Friday, May 22, 2015

The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive?

"Hellstrom's Hive," written by Frank Herbert in 1973, is one of the few sound explorations of how an "eusocial" human society could be patterned on the lifestyle of social insects, such as bees and ants. Could this be what the remote future has in store for humankind? It is impossible to say but I, for one, welcome our new hive overlords.

I have no doubt that we are heading at full speed toward a major ecosystem crash. We are wrecking the climate, destroying the biosphere, poisoning the seas, dispersing heavy metals all over, creating radioactive isotopes that had never existed in the four billion years of the Earth's history. Whatever is going to happen, it will not be a pretty sight for those who will be alive to see it.

But does the upcoming crash mean the end of the human species? That can't be excluded and the concept of "Near Term Extinction" (NTE) even became rather popular, nowadays (*). But the problem with human extinction is not so much how likely it is. The problem is that it is boring. We go extinct and that's it; end of the story. We may even wreck the ecosystem so badly that we would sterilize the whole planet, having everything else dying with us. Even more boring, isn't it?

Yet, the future remains a fascinating subject and the remote (or "deep") future is the most fascinating one. So, suppose that not everybody dies in the great crash; what future is in store for homo sapiens? (**).

As a first hypothesis, the great crash might not be so great, after all. Maybe it could be just a bump along the way; more or less like the Middle Ages were for Europe. So, humans could emerge into the after-crash future still as a few billion strong and still having most of the technologies we have today. They could have energy from renewables, enough to keep going in the form of an industrial society.  But this would imply a capacity of long range planning that we just don't seem to have.

More likely, humans would emerge out of the great transition as few, battered, and poor. They would find themselves stranded on a planet badly depleted of the energy and mineral resources they had before the crash. Then, what could happen to them?

Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming "pulse" generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period - at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually - very gradually - re-absorbed into the Earth's crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages that characterized the "Pleistocene," the epoch preceded the more stable Holocene - in which we are still living.

So, we can say that our after-crash descendants (if any) will live in a warm, possibly extremely warm, climate. But the Earth is big, so it would be possible for them to find areas cool enough that they could survive, perhaps in the far north or even in Antarctica. On the whole, we can expect that, after the great crash, humankind could face several tens of thousands of years of survivable conditions, perhaps even a few hundreds of thousands of years.

A lot of things can happen in several tens of thousands of years, but we can be reasonably sure of one: humans will not see another industrial revolution. Fossil fuels will be gone and it will take millions of years, for the ecosystem to create them again - maybe they will never be recreated. Then, the after-crash world will also be badly depleted in mineral resources. Our descendants won't be able to mine much, but they will be able to scavenge what their predecessors had left in the ruins of their cities. They will have plenty of iron from the skeletons of old bridges and buildings; perhaps they'll be able to put their hands on some ancient vault filled with gold ingots. But they will lack the abundance of rare metals that we are used to and an even more serious limit will be the vegetable charcoal they will need in order to process the metals they scavenge. For them, most metals will always be rare and expensive.

So, we can imagine that future humans will have to settle back to simple ways of living. Perhaps they will have to revert to hunting and gathering, but they may also be able to cultivate the land, even though we can't be sure that this future climate will be stable enough for that. Whatever the case, it will be a low-tech world.

It doesn't look very much like an exciting future. Hunting and gathering by hominids has been going on for millions of years, always more or less the same. And agricultural societies are static, hierarchical, oppressive, and have been described as "peasants ruled by brigands." (attributed to Alfred Duggan). Is this what we should expect for the next 100,000 years? Just new peasants ruled by new brigands? Not necessarily.

The fact is that humans can evolve. And they can evolve fast, substantially changing even in a few thousand years. The recent results of genomic research opened up a Pandora's box of discoveries. Our ancestors did evolve, oh, yes, they did!. The idea that we are still the same guys who hunted wooly mammoths during the ice age badly needs an update. We are similar to them, but not the same; not at all.

A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

So, if humans can survive the great crash and keep going for more millennia - perhaps many more millennia - there is plenty of time for more and deeper changes. Actually, humans are going to change a lot over such a long time span. How will they change? Of course, it is a difficult question, but we can at least identify some trends. In particular, we can imagine that some present tendencies that today we tend to see as mainly cultural, may eventually become enshrined in the human genome.

Something that might happen is that humankind could speciate. That is, they could gradually branch out into two or more separate species. We have already seen a considerable divergent specialization among at least three different human groups: hunters/gatherers, shepherds, and farmers. Each of these three branches exploits different ecological/economic niches and has developed cultural (in  part also genetic) adaptations to different lifestyles. Extrapolate this trend into the far future and you have two (or even three) species of hominids; repeating the situation that was common long ago, when different hominids co-existed at the same time. Neandertals and Sapiens, indeed, lived in overlapping times but they were different species and they had limited (although non zero) capabilities of interbreeding with each other.

