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Biotech Science

Hawking Says Humans Have Entered a New Stage of Evolution 398

movesguy sends us to The Daily Galaxy for comments by Stephen Hawking about how humans are evolving in a different way than any species before us. Quoting: "'At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race,' Hawking said. In the last ten thousand years the human species has been in what Hawking calls, 'an external transmission phase,' where the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. 'But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage,' Hawking says, 'has grown enormously. Some people would use the term evolution only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes.'"
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Hawking Says Humans Have Entered a New Stage of Evolution

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  • by RightwingNutjob ( 1302813 ) on Friday July 03, 2009 @10:14PM (#28577031)
    This is a fairly accepted view among cultural anthropologists, who pay their bills by digging up ancient cultures and studying the progression of ideas, religions, and technologies. One guy, whose name I forget, but whose paper they made me read in Anthropology 101 made the comparison between hardware and software evolution. In more modern terms, Windows, Linux, OSX, etc, all run on the nearly ~30-year-old x86 CPU, but no one is going to say that computer programs now are where they were 30 years ago, just because the instruction set hasn't changed much.
  • Re:Memes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fractal Dice ( 696349 ) on Friday July 03, 2009 @10:34PM (#28577131) Journal

    A fun question to ask people is: "if you could only have one, which would you rather do: author a successful book or be parent to a successful child (raised by others)". The answers tell you whether the person sees themselves as a bundle of genes or as a bundle of memes.

    The overgrown human brain is just a big appendix the body provides as a home for symbiotic memes :)

    (obviously, it's not Hawkings' area of expertise so we expect to find people who have already had the idea)

  • by whisper_jeff ( 680366 ) on Friday July 03, 2009 @11:06PM (#28577265)
    Ten thousand years is only 400 twenty-five year generations. That's not a lot of time for any significant alteration in how our evolution works...

    Not true, at all. I recall reading about a study (in Russia, iirc) where scientists attempted to breed a specific trait into wild foxes. They went through a program of selective breeding and in _seven_ generations, they successfully altered the genetic traits of the animal. Seven. So, 400 generations is _PLENTY_ of time for evolution to alter our species in meaningful ways given that it can be accomplished (admittedly, in a controlled environment) in just 7.

  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Friday July 03, 2009 @11:06PM (#28577275)
    I think you are missing his point... what I hear is that the "external store" is an essentially new phenomenon on earth that has been exponentially growing for the last few hundred years, and that we, as a species, are evolving through development of the external store rather than changing our DNA.

    Interestingly enough, within the next 25 year generation, that external store will likely become powerful enough to enable us to rewrite our DNA in meaningful ways, potentially bypassing millions of years of Darwinian evolution... unless SkyNet takes over.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 03, 2009 @11:16PM (#28577321)

    Oh god mods... Please MOD PARENT DOWN!!!

    1. Evolution has a goal.
    It doesn't. We are not going to transcend or become ultimate beings. No. It just adapts critters to their environment. What's neat is that critters adapt to each other, together. Think about that, and ecosystems, and all that web of life stuff for a while and it's pretty neat.

    How can you say that evolution doesn't have a goal but then say that it adapts "critters" to their environment? These two statements are contradictory. Evolution most certainly *does* have a goal - it is to make organisms as fit as possible, which is precisely what "adapting to the environment" is about.

    2. Evolution is critter-centric.
    We are simply carriers for genese. Evolution is gene centric. Most of your genes are useless to you. Stuff that is stupid at a critter level can make perfect sense at a gene level. Those little bastards are using us, and don't care about us at all, as long as we breed.

    This one is just wrong. Genotypes (the genes themselves) are nothing without phenotypes (how the genes are expressed in organisms). Adaptations are completely based on phenotypes - the ones that work are kept. There is no such thing as genes that are stupid "on a critter level" but not stupid "on a gene level". Evolution doesn't care about how "elegent" the genes are, only how fit the organism that grows from the genes is.

    3. Survival of the fittest.
    It's survival of the breediest, not necessarily of the fittest.

    What you've managed to state here is why fit organisms survive. Very good. However, just saying that successful organisms breed the most is missing most of the picture. The real question is *why* they breed the most, and it's because they're fit. Thus, survival of the fittest.

