Human Evolution: Speeding? Splitting? Borging? And The Future Of The Olympics
    By David Brin | July 31st 2012 12:54 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, technical consultant and author of books including The Postman, Startide Rising, The Uplift War and Existence...

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    A number of recent web-notables all seem to revolve (eccentrically) around the question of human evolution.  Whether it continues. Whether there is such a thing as "selection in groups." Whether our technological (cyborg) augmentations and/or increasing numbers of "non-neuro-typical" society members portend a new splitting of human destiny. And it looks as if I should have set Existence just five years in the future, instead of 35!

    For starters, see a short futuristic film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo about the "game-ification" of everything. They reveal a near future world very much like the one illustrated in my new novel, a very close tomorrow when you'll overlay reality with meta-information...

    ...only, instead of using it to solve problems or join "smart mobs" as I depict in a focused drama... some folks will apply such tech in different ways, turning every act, even cooking an egg, into an opportunity for "point-scoring."   Both cool and kinda chilling, it's a thought-provoking little film. These challenges to human wisdom and coping ability will continue piling up.

    Anodyne for Anecdotes:  Need a counter-riff to volley back at your friends who gullibly send you forwarded nonsense via email or social media? Disinformation, rumors, assertions and "anecdotes" that are easily disproved? (One end of the American political spectrum now uses only assertions, allegories and anecdotes and has achieved the miracle of becoming nearly 100% fact free. The other political wing seems to be constantly toying with the temptation to follow suit -- heaven help us if/when they do!)  

    For a tonic, send your "FWD: emailers" this cogent essay, Dissing the Disinformation, about the ancient, gracious and adult art of fact-checking in this modern era.  Will it accomplish anything?  Yes!  The idiots won't read it or learn anything or stop FWD-spamming their friends with nonsense.  But they will take you off their "FWD: list."

    Apparently we are speciating, folks, between those of us still capable of prefrontal lobe usage and Homo gullibilitus.  

    And if you believe that...

    ...see a fascinating - if challenging - discourse by the eminent scholar Steven Pinker about the fallacies of most notions of "group selection" in evolution theory. I don't agree with him on all counts, but it is a feast of clear thinking.

    But nature follows many paths. One of the themes in Existence, explicitly stated by several characters, is the question of speedups in human evolution. It might be argued that one of these happened about 35,000 years ago, when suddenly Homo sapiens began drawing cave art, burying their dead and expanded their tool sets by more than ten-fold. I contend similar changes happened with the introduction of beer, and then towns, and the Renaissance-Enlightenment. My new novel attempts to explore this concept from many angles, both pro and con.

    And it seems I am not the only one. In this TED talk, Will our kids be a different species? Juan Enriquez sweeps across time and space to bring us to the present moment — and shows how technology is revealing evidence that suggests rapid evolution may be under way.

    Speaking of (sub) speciation:  During the nine years it took for me to write Existence, I grew increasingly convinced that the phenomenon of "autistic spectrum" - ranging from deep autism to Aspergers to simply way-nerdy - would become ever-more significant in future years.  Not only because the spectrum appears to be manifesting more often (some call it a "plague"), but also as technologies enable folks who were once isolated and victimized to connect with one another, form interest groups, alliances, pool resources and match skills.  I portray this becoming a powerful force by the year 2050...

    ...and now it appears that others agree.  Steve Silberman, a longtime contributing editor at Wired will soon be publishing a book, Neurotribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently, which argues that non-neurotypicals will play an ever-growing role in society.  See a fascinating article about this at io9: How Autism is changing the world for everyoneio9 is increasingly the go-to site for all things future and science-fictional.

    === Diverging Humanity: Olympics Edition! ===

    With the start of the Olympics, one may ask: Will Athletes ever stop breaking new records? Or will they continue to grow stronger, better, we approach the biomechanical limits of the human body.  Niven and Barnes portrayed one possibility in Achilles' Choice... that beefed up and drug-accelerated and e-hypered athletes would be given their own, separate olympics in which they could burn themselves out achieving short lives but glorious ones.

    In contrast, Daniel Wilson's Amped shows a near future wherein a frightened public over-reacts and legislates against those who get "amplified" with implants. What has already happened?  The Special Olympics offers a venue for the disabled to show off how hard they have developed... "despite."  Meanwhile, some regular folks are terrified of double amputees who are doing amazing things with those "sproing" legs.  See Aimee Mullins in her amazing TED talk "My twelve sets of legs."

    My expectation?  It will be a case of "all of the above." Arguments over where to draw the lines between these groups.  But not much of a fight over whether there should be venues for all of them!  Including... ironically, a new Olympics level that will return to the roots, and be severely drug-tested and rigorously vetted, so that it is only for... amateurs.

    Very interesting... and scary:  Can Neuroscience Cure Gaming's Gun Obsession? One researcher wants to use MRI machines to watch video game players and explore how developers can exploit the human brain’s dopamine pleasure-reward circuitry to hook players, and suggests that game developers would not want to light up the striatum constantly in some kind of sensory overload, but believes games could be developed to target players’ emotions with scientific accuracy. Read the article by Lee Hall.