If the future will see more than one species of "homo", then each one will independently specialize and adapt to their environment. Hunters/gatherers will probably revert to the already optimized tool makers of the Pleistocene. Shepherds will become more and more adapted to their nomadic lives in areas which are poorly productive for agriculture. Farmers will keep living in villages and cities at high population densities. They will build cities, temples, and palaces. They will create armies, fight against each other, and build up kingdoms and empires. And it is there that things have a chance of getting more interesting. 

The past genetic and cultural evolution of agricultural humans has been all along the development of more "social" characteristics: an increase in the ability of living in large groups of highly differentiated categories (farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, priests...). If the trend continues, we may see cultural characteristics becoming more and more embedded in the genome of the species. In the (very) long run, we could see the birth of a "eusocial" humankind; the same kind of social structure of bees, ants and termites. That is, a society of sterile workers, sterile soldiers, "queens" that generate most individuals, and dumb males (on this last characteristic, we are already pretty advanced). It is not impossible. There already exist eusocial mammals, one is the naked mole rat of Central Africa. So, maybe the future for humans will not involve advanced technological gadgetry (of which we are so fond) but, rather, advanced social engineering, with the development of more and more efficient and stratified societies.

Is the future of humans a beehive? We can't say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool's edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the "superintelligence" that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert's novel "Hellstrom's Hive").

Will these superintelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can't say; of course, it is a future that none of us will ever see. But it is a fascinating future and the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human. Perhaps, our hive descendants will have think in the same way.


George Mobus' take on the future evolution of humankind. 

George Mobus contributed to the discussion started by RE of the doomstead diner with these considerations that I am reproducing here with his consent.

With respect to ideas about extinction as a possible outcome, I would like to reiterate that extinction of species is apparently inevitable. Some 99% of all species that have ever lived (it is estimated) have gone extinct, and the current batch of biodiversity is probably no more than one million years old, on average.

But there are alternative pathways to extinction and alternate subsequent outcomes. Much has to do with the "evolvability" of the stock species. I posted a piece on this notion some time back: 

Human evolution is still underway, but is tightly coupled currents with cultural evolution, that is co-evolution is driving mutual selection in both the biological species and the artifactual, human-built world. Biological evolution is still very much slower than cultural innovation owing to a lower generation of novelty rate (e.g. genetic mutation). Nevertheless, we humans are still undergoing biological adaptations (not individual adaptations) to cultural influences.

The capacity for evolvability, however, affords many kinds of opportunities for species to radiate even when occupying the same geographic and ecological environment (see: and an article in Scientific American, Vol 312, Issue 4, on "The Extraordinary Evolution of Cichlid Fishes,"

All of this leads me to expect (and hope) that some form of hominid, specifically derived from our current genus, will survive the almost certain change in the cultural devolution due to decline of energy and the environmental stresses due to climate change and, given enough time, produce a new species of Homo, indeed perhaps several new species, over the next several million years. Technically, then, Homo sapiens, as we understand our species now, will be extinct even while new species carry on under the future selection conditions that will exist.

Though speculative (trying to second-guess nature is always a shot in the dark!) I have used some evolutionary historical patterns of emergence of cooperation throughout the history of life (from origins of life to eusocialization in humans) to envision some future possibilities. See:
All of which is well and good, and stimulating to think about. But I still think the immediate concern is for the dynamics of collapse. Can collapse be "managed" so as to minimize, in some practical way, the suffering that will attend it?


Albert Bates also commented on this subject at "PeakSurfer


(*) The reasons of the popularity of the concept of "Near Term Extinction" are a fascinating subject in themselves. One reason could be that many of us are truly fed up with the many awful things we are doing to this planet (and to ourselves). So much, that human extinction doesn't look so bad; it actually becomes almost a relief. But near term extinction could be seen as an extreme form of BAU-ism. That is, some people seem unable to conceive that there could be life for humankind in forms different than the present one. Some of them take refuge in a form of technological BAU, hoping that the present society can be maintained forever by means of technological progress. Others seem to realize the impossibility of the technological dream and hence take refuge in self-annihilation. It is a little like the many Japanese citizens who committed suicide after the surrender of Japan at the end of the second world war. They couldn't conceive a world where Japan had been defeated, and so they decided to leave it.

(**) The considerations made here about the homo sapiens species are long term enough that they could be applied to other, similar species. So, if humans go extinct, the path to eusociality could be taken by other primates; such as chimps and bonobos (the latter may well be more advanced than us in social technologies). Even some non-primate species, hyenas for instance, are very advanced in terms of social organization. And then, there are mammals which are already eusocial. Could naked mole rats take over the planet? Why not? 


  1. I'll be cross posting this article on the Doomstead Diner tomorrow, plus including The Human Extinction Survey which got the whole conversation started. So if you haven't taken the Survey yet, drop by the Diner and give it a whirl!