    4. Evolution works through mutation.
    Errrrgghh... I disagree with Stephen Hawking. Ok, mutation helps, but you know what? Evolution doesn't need it. Most mutations result in a f*kup, not something useful. Evolution just needs seperate populations and/or environments. Eventually populations diverge and become more suited to their environments.

    Separate populations and/or environments are why mutations are selected for, but they are not why the mutations are created in the first place. Evolution most certainly *does* need mutations, as well as a way to mix mutations.

    Honestly, how can you call yourself "up" on this stuff?

  • Hawking is talking about cultural adaptation, which isn't a new concept. What's (relatively) new is the realization that human evolution has continued into historic times [nationalgeographic.com]. So, Homo gets three bites at the apple: a chance to adapt via culture, enabling it to survive in environments that would otherwise select against it; adapt via thus far dormant or undesirable existing genetic characteristics; and adapt via continuing random mutation (most of which will continue to be undesirable for a given situation).

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @12:54AM (#28577835) Journal
    OK, to show you my POV - here's what I consider a big change- when humans get virtual telepathy, telekinesis and augmented brains.

    This is already being crudely done with mobile phones (communications and buying of stuff via vending machines).

    And the tech is already there for:
    1) humans (and other creatures) to control stuff just by thinking.
    2) adding extra senses (google for "seeing tongue")
    3) Small cams, microphones etc

    Once you can do it safely and reliably, add some clever software and you can use "thought macros"[1] to control stuff and communicate.

    You could then take a picture/video of something, tell your e-brain to save it and associate it with a particular thought pattern so that when you rethink that particular pattern the object is retrieved, and you can also send it to someone else[2].

    Then humans, computing and culture would enter a new stage of evolution...

    As it is, you can show me all that fancy AJAX and I'll just go "meh". Yes all that is very nice and useful, but looking at what's possible with the current state of the art I'd call that "underperforming" ;). In contrast Douglas Engelbart and gang really stretched the limits of technology in the 1960s.

    Then again maybe it was a waste of resources and we would still have what we have today even if he and his bunch didn't do all that? Oh well, I'm just getting rather impatient though :).

    [1] I bet nobody's thought patterns are the same - so you'd have to "train" the program to recognize thought macros.
    [2] Trouble of course is the **AA might have something to say about that and want to collect toll on each retrieval and share. I wouldn't like that particular evolutionary path.
  • Re:Devolution? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by KibibyteBrain ( 1455987 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @01:07AM (#28577879)
    That's not entirely true. Modern medicine is one of the few clear ways very high intelligence and work ethic are well rewarded in the modern world. And one could imagine in a highly selective event, say a war, population groups who had a good knowledge of modern medicine, i.e. were well educated, would have a greater chance of survival and future prosperity than others. Natural Selection tends to be the type of process that is hard to beat, even when you think you are beating it, because it is infinitely patient in waiting for just the right selective event.
  • by turing_m ( 1030530 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @01:27AM (#28577965)

    I'd approach it from the other angle: Knowing the subterranean levels of intellectual honesty exhibited by SJ Gould, I'd stop parsing anything after "Stephen Jay Gould told".

  • Re:What's his point? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jackchance ( 947926 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @02:00AM (#28578121) Homepage

    Yes, our species is more than DNA. That is obvious. What is not obvious is that we should confuse the process of Darwinian evolution with cultural evolution. They are both fascinating and worthy of discussion and study. It is even worth thinking about ways in which they are similar. But I think it is also worthwhile to understand the distinctions and that models of one need not apply to the other.

  • Devolution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Krakadoom ( 1407635 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @04:42AM (#28578725)
    We haven't entered a new stage of evolution, we have entered a stage of devolution. The incessant focus on all (human) life being precious has severely impacted our long term prospects by continuously contaminating the collective gene pool for instance.
  • Re:What's his point? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ILongForDarkness ( 1134931 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @05:42AM (#28578893)
    I think there is something to this. I think we are entering a phase in human society where we use that information to actively control evolution. For example people with diseases that would otherwise make them unable to survive are being taken care of by medical science and society. I think it's being harder for evolution to happen to humans because we actively preserve people with genes that otherwise wouldn't survive "natural selection". One could argue that we are as much part of nature as the lion that would have killed them instead I suppose, but it seems we often take a preserving variation role rather than a culling of the herd role.
  • by j1mmy ( 43634 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @07:07AM (#28579147) Journal

    the modern ability to manage and/or cure a number of life-threatening conditions is greatly impacting the evolution of our species as well. people who would never have made it to adulthood a century ago are now passing on their crappy genes to their kids.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:13AM (#28579333)

    There are substantial genetic differences between different ethnic groups around the world.

