when mesosaurus was doing its thing, Pangea, the ancient Super Continent, was still forming. Pangea formed around 270 million years ago, ushering in the end of the Permian Period and the extinction of the great synapsids, and making way for the reign of the dinosaurs. It was actually the formation of Pangea and the resulting environmental changes (helped by volcanic activity and climate change) that caused this extinction, which was the worst extinction event in Earth’s history.


Photo Courtesy of David Smith


Around 200 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart. The continents that are now called Africa and South America separated, drifting away from each other and carrying the already fossilized bones of Mesosaurus with them. In the early 20th century, Continental Drift was a hotly debated topic, and it was the fossils of mesosaurus that helped to validate the theory. The remains of this fresh water-dwelling reptile, can be found in Eastern South America and Western Africa, separated be 7,000 miles of ocean. We are sure mesosaurus lived in fresh water, because the rock that its fossils have been discovered in specifically forms in that environment. So, either some of these little guys hopped a tramp steamer, or they were dragged with their respective continents. This, along with numerous other bits of evidence, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge, have helped to validate the theory of Continental Drift.


A Practical Application of the Fundamentals of Physics.


Gravity, the force that attracts a body toward the center of the Earth, seems to be out to get me. I have been described as being “made out of fall down”. This is because I fall down. A lot. I have long legs and big feet and sometimes I don’t pick them up, so I trip. I ride my bike to work a lot and sometimes the potholes get me. Occasionally my adventures in science result in mystery bruises. Bruises and scrapes I can handle, but recently I had the opportunity to test some of Newton’s Laws in other ways.


I, in my little Dodge Caliber, was hit by a GMC pickup truck. After I took a hot minute to get my wits about me, I crawled out and looked at was left of the tail end of my car. My first thought? “Good job, crumple zones. Good job….” This is how we got to this blog entry. It’s been a while since High School Physics, so let’s all get caught up on some basics:

  • Inertia is the tendency of an object to resist any change in its velocity (speed+direction).
  • A fancier way to say that? Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an external force and a body in motion continues to move at a constant speed in a straight line unless it is acted upon by an external force.
  • Force = Mass x Acceleration (if Acceleration is the rate of change of the velocity)




In other words, unless some outside force acts on an object it will keep on going or staying, as the case may be. One of those outside forces is friction. Which brings us to inertia. A bigger, heavier object will take longer to get to a high rate of speed, but if the same force is applied, it will also take a longer time to slow down too. So a ping pong ball takes a lot less effort to stop than a freight train, but it also takes a lot less effort to throw a ping pong ball than it does a freight train. And so that brings us to the practical application portion of today’s blog.

Specifically, in the case of my accident, my little car had almost come to a stop when I was hit from behind. Since the truck was so much bigger, the truck had more momentum than my car brakes could handle—so I was pushed forward, even though the truck slowed significantly.

Even though there was a lot of damage done to the rear end of my car, I was still safe. This is because some physicists and engineers (thank you!) have been working to make vehicles safer. To do this, they have to take into account Newton’s Laws of Motion. Some of the safety features cars have these days are seat belts, crumple zones, air bags and specialized tires. Since you can’t instantaneously change the mass of the vehicles in an accident, your best bet is to change the acceleration to reduce the force. The function of the seat belts, crumple zones and air bags is to do just that by slowing things down more gradually. They change the acceleration of the person inside the vehicle by increasing the time it takes for the accident to occur – even if it is just by fractions of seconds.

Seatbelts comprise about 50% of your protection in a car. When a driver stops the car suddenly, the driver tends to lunge forward, because the driver’s body tends to maintain its speed and direction. The seat belt holds the driver and prevents the driver from flying forwards when the car stops. Seat belts help by applying a force that overcomes your inertia as in Newton’s First Law. They also increase the time in the wreck which results in a lesser impact force on you; more time means less acceleration to you! Even when your body comes to a stop, however, your internal organs continue to move, slamming against each other because of the impact. So, that’s fun.

