Credit: Flickr user Suvcon
Where are we humans going, as a species? If science fiction is any guide, we will genetically evolve like in X-Men, become genetically engineered as in Gattaca, or become cybernetically enhanced like General Grievous in Star Wars.
All of these may well be part of the story of our future, but I’m not holding my breath. The first of these—natural selection—is impracticably slow, and there’s a plausible case to be made that natural selection has all but stopped acting on us.
Genetic engineering could engender marked changes in us, but it requires a scientific bridge between genotypes—an organism’s genetic blueprints—and phenotypes, which are the organisms themselves and their suite of abilities. A sufficiently sophisticated bridge between these extremes is nowhere in sight.
And machine-enhancement is part of our world even today, manifesting in the smartphones and desktop computers most of us rely on each day. Such devices will continue to further empower us in the future, but serious hardware additions to our brains will not be forthcoming until we figure out how to build human-level artificial intelligences (and meld them to our neurons), something that will require cracking the mind’s deepest mysteries. I have argued that we’re centuries or more away from that.
Simply put, none of these scenarios are plausible for the immediate future. If there is something next, some imminently arriving transformative development for human capabilities, then the key will not be improved genes or cortical plug-ins. But what other way forward could humans possibly have? With genetic and cyborg enhancement off the table for many years, it would seem we are presently stuck as-is, sans upgrades.
There is, however, another avenue for human evolution, one mostly unappreciated in both science and fiction. It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years.
This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions.
This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. In this view, natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a “just good enough” solution rather than as a “fine-tuned machine.”
So it is no wonder that, when many envisage the future, they posit that human invention—whether via genetic engineering or cybernetic AI-related enhancement—will be able to out-do what evolution gave us, and so bootstrap our species to a new level. This rampant overoptimism about the power of human invention is also found among many of those expecting salvation through a technological singularity, and among those who fancy that the Web may some day become smart.
The root of these misconceptions is the radical underappreciation of the design engineered by natural selection into the powers implemented by our bodies and brains, something central to my 2009 book, The Vision Revolution. For example, optical illusions (such as the Hering) are not examples of the brain’s poor hardware design, but, rather, consequences of intricate evolutionary software for generating perceptions that correct for neural latencies in normal circumstances. And our peculiar variety of color vision, with two of our sensory cones having sensitivity to nearly the same part of the spectrum, is not an accidental mutation that merely stuck around, but, rather, appear to function with the signature of hemoglobin physiology in mind, so as to detect the color signals primates display on their faces and rumps.
These and other inborn capabilities we take for granted are not kluges, they’re not “good enough,” and they’re more than merely smart. They’re astronomically brilliant in comparison to anything humans are likely to invent for millennia.
Neuronal recycling exploits this wellspring of potent powers. If one wants to get a human brain to do task Y despite it not having evolved to efficiently carry out task Y, then a key point is not to forcefully twist the brain to do Y. Like all animal brains, human brains are not general-purpose universal learning machines, but, instead, are intricately structured suites of instincts optimized for the environments in which they evolved. To harness our brains, we want to let the brain’s brilliant mechanisms run as intended—i.e., not to be twisted. Rather, the strategy is to twist Y into a shape that the brain does know how to process.
But how do I know this is feasible? This tactic may use the immensely powerful gifts that natural selection gave us, but what if harnessing these powers is currently far beyond us? How do we find the right innate power for any given task? And how are we to know how to adapt that task so as to be just right for the human brain’s inflexible mechanisms?
I don’t want to pretend that answers to these questions are easy—they are not. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to be optimistic that the next stage of human will come via the form of adaptive harnessing, rather than direct technological enhancement: It has already happened.