    We all see obvious differences in appearance and physique. From pygmies of ~1.5m average, to the Dinaric Alps of former Yugoslavia with 1.86m average. This is obviously nature not nurture.
    West Africans are without doubt the most powerful people in the world, with high natural levels of fast-twitch muscle fiber, only 1 out of 68 people to have gone faster than 10s over 100m is of non west-African descent.

    So why is it ok to acknowledge that differences in physical attributes are determined by genes, and yet when it comes to another part of the body (the brain) also deriving it's construction and operational features from genes it is anethema to accept that there could be any differences determined by ethnic heritage? You may be squeamish about it but that particular lump of meat is just as subject to evolutionary processes as any other part of our bodies.

    Take for example the ashkenazik jews. As a result of the harsh rules and treatment they have been subjected to as a result of the resentment and antipathy arising from their exclusionary practices they have been subjected to evolutionary pressures that have selected for hard working and intelligent people, . As a result they have average intelligence that is up to one standard deviation higher than the general european population. Due to the the long-tails of the bell curve those differences show up as massive over-representation at the highest level of attainment as is pretty obvious to everyone. On the down side they are also subject to higher incidence of certain genetic diseases like tay sachs etc.

    It has been demonstrated in so many ways in so many arenas that differences in aptitudes between populations and genders do exist, you don't even need to use IQ tests, you can look at all areas of achievement and with statistical analyses find differences between the average performance of different ethnic populations. Take a look at http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/ for worked examples

    And so while the parent may not have it quite right in terms of his specific examples there are genuinely large differences between ethnic groups in terms of average aptitudes/abilities in all areas of human activity that can be rigorously measured. The socialist ideal of the improvability of man, nurture over nature has been thoroughly disproved, it is almost all down to the great gene lottery - just as most people always thought from observing their classmates. Knowledge and acceptance of this may help us deal with the social consequences and hopefully help us to improve outcomes for everyone.

  • by Estanislao Martínez ( 203477 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @09:26AM (#28579611) Homepage

    What's new is all the high-level stuff done with it: having an internet that not only connects universities, but is accessible by everyone from their home or their mobile phone. Buying stuff on the internet, communicating with each other on Facebook, etc. The thing that's changed is who uses this technology, and what they use it for.

    I think you guys are having a very productive discussion right here.

    I'll toss in something that I occasionally think about, that's related to what both of you are saying: the design of the operating systems in common use for personal computers. The kernels for Linux, OS X and Windows XP are all basically server technology that has been pressed to serve for desktop use. For example, all of them have been designed to maximize system throughput with techniques that increase end-user latency, like swap.

    For example, the OS X Dock has a feature that magnifies the size of the icons as you mouse over them. However, when an OS X system faces memory pressure, the kernel will swap out pages that are in use by the Dock. When this happens, you get a pause of a few seconds between mousing over an icon and the computer magnifying it. The Dock is an element that is always present in the OS X user interface, but the kernel apparently doesn't know about that, and treats it as just another application that can be paged out to speed up something else. And more simply, switching to an application that's been unused for a while is often not just slow, but sluggish; it's not that the application takes a long time initially to perform the commands, it's that the application takes a long time to even respond to user input in the most basic ways.

    An OS designed from scratch for personal computing would look quite different from what we have now. There would be a lot more emphasis on real-time response to user input. That's not what we've gotten. What we've gotten is, at best, hacks on top of timesharing server operating system kernels to make them less bad at interacting with the user.

  • by kjllmn ( 1337665 ) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @12:12PM (#28580681)

    But would you not say that good knowledge of language and math helps a person to develop his intelligence towards its optimum (assuming there is any such thing)? I'd consider both language and math kinds of knowledge management, making thinking processes â" if they are essentially non-verbal and non-mathematical â" more efficient. And is not that what intelligence IS; thinking efficiently?

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