Although It has taken homo sapiens several million years to evolve from the apes, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, Stephen Hawking points out in his Life in the Universe lecture, is about a bit a year.

"By contrast," Hawking says, "there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA."

This means Hawking says that we have entered a new phase of evolution. "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."

But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred.

"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."

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, has collapsed to about 50 years, or less.

Meanwhile, Hawking observes, our human brains "with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written."

But we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls "self designed evolution," in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. "At first," he continues "these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression."

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hawking's ideas give me goose bumps with his imagination and explanations. Your thought, "if human race can redesign itself," then that implies we can pick and choose the attributes we want and need. Hopefully, the people who do the redesign have the whole planet in mind and not just some notion of personal wealth. 

Thanks for sharing. I share your car. 

sorry, I should have written share your care!

Nothing new here, but this stuff is fascinating nevertheless. I would add that we will also likely incorporate technological advancements into our biological structures in the form of nanobots capable of travelling throughout the body and making repairs and adjustments on the fly, as well as many other technological-biological connections. We are as likely to become cyborgs as to tinker with our genetic structures. Certainly, if we manage to survive the next hundred years or so, in which a great deal of human conflict is I think to be expected, we will rapidly evolve in ways that biology itself could not possibly hope to achieve.

 

What is spectacular, I think, is that whereas biological evolution has existed for billions of years, and cultural evolution only a few thousand, technological evolution is really only beginning to take off. I think the world of a few hundred years from now will be almost unrecognizable to those of us living today.

I often wonder, Wanderer, when I sit with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren what will their lives include when they are 76 years old. I witnessed the first telephone into my grandparent's home, their first toilet that replaced the outhouse, as many of us have, the first TV that quickly replaced the farm and weather reports and "One Man's Family." I hope they see the end of cancer and ALS and AIDS, and all the other terrible diseases and degenerative nerve disorders. Maybe even repair of brain injuries. Most definitely, humans will have to find a way other than war to resolve conflicts. 

We may have excuses now, owing to our current stage of evolution remaining dependent on genes, for our exclusion of some from the core of the human organism. We should still be striving to be far more inclusive, but our actions are somewhat understandable. If we manage to get that far along in our evolution where we can repair or even tailor our genes or our biological structure, we will have run out of excuses as far as I'm concerned.

Wanderer, an interesting frame, excuses! Yes, we can always blame our genes and how can one argue with that! (sarcastically stated). Thinking of genes is thinking in the past tense. If we think in the future tense, we can create any image we want to. We can even imagine conflict without violence, problems without demands, relationships without domination. Yes, I think I can manage that! 

I'm going to try an experiment ... starting now and for seven days, I am going to write nothing that blames, accuses, demands, complains; I shall focus on possibilities, healthy, positive, futures-looking thoughts. I wonder what will happen?

I utterly failed! It isn't even Wed. yet and I feel more energy to confront outrageous religious and economic and political charlatans. I shall have to block all news if I am to keep that oath!

Wanderer,

technological evolution is really only beginning to take off. I think the world of a few hundred years from now will be almost unrecognizable to those of us living today.

This is absolutely true and it is for this reason that I think that religion and god do not have life more than another 200 years.

Let's hope so!! But let's also not underestimate the stupidity of which humanity is capable. In fact, I would say beware, because the more their beliefs are threatened, the more they will behave like wounded animals with their backs against the wall. Religion will not go away quietly. I am reminded of another quote I heard recently, which said, "never overestimate the value of sincerity. One of the worst things in the world is the man chasing you down the street with an ax trying to chop your head off because he sincerely believes it will be good for you". The sincerity of the beliefs of these people is what makes me terrified of a nuclear Pakistan, for one example, and a nuclear US of the future as another, if these damned wackadoodle evangelicals have their way.

Wanderer

The scenario you described is realistic and your fears are well founded too. I however believe that most of what you say will be a part and parcel of the process of exit of religion.

Madhukar, Yes, holding on to beliefs reaches a deep place in believers. That is why something of value must be translated to them.
Atheism is belief there is no god to walk with one, protect one, guide one ... there are qualities within us that provide information, curiosity, critical thinking that will meet each of these needs. One can stand alone and feel strong, can question and explore and experiment with the risk of failure while not being a failure. One can be one's own guide with morals and ethics that reside within us.
For those who believe they have a right to exploit and dominate others or all the earth and it's inhabitants ... and now a politician who believes we, USA, have a right to the moon, they can be challenged, and successfully so. Even Hitler was stopped, although at great cost. Even Great Britain was stopped even though it took bloodshed to end colonialism.
Human hubris tempts many; human rights attract others. 

Joan Denoo

Humans are gifted with many faculties but do not share them with equal proportion. The less gifted always look to the better gifted ones to help them make decisions that they can not make on their own. We atheists follow scientists for the same reason. As of present, a large proportion of the intellectual crust of humanity still believes in outdated ideas. This section holds the key to future and this section will respond better to the rapid scientific progress in future than the remaining part of the society. This remaining part will follow the former with a herd mentality.  

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