    1. The Early Results from The Human Extinction Survey will be published tomorrow. Currently 277 Submissions to the survey.

      The Early results will include ALL the text responses made to the First Question on the Timeline to Extinction. There are 128 of those.


  2. I don't see much of a chance for evolution (cutural or biological) AFTER the collapse of the city-machine world of the Great Planetary Plunderer (no, not modern mankind - we've always been a race obsessed with the vicious circle of suigenocidal ecocide). Not any evolution that would be worth considering. It would be the end of evolution, actually: Biosphere and Plunderer stuck in mutually enforcing eternal catastrophe until the sun burns out or the last Plunderer perishes. Hunter-gatherers and/or soil plundering farmers stuck in the struggle for survival, coping with eternally overpopulating impoverished and unstable habitats. How could they learn any lesson then?

    The only chance I see is evolution NOW. Cultural evolution that is.

  3. What I find boring is a lifetime of listening to my fellow humans try and convince themselves that we are special. Let us not forget the wild card of collapse - nuclear PP, spent fuel pools, waste. What happens if there is a melt down and there is no one for damage control? Some of these plants are on ill kept as it is and industrial civilization is still being held together. War, economic collapse, SLR, earth quake, water shortages/drought..........the threats are real especially in marginal countries. Has anyone even done a study on what a complete melt down would look like? Just think of all the other infrastructure that would not be maintained after collapse. Pipe lines, chemical plants, tank farms, etc.

  4. A problem with human evolution post Paleolithic is that social and environmental conditions change far more rapidly than evolution can possibly shape humanity in ways to adapt successfully to new conditions. Evolution works by trial, error and selective pressure. It takes time. The human social atmosphere is too volatile for evolution to change humanity in ways for humans to successfully adapt to new environments. Whenever change happens to quickly for evolution to adapt to changing conditions species become extinct. Evolution can't hit a rapidly moving target.

    We can enjoy speculating on possible changes but the only way into the future for humans is to start being good to each other and appreciate the impacts we make on the earth. These are not two independent attitudes. They are highly interdependent. Caring about how our actions affect others, and others include future generations; is being good to each other.

    1. K-dog, this is what the recent results in genomics have contested. Human evolution is NOT so slow as it was thought before. It is still slower than cultural evolution, but impressively fast nevertheless. It is because it is not driven by fitness alone; it is sexual selection - much faster and - within limits - directed. Humans evolve by social domestication, just like their dogs and their horses. A great intuition by Charles Darwin that we are starting to understand only now!

    2. Sexual selection was only fully understood by Amotz Zahavi in the 1970ties.

    3. Yes, the "handicap principle" in evolution. It makes sense, but I believe that there is more than that in sexual selection.

    4. Do you have any references?

      Anyway, here's Zahavi's book.

      - The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle:

      Here's a new survey I just came above, although a little difficult:

    5. Yep, Zahavi's work goes back to the 1990s. I have seen it being discussed quite extensively in the 1990s but, recently, the "Handicap Principle" seems to have gone a bit out fashion. I don't pretend to understand the exact reasons for this cycle, but, in my modest opinion, it is because it can explain some things, but not all of them. About the latest trends in understanding evolution, you might consider the reference I cited in a comment below

    6. He lit a cigarette; his hand behind the back of his head as they lay together on the pillow. Then he turned to her and said:

      "Baby, not only you are you the Queen of Science but Math honey you are one hot number too. The remainder of the division we just did is going to keep me glowing all day. That was the best ratio I ever had. Baby there is nothing common about your denominator. That was the best!"

      He took a drag; the end of his cigarette glowing red. Then he said:

      "Just before we finished our calculations and I went prime you were saying that with human generations still taking twenty years and the world virtually becoming a different planet every century evolution can't keep up?"

      She smiled at him and said:

      "I know. I whispered that to you just before you found the area under my curve."

      Then she added:

      "Not unless the human reproductive cycle gets to be as fast as rats."

      She reached over and ran her hand over his chest. The feel of his hair beneath her fingers excited her.

      "Now change happens so fast the world will become inhospitable to man within a hundred years. Man has differentiated his curve into instability by becoming reliant on technology and nothing else. Hope you enjoyed what we just had honey. Because it's extinction now sweetie. Not to be confused with selective pressure, wishful thinking, or anything else. Anthropomorphic climate change is here now and until man goes, it stays. It was a variable and externality man did not take into in account in any of his equations."

      Then she lifted herself from the pillow and turning to him adding with a regal gaze that only the Queen of the Sciences can have said:

      "Nothing lasts forever honey."

  5. Non-industrial agriculture still has the problem of being unsustainable, causing soil erosion and desertification. Some places it takes longer than others, but without metals, you can't get more than city-states. If the poles melt we could get some empires there, but in time that would also run out. As for herding, it's probably inferior to simply following the herds around if you don't have sedentary people living nearby to trade with. So hunter-gatherer-horticulture is what will last.