    === Science potpourri ===

    Remember that scene in Minority Report when the spider robots stalk Tom Cruise to his apartment and scan his iris to identify him? Things could have turned out so much better for Cruise had he been wearing a pair of contact lenses embossed with an image of someone else’s iris. Reverse-engineered irises look so real, they fool eye-scanners. And no I never believed in iris scanning.  There are so many more reliable bio markers.

    Activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week. Maybe all you really need to do to cement new learning is to sit and close your eyes for a few minutes.

    Researchers from UCLA and California NanoSystems Institute have developed a new transparent solar cell, giving windows in homes and other buildings the ability to generate electricity. This new kind of polymer solar cell (PSC) produces energy by absorbing more near-infrared light but is less sensitive to visible light, making the cells nearly 70% transparent to the human eye.

    Aerographite: world's lightest material 75 times lighter than styrofoam. Electrical conductor also.

    Ford's new 3-cylinder EcoBurst Engine could challenge hybrids.  

    === And Finally ... ===

    Supplement ANY of your classes with videos from Khan Academy... see this.  Seriously guys, it's free and cool and with-it...and potentially uplifting.

    Philosophical ponderings of the nature of time... made funny.


    I finished Existence the other day and may read again soon. The glasses and the Aiware were one of the things I saw as coming sooner rather than later. Like the video in this post I can see things like that happening.

    Wonderful article.

    Gerhard Adam
    I found the article to be quite interesting and many of the links were also quite interesting in how various future scenarios were envisioned.

    It strikes me that one of the common themes is that humanity is able to indulge itself with technologies beyond anything in the past.  It is worth reconsidering Neil Postman's book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and expanding the considerations to include the internet.  In short, it appears that some of the original involvement with the escapism of drugs, alcohol, and even entertainment can now be embodied in a more pure form through technology.

    It's a culture of "wanna-be's" and salesmen.  

    In my view what has always separated humans from the rest of the animals as not been intellect, but rather the ability to completely "live" in our own minds.  The fact that, given the means, humans would be quite content to live their entire existence based solely on what they imagine in their minds, instead of the surrounding reality.  This is precisely the appeal in movies like "The Matrix", where some would rather embrace their illusions, than face "reality".  It is the root of a human's ability to "go mad".

    It was equally interesting to see this juxtaposed with the essay about disinformation and fact-checking, especially in the discussion about bull fighting, which still managed to get a great deal of information wrong.  In short, the supposed accurate information was just as useless as the hyped information being sent around [i.e. bulls weigh much more than 600 pounds; and they are not "killing machines" by any stretch of the imagination].  However, this played into the narrative by emphasizing the opposite emotional point the author was looking to achieve.

    In watching the TED talk, I couldn't help but be struck by the liberal use of disinformation [i.e. primordial soup - really?].  It was also interesting to note that despite the hints of unbridled technological advancements, the underlying presumptions seemed to always focus on traits that we humans think are important.  We "want" ourselves to become better at the things we value.  You never hear a discussion about whether we are becoming less intelligent, despite indications that we are.

    It is equally telling that we are discussing the application of technologies that are ridiculous on the face of it.  I can't think of anyone that is naive enough to trust strangers with $1000 in cash, and yet we're talking about trusting our very minds and memories to people we don't know because of technology [downloading/uploading minds, implanting memories]?  

    Unfortunately too much of this sounds exactly like the stoner discussions that used to be prevalent in the late 60's and early 70's.  However, the fortunate part is that a significant part of this hubris is fantasy and will remain fantasy for any foreseeable future.  It can be entertaining to speculate about, but I expect the reliability of these predictions to be on par with all of us flitting around in our flying cars.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    In my view what has always separated humans from the rest of the animals as not been intellect, but rather the ability to completely "live" in our own minds.  The fact that, given the means, humans would be quite content to live their entire existence based solely on what they imagine in their minds, instead of the surrounding reality.
    I think that my horses and dogs would disagree with you. They are also very good at living their entire existence based solely on what they imagine in their minds, like them constantly imagining that I am just about to take them for a walk, feed them or even imagining terrible creatures about to jump out of the bushes ahead of them to attack them! Animals are very capable of living in their own minds and have plenty of imagination, instead of the surrounding reality, just like many humans.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at

    My son's apartment hunting experience in Chicago, replete fraudulent agencies with friendly voices, has convinced me that we are de-evolving in both service and quality of housing.  It is amazing how little one can get for $1,300 a month ... plus additional charges and cheats.

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't know that we're "devolving" as much as there's less pretense about the relative importance of the customer or customer service.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Dear Mr. Brin,

    I disagree with you on many fronts, most violently on your knee-jerk support for Democrats and constant deriding of Republicans, but I agree with you even more on your fundamentally optimistic outlook toward the future!

    A most welcome contrast to the gloom-and-doom and imminent end of the world peddled by so many. Carry on!