Science Sunday: Morlocks – The Future of Human Evolution?
Let’s battle the depressing news that America is still neglecting climate change subjects and project into a future where none of that matters. I’ve recently finished reading H.G. Wells’ classic ‘The Time Machine’, where humankind has evolved into two distinct races, if not species. But is this likely to happen? Are we still under evolutionary pressures? And are we more likely to become the simple-minded Eloi, or the subterranean Morlocks?
Acclaimed biologist Steve Jones has argued that human evolution has come to a standstill, citing the melding together of cultures, the improvement of modern medicine (and by extension raised life expectancy) and a low average age for fatherhood (more mutations are likely in older males) as three reasons why this might be the case, and while these factors may decrease the speed of evolution in comparison to other creatures, there’s still room for evolution to take place, and as long as people are still giving birth, genes are still being passed on and certain traits can prevail over certain others. In the long run, even if it doesn’t seem as dramatic as some look at the process – would we not call this evolution?
And we cannot rule out new threats and opportunities influencing our potential evolution. For example, if we look at sickle cell anemia as a test as a test case, we can see how populations are still changing to adapt to their environment. This disease changes the shape of red blood cells, which can result in a number of complications and reduced life expectancy, and yet in countries where malaria is a huge problem, there is actually a selective advantage to possessing one of the two alleles that cause sickle cell anemia, as it increases resistance to the malaria; thus, these genes are more common in these populations. If a disease threatens to wipe out the world (a situation that’s admittedly less likely due to human efforts to extinguish these threats before they can take off), then genes that provide a survival advantage will be spread by pretty strong selective pressures.
In terms of the projections of humanity’s future written about in ‘The Time Machine’ however, we can think about the differences between us and our two descendant races, think about how likely those differences are to occur and speculate as to whether such a scenario is possible. The changes in the races take place on a societal and individual scale, and are described by Wells as being something like the result of class divisions. Now, these have thankfully become less distinct since the book was written, but if we imagine that, as in this case, the laborers of the world are forced to not interact with the upper class they are providing for, given enough time it’s possible that this could result in sympatric speciation, wherein the two populations are not separated geographically, but by some other barrier (in this case, class discrimination). In time these populations could develop their own separate traits that are only shared within their populations. In ‘The Time Machine’ the Morlocks are forced underground as well – a geographical barrier – in a case where this splits populations this is known as ‘allopatric speciation’.
The physical adaptations of the Morlocks come largely from their lives underground. In species that live out of sunlight, the eyes are no longer of use and in some this causes them to lose their function. In the case of the Morlocks, they are very sensitive to light, having lost the protective measures that human have against its damaging effects (such as melanin in our skin and the dilation of our pupils). The Morlocks also have to deal with the problem of finding a food source, given that without light, plants don’t grow. In this case the Morlocks found a solution in a supply of meat that we call the Eloi.
The Eloi’s changes on the other hand do not appear to be based on a change in environment, but in sexual selection. Each of them look very similar to the point where there are few gender differences. If, in a future society, the notion of a physical ideal is driven to its extremes, then sexual selection could act to cause traits that match this to spread throughout the population – although this is pretty extreme. Another difference between humans and the Eloi is the extremely passive nature that has developed in our hypothetical descendants, to the point where nobody bats an eyelid at one of their own drowning. These descendants of ours, in this fictional setting, have been domesticated. They are provided with everything they need and need not do anything but wait for the day to go by. Thanks for that, Morlocks. Whether this could explain the extreme apathy they demonstrate is beyond my understanding, but it partially explains how lax they are about life – they have everything, the only thing they need to worry about is the very creature that’s providing it with the means to live that life.
So, is it likely that this is our future? We can speculate, but I’d lean pretty far towards a no. As we combine our cultures and try to spread equality, it’s less likely that entire branch of us will be isolated, unless there is a natural disaster or something similar that separates us. But this does not mean that we will not change, just that the extremes of Eloi and Morlocks are (thankfully) looking less likely as time goes on, at least in my point of view.
As for which species we are more likely to become, I would lean towards the Eloi, only because of how much we have domesticated ourselves already. Many more of us are able to get on with our lives without immediate dangers, knowing that if anything befalls us we will be looked after, and this is a good thing, but I can see us getting too comfortable with that more sedentary lifestyle than becoming hard working people farmers.
What do you think? Are we more like the Eloi or the Morlocks, and how plausible is it that humanity will change so dramatically in the future?