    Beyond that, I don't see how your eusociality could possibly come from sexual selection. Evolving queens? That mole rat of yours has an average of 7 babies per year. Humans manage less than one. That's a whole lot of development you'd need to cut (even with big brains being useless to farmers). Evolving sterility? A no-go by itself, can only be beneficial if you have others capable of reproducing more (see queens). Dumb males? Not a reproductive success either.

    Maybe our evolution is faster than was thought, but even with 10000 years eating them, grains are still an inferior food. 10000 years in cities, they still make us sick and crazy. The changes needed to adapt to them are so monumental that I don't see how they could happen, especially before agriculture kills itself. They'd have to be more like gorillas than humans.

    Lastly, hunter-gatherers are anything but "more or less the same". There's many times more diversity in that group than in the others combined.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Sofie, let me go trough it, point by point.

      First: city states. That's exactly my point: without metals you go back to the basic structure of city states, even though you may able to have fleeting empires ebbing up and down. But a city state can be an extremely complex structure, much more than groups of hunter/gatherers or sheperds

      Then, we have little idea of how eusociality evolves. We know that it evolved for a few species; mainly insects. But the mechanisms are unknown. My point is that eusociality confers enormous advantages to the species which adopt it; so there exists an evolutionary pressure to adopt it. And in a highly encephalized species - as humans are - evolution by fitness alone is extremely slow. If it has to evolve, it will evolve by sexual selection.

      I understand your points about the difficulties of evolving eusociality which is, indeed, rare. But you could apply them as well to ants and bees which, however, DID evolve eusociality. So, I don't say that it is unavoidable, but that it is possible.

      About how fast human evolution is, I am referring to the recent developments in genomics. They have been popularized, among others, by Cochrane and Harpending in their book "The 10,000 years revolution". Going from hunters to farmers has been gradual, but truly fast. Some populations seem to be nicely able to survive on grains: I think that it explains the results of "The China study" by T. Colin Campbell. His results are valid for the Chinese, a population that has been living on grains for several thousands of years. They are harder to apply to Europeans, for instance, who are a mix of different populations, not all of them peasants. So, for many of us (Europeans) the paleo diet works wonders (for me, for instance!) but for the Chinese, maybe not .

      I don't see why agriculture should kill itself. Ants have been successfully practicing agriculture for millions of years and they dominate their environment. Agriculture, however, needs a lot of adaptation to reach homeostasis. But we have examples of human agricultural societies reaching it and lasting for thousands of years.

      Finally, you are right that I oversimplified by saying that hunters and gatherers are "more or less the same". Obviously, there is a lot of diversity in that group. What I meant is that eusociality can arise from a highly structured agricultural society, hardly from the small bands that are typical of hunter-gatherers.

      Are you a specialist in these matters? I'd love to discuss the subject with you more in depth

    2. Yes, with the agricultural revolution women became extremely selective, breeding very specific features of males.

      - 8,000 Years Ago, 17 Women Reproduced for Every One Man:

      So women can redirect evolution of humans rapidly through sexual selection.

  6. I think I've posted this before, but let's quickly go over it again. The depressing conclusion seems to be that intelligent life is basically doomed to self-inflicted premature extinction long before it even appears. By the very nature of the evolutionary process - it is very difficult to see how an intelligent species (a characteristic that gives it the ability to dominate over all other life on a planet) that can limit its expansion so that it does not self destruct could possibly evolve. In the short term those who expand will always have a selective advantage over those who choose not to, and the selective coefficients involved are very very large, while the ancestral condition is expansionism (meaning that the LTG types will always start as a minority of the population). So the population will always be dominated by the expansionism, with predictable consequences.

    I don't see any way out of that trap.

    1. Georgi, I wouldn't be so pessimistic. Evolution is a complex process that can lead species to corner themselves to extinction, but also to expand in new and greener pastures. Gaia is probing new life forms, new life styles, new fitness peaks. The Earth's ecosystem still has a few hundred million years to go before the sun burns so bright that it will destroy it. In this long, long time, Gaia can work wonders.

    2. I really want to be positive, but I just don't see any basis for that. And I would like someone to show me wrong, but that hasn't happened either.

      The first thing to note is that we are not talking about lactose intolerance, which is a single-gene trait, but about the whole foundation of animal behavior. Good luck changing that on any sort of time scale that would make a difference.

      So we can pretty much ignore biological evolution and focus on the cultural sphere, developments in which are the only way to overcome the biological impulses. But there is close to zero chance of that happening either, because if the population genetics does not work in the case of genes, the "population memetics" does not work in our favor in the case of culture. You can model that mathematically if you want, expansionism always ends up dominating the system, even if it starts as a minority trait, except in very special conditions, which have to hold on forever for the system to remains stable (highly unlikely).

