The average mammalian species lifespan is a million years. But Homo sapiens only evolved about 100 thousand years ago. So we've got a long road ahead of us. The chart below explores where we've been, and where we might be headed.
Illustration by Corrupt Recluse on Deviant Art.
Though some futurists say the future is accelerating, there is plenty of evidence that the future might be a lot slower than we think. Just because microchip technology improves rapidly does not mean that other forms of scientific innovation will. Science fiction writers have been predicting that genetically engineered humans are right around the corner for almost a hundred years. But we're still struggling to understand how our genomes work, not to mention our proteomes, transcriptomes, and microbiomes.
In the early 1990s, computer scientist and scifi author Vernor Vinge suggested that world-changing artificial intelligence would be developed in a decade. Now, over twenty years later, we're still waiting for our Singularity.
But that's okay. We've got roughly 900 thousand years to figure this shit out.
This chart attempts to chart the pace at which human change might really happen, based on our evolutionary history. For example, humans first developed the ability to cross the ocean in reed boats about 50 thousand years ago. That's how we made it from Asia all the way to Australia. And yet it wasn't until the 1500s that we saw the rise of intercontinental trade and exploration on a large scale. Consider this timescale in the context of space travel. Perhaps our rockets today are like those reed boats, capable of crossing great distances but not developed enough to allow for interplanetary civilization. Maybe it will take thousands of years for us to develop technologies that allow us to colonize the solar system, even though it seems like we are right on the cusp of building New San Francisco on Mars.
Chart by Steph Fox. Click to enlarge.
As you can see, I've suggested that the trajectory of Homo sapiens will first involve developing geoengineering technologies that allow us to cultivate Earth's entire atmosphere and environment to prevent global warming and preserve species diversity. Eventually we will develop artificial intelligence or sentient robots, and they'll colonize space with us. As we move to other worlds, it's likely that we'll need to adapt to them using a combination of genetic engineering and technology.
There will probably be wars and horrific die-outs along the way, but humans have become so populous that at least some of us are going to survive — in some form. Our evolutionary history provides strong evidence that we're terrific problem-solvers, and voracious explorers. It was our instinct to explore that sent us out of Africa in the first place.
All these changes may mean that Homo sapiens will speciate, or evolve into multiple new species, before our million years is up. And then our many species progeny will begin to explore the galaxy, using technologies that allow us to transcend the speed of light — perhaps by dimension-hopping, or by traveling outside time.
Things may get really weird. Maybe Homo sapiens will end up half cannibalistic Morlocks and half super-enlightened squid creatures from an Iain M. Banks novel. Still, that will be a win for our species. It will mean that our progeny have survived, even if they are nothing like us.
If you want to know more about two-million-year human timeline, you can learn about it in my new book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.
Also, I'll be on book tour this month! You can also see me in tonight in San Francisco, at the Mechanics Institute. That's followed by appearances in Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Click here for dates and places!