Good tires are also an important safety feature on your car. The friction between the tires and the road determines the maximum acceleration and the minimum stopping distance. If the surface of a tire is rougher, then the friction force is larger. This is super important if you are slamming on your brakes to avoid something or speeding up, also to avoid something.


Prior to 1959, people believed the more rigid the structure, the safer the car. This ended up being deadly because the force from the impact went straight to the passenger. Crumple zones are specially engineered areas on your car that are designed to absorb energy as they are crushed and slow down the rest of the car more gradually. They absorb energy from a collision and therefore reduce the force of a collision on the passengers. They aren’t just spots that are softer or less dense on the car, they are specifically engineered to crush in a relatively gradual and predictable way that absorbs much of the impact energy, keeping it away from the occupants in what is termed a “controlled crush”.

So! Buckle up and be safe, and good job, crumple zones…good job.

Sports Science: Olympics Edition ‒ Freestyle Swimming

Every four years, the eyes of the world shift towards a global competition, complete with feats of strength, determination, talent and teamwork. The Summer Olympics are back, and I could not be more excited. The following post is one of three about some of my favorite events.

As a college student, one of my pre-Finals rituals was to stop studying 30 minutes before leaving for the exam and instead watch sports highlights videos to get pumped up. There was Vince Young coasting into the corner of the endzone in the 2006 Rose Bowl, Tracy McGrady scoring 13 points in 35 seconds to knock off the Spurs, Landon Donovan sending the U.S. to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup, and, the grand finale, the 2008 Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, the race that earned Michael Phelps his second of eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.

That race was, to me, the most memorable moment of a historic run for Phelps. Set aside the volcanic eruption of American pride for a second, and just consider the physics at play as anchor leg Jason Lezak breaks French hearts and sends his teammates into delirium.

Mickey Kelly Swims

Freestyle swimming in and of itself is a case study in aerodynamic motion. The swimmer’s body must be in as straight a line as possible while moving through the water to reduce drag. The swimmer’s face needs to be down as much as possible to allow the round waterproof cap the opportunity to part the water most efficiently. Even when the swimmer turns his head to breathe, the horizontal line should be maintained and the deviation in motion should be minimized.

The body should be in a constant state of motion, and all motion should be synchronized as much as possible, with kicks matching the strokes of the arms. Deviations from this synchronization will cause drag. In addition, small, quick kicks are generally more effective than large kicks that require more time; essentially, the sum of many short accelerations is greater than one large acceleration.

So going back to Lezak’s final 50 meters in the relay, it is important to first set the scene: Lezak was trailing the world-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle, France’s Alain Bernard, by about 0.5 seconds heading into the last leg of the race. That lead had expanded to 0.6 seconds after the first 50 meters.

Lezak closed the gap, in part, due to a principle of physics common in racing of all kinds: drafting. The concept here is you get as close as you can to the racer in front of you; that racer absorbs the brunt of the drag, leaving a pocket of “clean” air (or water). The racer behind the leader uses less energy to go the same speed or can use the same energy to gain ground.

Note how Lezak is swimming at the top of his lane, as close as he could possibly be to Bernard’s slipstream. Even though he is not directly behind Bernard, his positioning is actually much more similar to the way that birds fly in a V-shape while migrating. The ideal position for this technique is at around the waist of the other swimmer, which you might notice is just where Lezak is at about the halfway point of the last length of the race. The disturbance that Bernard is causing in the water radiates outwards and creates a small pocket of clean water for Lezak to cut through.

Studies have shown that swimmers in open water races using slipstreams to swim consume about 10% less oxygen than others and reduce the rate of perceived exertion by 21%. And while it’s a technique that annoys people in the neighborhood pool, it’s something that helped Lezak make up a half-body length deficit in 25 meters and win the race by 0.08 seconds. Oh yeah, there’s also that Olympics Gold Medal.

Swimming events at the Rio Games begin Aug. 6 and conclude Aug. 13.