      And once the global industrial civilization collapses and takes out the concentrated resources with it, what happens after that is pretty much irrelevant - the species/lineage is doomed even if it survives the crash. It may linger on for quite a long time, but it has lost its main evolutionary asset - the vast amount of knowledge about the world around it, which can not be regenerated in a society with the kind of limited resource base left after the crash - so it will eventually go extinct sooner or later.

      Also, it is quite likely that evolving eusociality means that you can forget about technological and scientific development, because as far as we can tell you need some individualism for that to flourish. So eusociality might be a dead end with respect to that. And we are so far off from it that would take millions of years for it to evolve in humans, which in turn can only happen provided that the specific conditions for mating that the theory imposes are met (at present they're not).

    3. Surely we are discussing about things that none of us will see. Nevertheless, we can at least imagine them. So, an eusocial human society is characterized by genetically driven specialization; not different but more stable, than culturally driven specialization. There is no barrier that I can see that would prevent such a society from developing individuals specifically engineered to perform well in technological and scientific development. This is, indeed, described in Herbert's "Hellstrom's hive".

    4. That we can only speculate is true. However, literature and real-life biology are different things and many more constraints operate in the latter.

      None of the conditions that as far as we can tell are required (or at least help) for the evolution of eusociality are met in humans. There is no obligate monogamy, no haplodiploidy, the genome is fairly well scrambled, etc. And there is consciousness, which makes the cheating problem intractable. In short, eusociality is an extremely unlikely proposition. Evolving that kind of caste within faces further hurdles.

      The more viable proposal is to try to engineer it directly, but it seems like the capacity to do that will be lost before the we have advanced sufficiently to be able to do it (if it is possible to begin with)

    5. Well, the subject is surely amenable to be concluded with a "declaration of disbelief", which is a perfectly legitimate position.

      However, I would like to propose an image of a group of eukaryotes discussing together some 600 My ago and arriving to the conclusion that the Cambrian explosion will never occur!

  7. Ugo
    Your link to 'genomic research' takes us to a Wikipedia article about a book by two anthropologists. Much of their speculation apparently refers to recent research into Neanderthal and sapiens hybrids.
    It seems worth commenting in that regard that European and Asian but not African present human populations show some trace of specifically Neanderthal genes. A very recent find of a hybrid descendent (a jawbone dated circa 40,000 bp with some Neanderthal morphological features and perhaps 10% of the genome from a Neanderthal ancestor) is probably from a human population (line) that, according to very recent expert comment did not provide much contribution to the further modern human dispersal into Europe or Asia – i.e. was “an evolutionary dead-end”.
    Can you give links to current genome research that refers to significant human evolution along rapid sex-selection lines? We see genetic variability across present global human populations, such as high frequency sickle-cell variant attributed to inheritance of the recessive (single copy) being protective against malaria. This example points to very high selection pressure in the face of the double-copy causing sickle-cell anaemia. Other less easy to attribute changes such as widespread whiteness of skin in some populations, and lactose tolerance in adults in certain lineages, nevertheless seem also to point to selection-pressure favouring specific gene variants. Others, such as ‘hairiness,’ might be more lineage-dependent following geographical dispersal and isolation.

    In the first century after Darwin it was common to point to animal breeding to illustrate a notional rapid evolution that could account for supposed human racial differences. (The context for these discussions was the increasingly industrially fuelled contact with and displacement of other races, and indeed civilisations, by Europeans as they dispersed.) I would judge, on evidence so far, however, that extreme selection-pressure exerted on domesticated species over a few tens of thousands of years bears no comparison with selection pressures encountered by modern human populations in the last 10 to 40,000 years, except perhaps for such extreme individual trait selection like those mentioned above; exposure to malaria and etc. that differentiate some of our populations. That modern domesticated dogs can for example understand humans, whereas both wild canines and primates - Chimpanzee and Bonobo for example - cannot, seems to me more probably to be a tribute to the high selection pressure exerted by humans on domestic dog breeding.

    For a sense of proportion, I know of an example of very recent extremely high selection pressure on a farm animal. Modern chicken meat is from birds that have been highly selected for converting feed protein (mostly Soya /grain) into meat by means of accelerated growth. A lecture to us 'agri' undergraduates in the 1960s explained that a selection pressure of 12,000 to one and exploiting very short generation span was giving profound results. Indeed we see the results now. Given that kind of pressure, then evolution can be very rapid for a selected trait.


    1. Hi Phil. If you go to google scholar and search for "human genome" and "sexual selection" you'll find a huge number of articles. Unfortunately, this kind of literature has not been popularized yet. I cited the book by Cochran and Anderson not because they deal with sexual selection, but with the rapidity of human evolution - this is an ascertained fact. Then, the fact that human evolution is so rapid can be inferred to be due to sexual selection; this is still a debated point in the literature, but for me it is clear. Humans are a slow reproducing species. Just random mutation and survival value wouldn't change them so fast.

