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Humanity's Future Role in Evolution and the Diversity of Life
I believe that humanity, despite our present role as the greatest single cause of extinctions on Earth, may yet become the greatest driving force behind the creation of new species that the Universe has ever seen.
There are two modern disciplines, and one historical practice, that may enable us to be instrumental in creating a new diversity of life, greater in variety and scope than anyone has ever witnessed.
These are, put simply: Genetics, Space Travel, and Selective Breeding.
Genetics is the study of the building block of life and, ultimately, the study of how to modify life and create life forms that have never existed before.
Selective Breeding will allow us to continue to direct the development of key species to fit particular environments or purposes.
Space Travel will open up new environments in which life can thrive and diversify.
As our understanding of genetics and the processes of evolution increases, our power to affect the development of life becomes more and more profound. Eventually, when our understanding is complete enough, it is likely that we will be able to create new forms of life to meet specific needs or desires.
Presently, our genetic knowledge and skills are extremely limited. The gene sets of very few species have been fully mapped, and we are only now beginning to understand how to read those maps, and how to alter them to intentionally change the physiology or behaviour of an organism.
The current state of the art in genetics is a fast moving target. Nevertheless, relative to the ultimate goal of creating new species, progress is crawling.
There are currently two primary and significant barriers to progress: complexity and politics.
The complexity of genetics is formidable. For example, we have a map of the human genome, but the map is very large and it is written in a language that we are only beginning to understand. And full understanding will mean learning not only which bits of code create which proteins and control the development of which body parts, but also how genetics control reflex (what makes you pull your hand away from a fire before you can think of it), instinct (how do homing pigeons know to 'go home'), behaviour patterns (what makes one male more aggressive from birth than another), and more.
The politics of genetics research is volatile. There are those who want to forge full steam ahead and use any and all possible paths to complete mastery. At the other extreme are those who fundamentally oppose any and all genetic research, or 'tampering', as they may call it.
Mastery over genetics would open up a whole new world of possibilities, not limited to restoring the diversity of life on Earth, but extending into medical advancements, new food sources, and the bizarre world of living tools and entertainment products, designer pets, customized renewable resources, organic computers ('natural' artificial intelligence), and more. The genetic revolution will bring as much, or more change as the digital revolution--and may entirely supersede it by replacing digital devices with their neural counterparts.
Even if we never fully master the science of genetics, we can fall back upon an art that may be almost as ancient as mankind itself: selective breeding. By creating controlled, very long term, multi-generational programs of selective breeding for a variety of species, new variants and species can be developed to suit a variety of purposes and habitats. Historical success with domesticated animals and pets shows the potential for remarkable results. And all of this can be accomplished without need for the complex science and industry required to practice genetics in its purest forms.
The most significant challenge to a selective breeding program, aside from the core work of reshaping and repurposing an existing species, will be keeping the program operational long enough to get results, despite changes in politics, culture, and outlook that would be expected over the hundreds or thousands of years the program would need to run.
New environments offer new opportunities for species of all types, and there is a practically infinite supply of new environments beyond planet Earth.
To be sure, nothing in our own solar system is hospitable to life at this moment in a way that could be remotely construed as 'move-in ready', but once we establish a viable space presence, the process of learning to adapt to alien environments, and to adapt alien environments to suit our needs, will begin in earnest.
One of the most exciting possibilities contributing to the diversity of life in space will be the process of terraforming, by which an otherwise lifeless planet is seeded with life in a controlled manner, with the end goal being to transform the atmosphere and the landscape into an environment suitable for human habitation (and, by definition, suitable for a full ecosystem of other organisms from Earth). One key factor will be that whatever we seed the planet with will evolve over time to suit the planet’s unique environment, ultimately resulting in new planets with their own complete and unique ecosystems.
Humans will not escape the ever-present hand of natural selection. Just as human populations from various Earth environments differentiated as they adapted to their specific circumstances, so too will human populations that are established on new planets.
In fact, one intriguing development of space travel will be the establishment of human populations off of planets; these can be based on asteroids, comets, moons, and ultimately may consist of nothing more than what the sci-fi community calls generation ships--which are simply space ships that have been designed to carry self-sustaining communities and ecosystems across space for generations, if not indefinitely.
Given the distances that must be covered, and the speed of light limit, it is most certainly through the use of generation ships that humans will spread far and wide enough to find new planets and environments to colonize. Certain populations in generation ships will undoubtedly find that they prefer their ships over life on a planet, or in a hollowed out asteroid or comet. Much of humanity may become free-flying nomads.
Diversity Or Destruction?
Every one of the above factors assumes that humanity will survive long enough to contribute to the diversity of life in the manner specified. There are a number of known possibilities that could cut our time short--or to be more specific, that could result in the extinction of the human species. These possibilities include, but are not limited to: plague, nuclear holocaust, climate change, the Earth being struck by a sizable meteor/comet/asteroid, and the ever-growing likelihood that we will simply choke on our own poisons and garbage.
Personally, I am rooting for diversity. How about you?