We have already been transformed via harnessing beyond what we once were. We’re already Human 2.0, not the Human 1.0, or Homo sapiens, that natural selection made us. We Human 2.0’s have, among many powers, three that are central to who we take ourselves to be today: writing, speech, and music (the latter perhaps being the pinnacle of the arts). Yet these three capabilities, despite having all the hallmarks of design, were not a result of natural selection, nor were they the result of genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement to our brains. Instead, and as I argue in both The Vision Revolution and my forthcoming Harnessed, these are powers we acquired by virtue of harnessing, or neuronal recycling.
In this transition from Human 1.0 to 2.0, we didn’t directly do the harnessing. Rather, it was an emergent, evolutionary property of our behavior, our nascent culture, that bent and shaped writing to be right for our visual system, speech just so for our auditory system, and music a match for our auditory and evocative mechanisms.
And culture’s trick? It was to shape these artifacts to look and sound like things from our natural environment, just what our sensory systems evolved to expertly accommodate. There are characteristic sorts of contour conglomerations occurring among opaque objects strewn about in three dimensions (like our natural Earthly habitats), and writing systems have come to employ many of these naturally common conglomerations rather than the naturally uncommon ones. Sounds in nature, in particular among the solid objects that are most responsible for meaningful environmental auditory stimuli, follow signature patterns, and speech also follows these patterns, both in its fundamental phoneme building blocks and in how phonemes combine into morphemes and words. And we humans, when we move and behave, make sounds having a characteristic animalistic signature, something we surely have specialized auditory mechanisms for sensing and processing; music is replete with these characteristic sonic signatures of animal movements, harnessing our auditory mechanisms that evolved for recognizing the actions of other large mobile creatures like ourselves.
Culture’s trick, I have argued in my research, was to harness by mimicking nature. This “nature-harnessing” was the route by which these three kernels of Human 2.0 made their way into Human 1.0 brains never designed for them.
The road to Human 3.0 and beyond will, I believe, be largely due to ever more instances of this kind of harnessing. And although we cannot easily anticipate the new powers we will thereby gain, we should not underestimate the potential magnitude of the possible changes. After all, the change from Human 1.0 to 2.0 is nothing short of universe-rattling: It transformed a clever ape into a world-ruling technological philosopher.
Although the step from Human 1.0 to 2.0 was via cultural selection, not via explicit human designers, does the transformation to Human 3.0 need to be entirely due to a process like cultural evolution, or might we have any hope of purposely guiding our transformation? When considering our future, that’s probably the most relevant question we should be asking ourselves.
I am optimistic that we may be able to explicitly design nature-harnessing technologies in the near future, now that we have begun to break open the nature-harnessing technologies cultural selection has built thus far. One of my reasons for optimism is that nature-harnessing technologies (like writing, speech, and music) must mimic fundamental ecological features in nature, and that is a much easier task for scientists to tackle than emulating the exhorbitantly complex mechanisms of the brain.
And nature-harnessing may be an apt description of emerging technological practices, such as the film industry’s ongoing struggle to better design the 3D experience to tap into the evolved functions of binocular vision, the gaming industry’s attempts to “gameify” certain tasks (exemplified in the work of Jane McGonigal), or the drive within robotics for more emotionally expressive faces (such as the child robot of Minoru Asada).
Admittedly, none of these sound remotely as revolutionary as writing, speech, or music, but it can be difficult to envision what these developments can become once they more perfectly harness our exquisite biological instincts. (Even writing was, for centuries, used mostly for religious and governmental book-keeping purposes—only relatively recently has the impact of the written word expanded to revolutionize the lives of average humans.)
The point is, most science fiction gets all this wrong. While the future may be radically “futuristic,” with our descendants having breathtaking powers we cannot fathom, it probably won’t be because they evolved into something new, or were genetically modified, or had AI-chip enhancements. Those powerful beings will simply be humans, like you and I. But they’ll have been nature-harnessed in ways we cannot anticipate, the magic latent within each of us used for new, brilliant Human 3.0 capabilities.
Mark Changizi is a cognitive scientist and author. His upcoming book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Man, is available for pre-order now.
Originally published February 23, 2011