      Let me try to make an example (it is my interpretation, not something I found in the literature). Consider the human brow ridge. Cochran and Anderson report that a prominent "neanderthal-like" brow ridge was still rather common among the sapiens some 3000 years ago. By now, it has wholly disappeared, of course (except in some isolated human groups).

      Now, what evolutionary pressure made the brow ridge disappear? With the best of good will, I can't think of such a strong survival value in NOT having a heavy brow ridge that would make it disappear in such a short time. Then, the only possible explanation is sexual selection: human females didn't like a heavy brow ridge in their male partners and human males thought the same for their female partners (I suspect that the former had a much stronger effect than the latter).

      Once you think along these lines, it opens up a Pandora's box of possibilities. For instance, some recent results about the reproductive effectiveness of neolithic people ( strongly hint at a tremendous selective pressure. My opinion, mainly, but there is something in there....

    2. To add some more data, I think a good article to start with in this field is this one in Nature:

      They correctly frame sexual selection within the larger concept of "culture driven selection", but the idea is the same

    3. A further note: as you say, Cochran and Anderson attribute the rapid evolution of the Sapiens to the interbreeding with Neanderthals. That did occur but, in my modest opinion, is way off the mark. Neanderthals probably provided some useful genes to us, but they fast disappeared as sexual targets for our Sapiens ancestors attracted by heavy brow ridges (BTW, some representations of Neandertal ladies provide reasonably sexy results, despite the brow ridge!). Anyway, fast evolution in Sapiens continued well after the demise of the Neanderthals and I think it can only be explained in terms of culture/sexual driven evolution

    4. Terje Bongard has popularized much of this material in his book "Det biologiske mennesket" or "The Biological Human Being", unfortunately yet only in a Norwegian version except for the first chapter:

      Unfortunately he's not found an English publisher yet.

    5. Must be an interesting book, but there is this problem that the Americans only publish books written by Americans (or at best British) - so for a non Anglo it is extremely difficult to get published in English - with some exceptions, such as my "Extracted", which however took a lot of pushing and cajoling. So, I am afraid that we will never see an English version of the book you cite.

      BTW, are you a researcher in this field?

    6. No, just an industrial worker. Thanks for the complement!

      Anyway, I've had some email exchange with Bongard. And yes, he was very disappointed to find it so difficult to find an English publisher for his book.

      In Norway he tells it has now sold almost 3000 copies.

      It deserves a much larger readership.

      If you can help him here's his contact info:

    7. About thinking you were a researcher, well, you immediately understood what was behind the recent results about the Neolithic reproduction trend. Many professional researchers have big troubles in understanding it!

  8. Well, I have the same problem! Nearly impossible to find a publisher outside Europe, and Europeans speak all that strange gobbledygook that nobody understands....

  9. Ugo: Since I talked about you, I thought that I would post this as a comment as well.

    So, Ugo Bardi (who seems to be a great guy, one of these days I would love to toss back a couple with him) is writing interesting things again. Like last time, I don't exactly agree with him, but his thoughts did provoke me enough to allow me to sit down and respond.

    Since it was (and is) a leisurely Sunday morning, I thought that I would wander through his article and make certain that I had the background down. It was interesting. First a blast from the past and a creepy reminder of work done other than Dune writter by Frank Herbert. Then, over to the Doomstead Diner for some light reading and a brief survey.

    When I clicked on the link about "Near-Term-Extinction" I was promptly shuttled over to the site maintained by that dickhead Guy McPherson and that kinda pissed me off, but I persevered. I read the stuff and decided that McPherson is still a dickhead and kinda moved on.

    Ugo amused me with the phrase "A lot of things can happen in several tens of thousands of years". As I had just finished Neal Stephenson's new EOTW book "Seveneves", it struck be even funnier as one of the sections heading in this book is "THE HABITAT RING CIRCA A + 5000".

    I wonder is Ugo was reading Seveneves when he wandered into possible future speciation. As this is one of the cores of Neal's work, I wonder if the Hugo and the folks he linked to have the same Neal Stephenson habit that I have.

    But overall the article is a pretty broad overview of what everyone already knows; Shit changes, that shit is changing, and it looks to be getting ready to change even faster in the none too distant future.

    1. Neal Stephenson and, e.g., William Gibson with "The Peripheral" or Paolo Bacigalupi books too: it seems that some of the "big names" of "serious" SF lately wrote books about post-"Jackpot" (to use Gibson word for it) world, in prosecution with the '70-'80 tradition (e.g. Varley's "The Ophiucus Hotline" and many others).

      And, yes, I know that "Reality is as Reality does", but consciously knowing and accepting the imminent demise on my phenotype and/or of so many individuals of so many various animal species doesn't make it less depressing... :-(

      BTW: about the possible new "Eusocial-Mankind", beside the obvious Huxley's "Brave new World" reference, another interesting '70 take on the matter is the "mono-individual" species that await the book protagonists at the end of Haldeman's "The Forever War"...

