Chapter Eleven: Mechanisms Of Human Evolution In The 21st Century

VII. Cultural Change

If one thing can be said with certainty about the cultures of most societies in the modern world, it is that they are more prescriptive than they used to be. It's true that in the Middle Ages people led highly circumscribed lives; but that was mostly due to lack of opportunity rather than to specific prohibitions issued by the Church or the folk-mote – the only two ethical arbiters at the time. Although the Church has declined in influence, and the folk-mote is just a folk-memory, contemporary society is riddled with prohibitions, guidance, rules, laws, customs, preferences etc, and far from all of them originate from government.

This enveloping apparatus of conformity sits, oddly, alongside a much increased variety of cultural achievement. And there is no reason to think that the trend towards a rule-based cultural environment will abate. The earlier chapters on various dimensions of globalization show how, on the contrary, the regulatory and ethical framework of our society will become ever more complex and sophisticated.

On the bright side, diversity of cultural expression seems welcome in our world. A few years ago, who could have imaged the Guinness Book of Records, the world of beach volley-ball, or MySpace, or Napster, or skate-parks, or Get Me Out Of Here, I'm A Celebrity? And it's not all low-brow: wrapping buildings, performing Bach's cantatas in 380 different churches across Europe on the correct feast-days, Hoffnung's Concerto for Vacuum Cleaners, Dame Edna Everege (OK, middle-brow), Joan Rivers, pickled sharks, the Santa Fe opera festival . . . it's an endless and growing list.

All the faculties of people are being stretched in amazing directions. Instant global communications, intense competition across all or most of humanity, insatiable appetite for sensation and entertainment, and very big piles of money all combine to drive out the boundaries of our culture – it's a kind of cultural Big Bang.

The rules however will proliferate as fast as the experiences. What does this say about human evolution? First of all, with a look back to the 'bionic' and 'genetic' dimensions of evolution in earlier paragraphs, it says that individuals wanting to push the boundaries of achievement and experience will want the very best and most elaborated bodily, sensory and cognitive equipment with which to do it, so that they will constitute an unstoppable force towards the development and use of new technological possibilities.

Secondly, it says that there will be pressure for 'standardization' of citizens because of such phenomena as 'political correctness', the desire to control errant behaviour such as violence, racism or paedophilia, and the array of phobias that society is building up directed towards smoking, drinking, obesity and drug-taking. There are already plenty of studies that seek to link such behaviours to chromosomal 'abnormalities' or anyway particular features of a person's dna; and pressure for behaviour to carry appropriate financial penalties. It will be a short step from refusing free public treatment for smoking-related diseases (already creeping in) to compulsory gene therapy for damaging addictions, to a generalized pressure on parents to ensure that their children-to-be do not have the propensity to drink, smoke, drug or abuse other children.

The development of technologies permitting intensified communication between people, as outlined in earlier sections of this chapter, and in the previous chapter, will also bring a need for improvement, in this case at the cognitive level. Internet-inspired collaborations affecting many aspects of life, some of them currently under nation state control, and the development of direct brain-to-brain or brain-to-robot communication, perhaps in shared cognitive spaces, will generate demand for faster and broader psychological performance. The development of the brain is guided by an intricate interaction between the genome and a child's environment, but beyond question, there will be ways in which dna can be changed to favour desired outcomes. Some of these are explored in the next chapter.

None of the changes outlined above will require public legislation – although there well may be some. Once the technologies exist, they simply require cultural pressure, which is even more effective. The result will be a further reinforcing of the rightfulness and usefulness of therapies which improve the life chances of individuals in our particular world – and that means eugenic tampering with dna.

Once the Rubicon is crossed in terms of the acceptability of eugenic engineering, culturally-driven 'improvement' of the human genome will surely follow, again starting with free public programmes to improve cognitive functioning, including for instance the teachability of children (no more dyslexia, no more hyper-activity attention deficit – no child left behind!), and ending with major global programmes for the elimination of some agreed-upon undesirable human characteristics and the enhancement of other, more desirable ones.

Perhaps this is a frightening prospect. But is it more frightening than the prospect of more Hiroshimas, Biafras, Darfurs, Gulags or Kristallnachten? This book doesn't have an answer for such questions; but one day they will have to be asked and answered.


The combination of technological possibility with consumer demand and cultural pressures will ensure that major change will occur in the human genome during the remainder of this century. And these changes will increasingly come about because of the conscious will of individuals and society, rather than as the result of Darwinian evolution as such.

By the end of the century, human genetic variation will be greater than it is now on the dimension of desired characteristics, but narrower than it is now on the dimension of 'undesirable' characteristics such as vulnerability to disease or propensity to 'antisocial' behaviours.

Theoretically, humans will already be effectively immortal in bodily terms through a combination of bionic prostheses and genetic adaptation to ageing processes.

Robots will equal or exceed humans in terms of most types of cognitive ability; but the distinction between humans and robots will be more or less academic in the sense that humans will be able to inhabit the brains of robots through wireless or magnetic links, making them (the robots) no more than extensions of the human brain, on a level with an arm or a leg. Such developments are explored in the next two chapters.