On the subject matter of life, we have come to understand that all living things that have inhabited this beautiful planet, including ourselves, have evolved from some previous ancestral species, by the process of evolution. As enthralling a picture as this can be, from our perspective in the timescale of our lives, evolution seems oddly static. But just as you go by living your daily life not noticing the small changes in your facial appearance, for instance, once you see a photo of yourself as you were a couple of years earlier, you would likely find a noticeable difference in how you look. This is because our minds are much occupied by information from our everyday life that we generally fail to notice the bigger picture. Similarly, looking at evolution from a timescale as ‘relatively short’ as ours, we would largely fail to see how this amazing natural sequence of events has been continuously progressing.
Evolution is such a slow process for us to perceive, but considering a larger timescale, not days, not months, not years, not even hundreds of years, but millions of years – even though we cannot live that much as individual beings, which says a lot about how mind-blowing our mind is itself to envision this – evolution would, then, look like a ‘daily’ event; we would be able to observe how life transformed from single-celled organisms to multi-celled organisms, and how it branched into this marvellous diversity of life all the way until today.
The theory of evolution, so far, is the closest we have come to explain life. However, I have noticed that a lot of people intend to say that “assuming evolution is true and has happened during all this time, why has it stopped now? Why can’t we see more of it?” And the answer to that would be that it has not stopped, and it will not stop as long as life, as we know it, exists. It is still going on as time moves forward. We, as humans and all other modern living things, are nothing but an onward step in this ever-spreading tree of life. Imagine as if we were sitting on the tip of a moving arrowhead, but all what we can see is the arrow’s shaft behind us; the arrow being the arrow of time, and its shaft the past. We always experience the present, remember and examine the past, and imagine the future. Unfortunately, just as hard it is for us to perceive our past periods of evolution, it is as much difficult, if not more difficult, to imagine our future ones, provided that life would still be present beyond human existence.
What will the next species be after humans? What features will they have? Which genes will be the most adaptive to move forward into further generations? What more complex figure would the brain evolve into? These kind of questions sometimes keep me up at night; but in order to think of that, we should consider what humans have been able to do during their collective time as human beings. Life, in general, has been around for about 4 billion years. Homo sapiens – that’s us – and other species in the Homo group, began evolving around 2 million years ago. Modern humans began to exist approximately 200,000 years ago, which is a tiny little time period compared to the overall span of life. For the first 190,000 years or so, humans were merely seeking the ultimate goal of survival. During the last ~6,000 years, humans went on to create civilizations, cultures, languages, societies, lifestyles, religions, sciences and technologies. Industrialization has only been around for a couple of hundred years. Our first visit to space was only 56 years ago. The iPhone was released 10 years ago! This increasing rate of our progressive daily life experiences has probably narrowed our general perspective of the evolution of life into a tiny tunnel – a very attractive tunnel in all its pros and cons that we have placed on its walls – which has made many of us blind to this bigger picture of life. Yet, our innate curiosity to appreciate the universe around and within us, has brought upon us one of the most important means of understanding in scientific exploration, which led in parallel to developing technologies that, correspondingly, allowed for better exploration. Prominent scientists, such as Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and many others – to name a few – have transformed our understanding of life and the universe with their scientific theories; these are people who widened the hypothetical tunnel I mentioned above, they might have even broke it open in some cases. Relatively, technologies such as space technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, radio technology, and all sorts of engineering and medical applications have allowed us to further our research, discover the evidence for scientific theories, expand our understanding, and enhance our abilities to survive in different environments all over the world – even consider surviving in environments of other worlds. However, from an evolutionary point of view, I personally find this either slowing down our evolution from humans to some other post-human-era species, or modifying its path to some other type of evolution. This brings me to the term I used as a title for this text.
So far, we have defined evolution as a slow, progressive natural process, in which the notion of “survival of the fittest” takes place. Note that the fittest does not mean the strongest or the most powerful, but the most adaptive. In other words, genes that are able to move ahead throughout generations without being hindered by any effect are the ones that survive the most. On the other hand, although humans are a part of this natural process of evolution, everything that humans create, from technologies to inventions to AI etc…, are excluded from this natural course. Anything that is a result of mere human creation is dubbed “artificial”, even though it is actually a sort of an evolving domain itself. This separation is mainly based on the definition of evolution as a “natural” phenomenon. Yet, when it comes to modern – and futuristic – science and technology, where ‘artificials’ are merged with ‘naturals’ to produce some complex hybrid creations and processes – as in the cases of using proteins and DNA to store information, controlling gene behaviour, and creating artificial organs and brains etc. – questions begin to come up concerning this edge of separation. Even though such processes of bringing into being are not based on conventional reproduction methods devised by non-human nature, it does involve natural aspects just as in living beings, such as humans. Would human-based technology, in what it provides for humans, such as adaptable survival, be a hindrance for evolution to move forward, or would it become part of the methods that evolution could use to continue its progress? Would this mean that humans in the future will probably evolve at an ever slowing rate compared to other evolving living things, or can they be considered as evolving into some sort of cyborgs or androids? Will our genetic progression reach a plateau or will we be able to transition this sort of information into "machines" or whatever we are to create?
I have given the latter possibility the name “Nanoevolution”. “Nano–” is, in fact, a unit of measurement that denotes a factor of one-billionth (10^-9). Knowing that evolution spans over a billion (10^9) years, and technologies of the sort mentioned above are at the scale of merely years, I combined both terms to highlight both the relative speed of the process – or scale of relative time – and its correspondence with the natural process of evolution. Nanoevolution is the relatively rapid evolution of living things by means of technology. Depending on what science and technology will lead us to, nanoevolution might be a viable phenomenon.
I am going to leave off with a couple of questions for you to reflect on, and let me know what you think about all this. If nanoevolution does take place, what kind of life would you expect these post-human creatures to have? What kind of effect would this type of evolution have on the evolution of other species? Would there even be a post-human life, provided the anthropocentric type of life that we’ve been conducting all this time?
Born in 1992 in El Chouf, Lebanon, Samir grew up dreaming of becoming a scientist and an explorer. Today, he is a former bioengineering and nanotechnology research engineer who has contributed to award-winning projects on cancer diagnosis and silicon-based nanofabrication. He is currently a science communicator and content writer, and is influenced by scientists such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.
Living between Lebanon and Germany, he aims to inform, inspire, educate and entertain readers in various areas of science and engineering by simplifying complex topics, triggering curiosity, provoking thoughts about science and the natural world, and as he says, “gradually bridging the information gap.”