    2. I must confess that I never read anything of Neal Stephenson. I used to be an avid sci-fi reader. Now, I tend to find the same thrills in scientific papers downloaded from Google scholar. But on the question of eusociality, yes, it is so speculative that it falls back to the domain of sci-fi. Actually, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I wrote a 137,000 words novel dedicated to a future eusocial world. Nobody will ever publish it, though.....

    3. Well Bardi, if you are in it not (only... ;-) for the money, you should consider to self-publish it, as Kunstler and Greer do with their narrative, even if only in ebook format, sold directly from your blog... :-)

      Beside this, the lastest (and not only the latest) books of authors like Stephenson, Gibson and Bacigalupi are a "must read", if you have some spare time.

      BTW: If you want to recover an updated overview of most of the SF authors/books, actual and historical, I gladly recomand this site:

    4. Of course, we, climate alarmists, are in it only for the money... as everyone knows. Apart from this, yes, I am planning one of these days to sit down and self publish my novel.....this summer, maybe I'll have some time. Else, I have to fire up the cloning machine....

    5. Ugo Bardi wrote:
      "Of course, we, climate alarmists, are in it only for the money... as everyone knows."

      ROTFL!!! No offence intended, my apologies: it was a sincere invitation and a sub-par-taste pun... ;-D

  10. Not really "eusocial" but the novelette "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells considers a future society in which Man has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, which have a weird symbiosis.

    More interesting is that Wells viewed the future from his socialist perspective; what he saw was distopian. Current views of the future, also distopian, are from a range of more complex perspectives more concerned with science than politics, and are definitely more interesting (to me) altho of lesser literary merit. Wells was unaware of how limited his political comprehension was, particularly in comparison to his opinion of his comprehension of virtually everything. I feel that we today need to bear in mind how limited our scientific comprehension is.

  11. Eusociality would doom us. It seems to me eusociality is an evolutionary dead end. The hive never evolves into anything else once it establishes control.

    In an eusocial environment the worth of individuals is subservient to the state. The state becomes all important, all powerful. The eusocial state would eliminate anything that could possibly usurp its position of ultimate supremacy. All men are not created equal and are endowed with unalienable rights in an eusocial environment. That is antithetical. All that matters is the health of the hive yet once established the hive cannot adapt to further change; even to preserve a future.

    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
    That has such people in't!

    A hideous thought but fear not, for that which you fear has long been with you. You have the rich and the poor. the privileged and the ignored. Practically speaking eusociality has been the human condition for millennia now even if the biology lags. That humanity be able to societally evolve to deal with anthropomorphic climate change and resource depletion issues is impossible because all that matters is that the existing hive preserve itself AS IT IS. Negative consequences as a result of preserving the hive in an all important steady state are impossible and forbidden thoughts to a hive mentality.

    Extinction cannot be contemplated by an eusocial race of humans. It would never be thought about for to the collective the hive, when viewed from the inside looking out; must be seen as eternal.

    1. Is it so? I am not sure. Consider the following: a hive is probably "smarter" than a single bee. And an anthill is probably smarter than a single ant (see the work by E.O. Wilson). That is, the hive/anthill overcomes the limits of an insect in terms of brain size.

      Now, fast forward to a human anthill. Could it be smarter than a single human being? I think so, even though it is something that has to be worked out. Already now, the human hive has produced a vast body of knowledge that greatly enhances individual intelligence. But we haven't been able to integrate this knowledge in a "superbrain".

      Right now the human hive is considerably dumber than a single human being, that's the reason why we tend to put a single human brain in charge in times of crisis. And that single human brain, usually, turns out to be vastly inferior to the task. At least, there is plenty of space for improvement!.

    2. I say the single bee is smarter. Consider this; if our peers at the Hadley Centre build a computer model that predicts climate out to thirty years and does so accurately I will still be smarter than the supercomputer it runs on now matter how fast it gets. I have self awareness and can transcend. No machine can transcend and a hive is a machine nothing more. It is a collective of the kind that is only the sum of its parts. The hive steals freedom and is a parasite on the self awareness of the individuals who make it up. Once the hive instantiates all evolution can do is refine the hive because transcendence becomes impossible. The hive has not the spark of life. A suoercomputer does not have the spark of life. Without the spark of life nothing can be smart.

      Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was an eusocial culture. Biology was tinkered with to make the eusocial simulacrum complete. Yet even in this world the kings of the hive had to be free. In the book Mustache Mond was the resident world controller of western europe. One of only ten controllers in the world. Mustapha keeps a collection of forbidden literature. It includes Shakespeare, religious writings and classics. This literature is not forbidden to him. He is a world controller. Somebody has to transcend the oppressive chains of the hive which by its mere existence must destroy freedom of thought and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Somebody has to think. Somebody must wear the purple.

      Pray we find a Julian soon.

