How Big is the Human Evolutionary Turn?

Are humans just another species in a long evolutionary line? Or, are humans part of an unknown and unfolding large change in the nature of evolution itself – something beyond the species? Common opinion, I think, holds to neither of these; instead, humans are considered to be a very special species, which has somehow surmounted and escaped evolution-as-usual. Evolution led up to us; today we ride airplanes. Sure, we might go extinct, possibly in some sci-fi version of apocalypse or some primitive version of evolution after an ecological collapse. But in general, we are assumed to be somehow post-evolutionary.

What is odd to me about these questions is that almost no one considers the second option – that humanity might be an unusual twist within the flow of evolution. I can understand that none of us consider the first option or for us to be “just another species” in the regular ups and downs of species. Clearly, no other species has ever come close to riding in airplanes.

But if the first option is unlikely, the third, and common, option that we are special and riding in control of our own destiny is effectively giving the finger to the scientific study of evolution to just go along with all ancient myths that humans took over from the gods to inherit the earth. In science this comes out as silence about the evolutionary status of the modern world while investigating the collapse or “the state shift” that might occur to the biosphere (Barnosky et al 2012, p. 52). Scientists talk tepidly about cultural evolution and some cooperative tendencies that might be tied to the rise of “complex societies” while ignoring how this world of pipelines and data centers came into being. Like those who believe god created the world for humans, evolution just managed to select a species who was the wunderkind of life. The only interesting questions, it seems, are how might the civilization edifice fall down.

In fact, when it comes to the modern world science and fiction have formed a strong symbiotic bond with a unique genre of literature. Even science-non-fiction does not stray from the pattern of human exceptionalism. For instance the writer Yuval Harari in his acclaimed book, Homo Deus, outlines one human future where the data centers take over and another one, “techno-humanism”, where the humans merge with robots. Per Harari (2016, p. 410): “Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms.”

Right. Human god! This might well be true, but I see not much difference in this picture than in updated religious fables and ancient myths that might put wings on humans. Where is science in this picture? It would appear as if science is all over the world and the past measuring the spread of matter and species but is unable to look at ourselves. We’re not the usual species like all the rest; so, maybe we can just make up what we are such as Harari’s supermen in the cosmos. Evolution is the past; we are the future. Right.

And this brings us back to science and question number two. Can science and evolutionary theory offer some understanding of our obviously unusual place in the four billion year evolutionary parade? Doing this requires rejecting positive answers to both question one and viewpoint three. We are definitely very different than any other species, and we are not freed from the process of evolution into some silly Star Wars fantasy universe (nor into some religious escape). The only logical possibility for us outside denial of our specialness or the hubris of imagined escape from evolution is that humans are evolution taking a turn, a fairly significant one.

And this position is helpful because then we can begin investigating a turn from two directions – human evolutionary history up to the present and the nature of big changes in evolution. As a reminder, there have been other big changes before. Notably, for three billion years life only had small, unicellular organisms. And then 540 million years ago and after about 100 million years of partial successes, coordinating-multicellular organisms made of trillions of cells (and hundreds of other cell species) appeared in a flurry of evolutionary creativity into large and unusual creatures. For three billion years no organisms visible to any passing eye; then in short order after the 540 million years ago Cambrian explosion lots of animals and plants, big and small. That’s a big change in evolution.

For humanity to be different than evolution by species as usual but yet be firmly within the general laws of evolution, we have to be such a turn, a big one.

I emphasize that for humanity and civilization to be firmly part of evolution then evolution must be making a big change because this is the only way for evolution to include all the novel things seen in the last 10,000 years – airplanes, cattle ranches, and the internet. Pursuing this direction is not just a logical turn but it requires an effort of imagination in addition to the studies and the modeling. What would humanity as a big change in evolution look like? We should note right away that quite a few evolutionary biologists use the phrase “major transition(s)” when speaking of humans. This is the same as “big change(s).”

But then, how big? Here are some examples. On the very big end of an imagined evolutionary change for humans is the old concept that humans are actually part of a slowly forming “superorganism” that encompasses all of humanity and all of our buildings and technology. This view comes from ancient China and Plato as well as is associated recently with Edward Wilson (2012). On the smaller and rather big bumps end of major transitions some academics have described “major transitions” or “revolutionary changes” with such examples as the control of fire (Corning 2018, p. 154), the acquisition of language (Szathmary & Maynard Smith 1995, p. 228), or the adoption of institutions such as for food-sharing or irrigation (Powers et al 2016, p. 1). You can see that evolutionary thinkers have quite a range – from a superorganism of the whole planet to the mere addition of language. The former is really big; the latter could be interpreted as a new, cognitive tool in the human arsenal which is less about evolution itself and more about the enhanced powers of we, the special species.

