Human-induced changes are occurring with runaway speed. It's hard to predict a mere century from now, because what will happen depends on us - this is the first century where humans can collectively transform, or even ravage, the entire biosphere. Humanity will soon itself be malleable, to an extent that's qualitatively new in the history of our species. New drugs (and perhaps even implants into our brains) could change human character; the cyberworld has potential that is both exhilarating and frightening. We can't confidently guess lifestyles, attitudes, social structures, or population sizes a century hence.Rees is the President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival.
Indeed, it's not even clear for how long our descendants would remain distinctively 'human'. Darwin himself noted that "not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity". Our own species will surely change and diversify faster than any predecessor -- via human-induced modifications (whether intelligently-controlled or unintended), not by natural selection alone. Just how fast this could happen is disputed by experts, but the post-human era may be only centuries away.
These thoughts might seem irrelevant to practical discussions - and best left to speculative academics and cosmologists. I used to think this. But humans are now, individually and collectively, so greatly empowered by rapidly changing technology that we can, by design, or as unintended consequences - engender global changes that resonate for centuries. And, sometimes at least, policy-makers indeed think far ahead.
The global warming induced by fossil fuels burnt in the next fifty years could trigger gradual sea level rises that continue for a millennium or more. And in assessing sites for radioactive waste disposal, governments impose the requirements that they be secure for ten thousand years.
It's real political progress that these long-term challenges are higher on the international agenda, and that planners seriously worry about what might happen more than a century hence.
But in such planning, we need to be mindful that it may not be people like us who confront the consequences of our actions today. We are custodians of a 'posthuman' future - here on Earth and perhaps beyond - that can't just be left to writers of science fiction.
February 6, 2008
Martin Rees: We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously
Edge.org's big question this year is, "What have you changed your mind about?" Sir Martin Rees answered, "We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously." Excerpt: