When a complex system reaches the edge of a previously stable state, this is known in systems theory as a bifurcation point, where the system transitions to one new state or another. Occasionally, it splits into two distinct systems, such as when a river branches into two tributaries going in different directions, when a single cell divides into two, or when different species evolve from the same progenitor.
Could this kind of bifurcation happen to the human race? And if so, what would that mean to those in each of the two new branches? GenRich and the naturals
The lives of affluent people in developed countries are so vastly different from the experience of billions in less developed regions that we are effectively already living in two separate human systems.
Meanwhile, in affluent echelons of the developed world, advances in genetic engineering offer the possibility that, within a few decades, the gulf between rich and poor might extend beyond economics to biology. Once scientists can identify sets of genes that lead to better intelligence, physical fitness, health, and longevity, is it realistic to believe that affluent parents, who already invest so much to give a competitive edge to their children, will forego the advantages that genetic engineering could offer?
At first, new generations would appear much like the older ones, only somewhat more intelligent, healthier, and longer lived. Before too long, however, we could envisage a change in the default perception of what constitutes a human being in the affluent world. Gregory Stock, an advocate of human genetic engineering, predicts we will soon see humans as divergent as “poodles and Great Danes.”
He’s not alone in this view. Physicist Freeman Dyson has warned that engineering the human germline “could cause a splitting of humanity into hereditary castes,” while biologist Lee Silver sees what he calls “GenRich” and “naturals” ultimately splitting into “entirely separate species, with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.”
At the current rate of advances in genetic engineering, it’s feasible that Silver’s forecast of separate human species could come about by the 22nd century. As soon as 2050, it's reasonable to expect a young affluent urban couple – let’s call them Cameron and Jude – to be planning their genetically optimized offspring as a normal process.
The ravages of climate change
Meanwhile, what might be happening to the rest of humanity? We can expect more droughts, floods, extreme weather, insect infestations, and higher sea levels. The coral reefs will have virtually disappeared, and many species will be extinct.
But Jude and Cameron will still enjoy the benefits of civilization. They will be fortunate to live in London, one of the affluent cities that, by then, will have spent many billions of dollars to protect against the massive tidal surges that will be part of the new normal.
The story will be very different for coastal cities in less prosperous regions, such as Africa and Southeast Asia. There, beleaguered by political instability, massive poverty, and inadequate infrastructure, cities will be reeling from the ravages of climate change. Reduction in river flows and falling groundwater tables will lead to widespread shortages of potable water. Flooding and landslides will disrupt electricity, sanitation, and transportation systems, all of which will lead to rampant infectious disease.
Meanwhile, even as these cities strain to breaking point, millions more refugees will be streaming in from the rural hinterland where the effects of climate change will be even more devastating. Wealthier residents will flee these urban disaster zones for safer abodes, either in the developed world or newly planned, segregated cities insulating them from the suffering of their compatriots.
We can expect an increasing number of countries to become failed states. A prime example of a country already under this kind of imminent threat is Pakistan, where the population’s demand on resources currently exceeds its biocapacity by 80%.
Along with the human catastrophe of failed states and the misery of billions in overwhelmed coastal megacities, the nonhuman world will be suffering its own form of collapse. Natural ecosystems will be reduced to islands of conservation habitats surrounded by vast agribusiness plantations and urban sprawl. Tropical rainforests will only survive as degraded, shrinking remnants in national parks.
Will it matter to the privileged few?
Cameron and Jude might not, however, consider this situation as gravely as we do, given their reduced expectation of the natural world, and their ability to experience vastly enhanced virtual reality immersions in wildlife reservations, enabling them to feel closer to nature in some ways than many urban residents in today’s world.
On the other hand, might Cameron and Jude be more profoundly disturbed by the convulsions of their world than an equivalent couple in today’s society? Could their enhanced connectivity with what’s left of the natural world cause them to treasure it more keenly?
Might the impending devastation from climate change drive them and their peers to demand a radical redirection in the world’s trajectory?
Selected references: Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Owl Books, 2003). Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).