Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The future of humans


This post appears on Ash Wednesday. The typical Ash Wednesday homily or theological reflection addresses sin and repentance, explaining the symbolism of the ashes imposed on foreheads. For some thoughts on that subject, read these previous Ethical Musings posts: Rethinking Ash Wednesday and Getting Ready for Lent.

Instead, I want to consider the future of humans, not as individuals but as a biological species. Generally, this subject receives little explicit theological attention apart from affirmations that God, in God’s time, will fulfill God’s vision for creation. That also is not the focus of these musings. I just read two books on evolution, one arguing for a version of intelligent design and the other describing how Darwin’s theories emerged from his personal and familial interests. Both books emphasized evolution’s dynamism; neither book explored what that might mean for humans. Nevertheless, the books were a catalyst for these musings about future directions of human evolution.

First, I’m confident that homo sapiens are not uniquely static. Evolution, even if we cannot see it, evolution continues in our midst with our species exhibiting minor adaptations to environment that promote the survival of the fittest.

Second, cyborgs – entities that combine a living being with a machine – have arrived or soon will, depending upon how one defines machine. Replacement joints have become commonplace. Replacement sensors (e.g., an eye or touch in a fingertip or other piece of skin) are in the experimental stage. Scientists are also experimenting with a human using her/his brain to control an artificial limb. Perhaps the next major step in human evolution will be a cyborg with a human brain and an electro-mechanical body.

Third, racial and ethnic differences are disappearing through increased breeding among persons of different races and ethnicities. In Hawaii, for example, finding someone who is 100% Hawaiian is now difficult. To a lesser extent, similar trends are evident globally as global migration increases and cultural barriers against intermarriage and childbearing by unmarried women erode.

Fourth, manipulation of an embryo’s genome, selection of a particular sperm or egg, and modification of a person’s genome all portend changes to the human species. Once begun, these genetic modifications are unlikely to stop. And once begun, these genetic modifications may slowly but permanently alter the human genome. Perhaps one day parents say be able to select each of a new fetus’s twenty-six chromosomes.

Predicting the outcome of these moves is impossible. Nevertheless, rejecting all such changes as unethical is wrong. Some changes may eliminate diseases for which no known cure exists (e.g., sickle cell anemia), may reduce the incidence of birth defects or diseases such as diabetes and cancer, or may otherwise dramatically improve the quality of human life or its longevity. These subjects deserve more attention in Christian ethics, theology, and churches.

Fifth, I wonder what other evolutionary changes are currently happening to humans to which all but perhaps a few scientists are oblivious. For example, are humans, to the extent that these traits are genetically determined, becoming taller, losing certain physical capabilities, gaining or losing aggressiveness, gaining or losing resistance to particular diseases, etc.?

Sixth, how long will the human species survive? I recently met a professor of biology from Italy who teaches in New Zealand. He wonders whether popular understandings of the causes of war and other forms of human violence and oppression bode ill for our species’ longevity.

Seventh, will humans crossbreed with a species from another planet, producing a new species as unimaginable to us as humans were to their predecessors?

For me, one key theological and ethical implication of continuing human evolution is that humans do not represent the apex or culmination of creation. Contrary to the myths in Genesis 1-2, the understandable anthropocentrism of our spiritual ancestors is incorrect. Humans are simply part of creation; in calling humans to be stewards of creation, God valued all creation equally and trusted us to do the same.

Ongoing human evolution also underscores the error of believing in a utopian Eden from which humans fell out of favor with God. That erroneous belief also presumes anthropocentrism. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time in the Christian calendar for self-examination and repenting of our errors and sins.

Thinking about human evolution identifies more questions than answers. Human knowledge has expanded exponentially over the last century, yet there is so much about which we know little or nothing. Humility, not hubris, best prepares us for today as well as the future.

Finally, ongoing human evolution, along with the continuing evolution of the entire cosmos, makes life seem like an adventure, even from God’s perspective, since God may very well not know where the processes that God initiated will eventually lead. Omniscience, after all, is a human construct. Omniscience may denote knowing everything about past and present without necessarily knowing the future.

What are your musings about the future of our species?

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