Self-Directed Evolution

By | July 3, 2009

Stephen Hawking says that our species has transcended genetics alone as our means of evolving, and that information external to us — the sum of human knowledge in books, computer networks, etc. — is taking us in an entirely new direction:

But we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls “self designed evolution,” in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. “At first,” he continues “these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.”

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

Hey, is it just me, or is the greatest scientist of our time starting to sound a lot like Ray Kurzweil? It almost seems like all this accelerating change stuff is going mainstream or something.

If I read correctly between the lines, Hawking says that we will experience 10,000 years worth of evolution in a 50 year period (although he doesn’t say starting when.) By way of comparison, Ray Kurzweil has said that humanity will undergo 20,000 years worth of progress in the 21st century, while Intel CTO Justin Rattner recently predicted that we will advance 35,000 years in the next 100 years.

These guys are well within an order of magnitude of each other. In fact, Kurzweil looks like the middle-of-the-road guy in that grouping, doesn’t he? Not as far-out as Rattner, not as conservative as Hawking.

But Hawking hits on a key point: these next 10, 20, or 35K years worth of change won’t be like any previous leap. This time, we get to choose the outcome. Consciously. Dow we choose as a species or as individuals? That’s unclear. Does everybody get a vote? That’s unlikely, but I maintain that people really ought to have a say in a set of changes this big — especially when having a say is possible for this first time ever.

In any case, we’re talking about an awful lot of change to undergo in a very short period of time. It’s important for us to start seriously thinking about this stuff. We have some big decisions to make.



  • ben

    Stephen Hawking the ‘greatest scientist of our time?’

    Disappointing to see something like that on this blog.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    I suppose I could have said “arguably the greatest” or “most famous.” Labeling someone the “greatest” scientist in the world is just about as subjective as calling him or her the “nicest” or “best-looking” scientist in the world. The work is what matters.

  • Tim Tyler

    One of my videos is entitled “Self-Directed Evolution”. The “self designed evolution” term for cultural evolution sucks. Dawkins uses “Deliberate Darwinism” -which is a little better.