    3. A perfectly legitimate opinion, K-dog. Personally, I tend to think that the entity we call "mind" can arise on different substrates, not just the human brain. If we could map a human brain into a computer, then it would be a human brain - nothing less than that. Here, I am arguing that the human hive could develop information processing capabilities that could make it superior, in some fields, to a single human brain. It would not be the same thing, though

    4. Ugo, thanks a lot for digging out the latest research on rapid human evolution!

      So there is a chance for a successful Ansatz to shape mankind into someting sustainable. Actually, mankind is already dividing into those who lost the ground under their feet (e.g. most theists, economists, technocrats) and some who can accept reality and try to get back to the ground (but I've seen permaculturists who still don't get basic principles of sustainable dwelling). Now, somehow this should be directed toward a symbiosis of two human races, the city-machinists (Homo Sapiens Colossus, e.g. my dentist) and the food growing carbon sequestraters (Homo Sapiens Erectus)...

      The dream of mapping the human brain into a computer would put you next to my respected dentist :-) Methinks it's a paradigmatic Homo Sapiens Colossus pipe dream, continuing Descartes, blind to the difference between organism and mechanism. And this blindness is the fundamental philosophical obstacle to serious evolution. Heidegger already asked 80y back: Why is Earth silent about this destruction?

      What about the brain hardware? How to get this computer "brain" grounded in outside organic reality? Computer metabolism?

      Since the invention of writing and the internet we have the tools to form a higher hive-mind like intelligence. What else is modern science? All we need is to get mankind to respect collective knowledge.

    5. I think dentists are not so good in mapping complex system. Apart from that, mapping a brain to a computer is nothing different than mapping a plane to a flight simulator. It is just that the human brain is so big and so complex that we haven't been able to do it and it might be argued that we never will. But, if we could do it, we could "fly" it and have it done most of the things a brain can do. Pass the Turing test, and the like.

  12. Have you consider that technological decline could be enough limited to allow a good advanced civilization not so different to actual?
    Matter depletion is a incomplete vision. Matter never disappear. The chemical form could be more or less accesible. So "depletion" is really "less accesible raw source".
    Then, we could see that some elements are so abundant that accesibility is guaranteed. Carbon, silicon, aluminium, magnesium...
    Other, needs a change is our form of use, to allow that the cycling allow to recover most part of the raw materials at a cost sometimes cheaper (in energy costs) that access this resource from the ores (more abundant but less concentrated with depletion).
    If the efficiency of recover reach values enough high, like 95/99% then the cost of complete this values to 100% allow access to ores more worse (less concentrated) than ever.
    In the end, if we could reach a efficiency of recover of really valuable materials (like platinum type elements) so high as 99'5% then we could extract other 0'5% from sources that close completely the circle, like sea extraction, where most "lost" elements goes.
    This level of recovering will be limited to elements really scarce, while we will adapt our technologies to use as most as abundant elements as we could.
    We will adapt to a electrical world insted of fuel based. An electrical world has less movility but it is enough advanced.

    The proof that this kind of "totally closed" enviroment are possible is the nature itself. The nature has recicled the elements by billion years without "depletion" of anything. It has made a lot of changes, create abundance... I don't see why we couldn't make the same level of close-cycling to allow a perpetual steady-state high advanced civilization.
    Of course, this requires changes. Build products created from scratch to recover all the materials and be a "better ore" than in first place. And we couldn't compare a growing world with a steady-state one, because growing could only be created with new raw matter.

    But you could be overestimating the dependence and the form of use of really scarce materials.

    1. Absolutely yes, Zanstel, this is a perfectly possible future. Indeed, we are discussing scenarios, here, we are not making predictions. So, in my post I focused on one possible scenario, where we lose the technological capability we had developed during the fossil fuel era and I argue that, in such case, we will never develop again an industrial civilization.

      The scenario you propose, instead, posits that we can maintain these technological capabilities. I have discussed this idea in other posts of mine and I think we still have a fighting chance to make it the actual future. I see it as less likely, but not impossible

  13. >Surely we are discussing about things that none of us will see. Nevertheless, we can at least imagine them.

    Just as Timothy Leary and his crew did in his book, "The Game of Life".
    A rather frivolously incomprehensible tome but upon decades of reflection I have come to the conclusion that the "genetic age" will follow the dark ages after the demise of the industrial age.
    Without fossil fuels & with scarce resources, newly developed simple genetic manipulation techniques will
    create new planets & animals to support a new semi intelligent civilization.

    And with life being as sus as it is, one would expect life to eventually siliconize & move out into the
    energy rich solar system before the sun fries the earth.
    But with todays top carbon based life form being so fixated on, "nothing could be better and more evolved
    that us humans", "the group of eukaryotes discussing together some 600 My ago and arriving
    to the conclusion that the Cambrian explosion will never occur", are a group of two ...

    1. It may well be that the dispersion of the Earth's mineral resources is going to doom forever what we call the "industrial civilization": In that case, genetic change is the future. The hive and not the nuclear plant



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)