Homo evolutis – the backlash

Monday, 9 February, 2009

The old speciation argument has raised its head again, with Juan Enriquez (Chairman and CEO of a company called Biotechonomy), giving a talk at TED (Technology Engineering Design) this year. He argued that

humanity is on the verge of becoming a new and utterly unique species, which he dubs Homo Evolutis.

Now, I’ve no issue with him stating speciation may occur, because it might. What I feel is wrong, and what also rubbed a lot of other people the wrong way, is his reasoning for why. He was portrayed as saying:

What makes this species so unique is that it “takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of the species.”

This sort of talk made George Dvorsky, a fellow futurist, quite uncomfortable. And it made biologist P.Z. Myers quite cranky at futurists.

The point is, Enriquez appears to not quite know what the usual definition of a biological species actually is. In strict biological terms, a species is defined as a “group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which is reproductively isolated from other such groups”. Having brain-interfaced cybernetic wings or genetic enhancements to your somatic cells won’t make you a new species any more than having a wooden peg leg and drinking rum make you a new species of human (Homo pirata?). To become a new species, you must be able to reproduce with some others, but not with natural humans. This specific desire to control evolution directly, as Juan is said to have discussed, would not do this. At most, it could reprsent some sort of difference in opinion within our one species – between humans who were for enhancement technology, and those who were against. It would be hard enough to even say this represents a new subspecies or even race of humans.

In Enriquez’s defense, after some degree of ‘taking deliberate control over evolution’, it is possible that this could lead to speciation. It could be as simple as restricting breeding through totalitarian reproductive regulations, as in the eugenics of the past, isolating a number of humans from one another until speciation occurred. Alternatively, genetic modifications to the germline could introduce a genetic incompatibility between engineered humans and normal humans (the most obvious example being the addition of an extra chromosome). It’s even possible for some form of simple modification to a structure involved in reproduction (i.e. genitalia) to introduce a physical incompatibility prohibiting easy mating. But merely taking such control over evolution doesn’t imply you actually guide evolution to the degree that speciation occurs.

All that said, I do feel it is difficult for the species concept to be applied rigidly to technologically-assisted reproduction. The definition of species specifies the population must be a natural population, so as to exclude inter-species matings caused by human intervention. But can human intervention be excluded from the definition of a human species? Is it natural for humans to technologically-assist in their own reproduction? These are important questions, because one must consider the advances in genetic technology which come to mind in this sort of dicussion; it is difficult to imagine how any human could not be able to potentially reproduce with any other human given access to sufficient technology. Yet by the same token, such technology may allow Homo sapiens to potentially interbreed with chimpanzees or gorillas (or even farther afield genetically!), so should we extend our species then? How much technological assistance do we allow into our definition of interbreeding?

These same sort of questions come up every time somebody dreams up a new idea for what humans will become, be it Homo superior, Homo artificialis, Homo novus or Homo evolutis.


One comment

  1. Homo Pirata, that’s a good one. I’m sure the name could also be applied to sotware pirates.

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