The biggest recent contribution of evolutionary theory to a vision of humanity’s place in the grand panorama is the strong growth of the field of cultural evolution. This understanding splits its bets between the special species vision and a novel turn in the evolutionary process. Cultural evolution is the process where individuals “inherit” useful behaviors or technology tricks from others by copying their behaviors. Evolution is not just by genes but by social learning. Other species have this ability too as when birds learn the songs of other birds or when a group of chimpanzees all have learned a special technique to use a dipping stick to extract termites from a mound. We humans are very good at it (Henrich 2016). We are learning machines. Thus we are leaders in a new type of evolution – cultural evolution by learning. And at the same time, this addition to theory subtly recognizes us humans as, once again, the talented species. And this view is about individuals so that there is nothing bigger about it than individual abilities.

On the bigger end of a vision about human evolution are some spiritual and some cybernetic views of human evolution. The most renown spiritual vision of human evolution comes from the scientist and priest Teilhard de Chardin (1966) at mid twentieth century who held that human consciousness was a new domain, a noosphere, that was a successor to the biosphere and that would merge with the godhead. On the cybernetic side a strong evolutionary vision was formulated by Joel De Rosnay (2000), who imagined humans as symbiotic with our machines. In general evolutionary thinkers have ignored such visionary thinkers, but recently David Sloan Wilson (2019, pp. 221-2) has tentatively reached towards De Chardin’s vision to the degree that cultural evolution allows us to set the conditions of selection towards our goals.

Evolutionary thinkers have reached toward more medium bigness for the scope of current human evolution. John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary (1999) posit that we are a different type of social organism that can portion out division of labor by use of the unique tool of language and that this major transition has “unpredictable consequences” in our future (p. 3). Some cultural evolution theorists envision that selection is now significantly taking place between cultural groups of people rather than between individuals (e.g., Wilson 2019). Peter Corning (2018) focuses not just on group selection but on the synergies among groups and key social components, tasks, and roles to effectively mark an all-inclusive view of economics as the process driving current trends. And there are scientists tangential to evolution who see large key aspects of modern human activity. Two British chemists (Williams & Rickaby 2012) approach evolution itself as a chemical phenomenon that happens to include organisms and species from biological evolution. For them the exploitation of new sources of energy and new chemical elements in new compartments (i.e., industrial chemical containers) and with new chemical modes of communication is an indication of another phase of chemical evolution just like any other. For them humans are the current bump in chemical complexity succeeding anaerobic, then aerobic, then eukaryotic, then multicellular periods of life. Another view of humans tangential to evolution is based on information and sees humanity as a global brain so that: “The idea is that global interactions have made the people on this planet interdependent to such a degree that together they form a single superorganism,…. The communication with the superorganisms’s physical body is supported by the internet of Things…”

As I collect views such as the above I realize that what I am thinking of as “medium” views of a human turn for evolution are actually quite large. On the down side of such views is that no one outside of a few specialists take them that seriously – we will not hear about these on the nightly news.

So, back to our dilemma that either modern humanity is outside of evolution or part of a very big turn in evolution where the first option is illogical. Another way to track such a potential conception is to look at a bottom-up view: What must such an evolutionary conception cover or explain? For starters it must cover some of the key features mentioned above: the appearance of language, complex societies, significant new energy and chemical exploitations, the electronic commons, and hyper-developed cultural evolution. But there are others. Still unaddressed is the domestication of plants and animals which is effectively a co-evolutionary growth with hundreds of species that is gobbling up a large portion of the biosphere. Equally significant and unaddressed as part of evolution is the role of the heavily built environment so that the human niche is largely constructed. This has been studied for its many effects but not for its evolutionary significance (e.g., Hicks & Beaudry 2010). And as Corning (2018) hints in emphasizing relationships of synergy for any strong change in evolution and as others have attempted (e.g., the key dynamics of humanity – economics – will undoubtedly figure in an evolutionary treatment of our moment.

Even a casual glance at all of these factors together – coevolution with domesticates, language, complex societies, significant new energy and chemical exploitations, the electronic commons, hyper-developed cultural evolution, massively built environment, and the dynamics of economics – suggests that only a large causal frame could cover all the factors. Human evolution must be a big turn in evolution. And then you can add in the truly breath-taking dimensions such as the changes in the great chemical cycles – carbon dioxide and reactive nitrogen (Smil 2013, p. 236) for example – and the accelerated extinctions of species. Such limiting cycles will mean that the other factors above will be forced into tighter systems. Whether tighter or scattered into more local group systems, evolution will have had to develop by interlocking systems to absorb this global self-organization that is civilization. The sooner it does so; the better able we will be to navigate the continuing growth pains. No one ever said birth is easy. And we don’t even know how big is the baby.

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Corning, Peter. 2018. Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind. World Scientific.
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De Rosnay, Joel. 2000. The Symbiotic Man: A New Understanding of the Organization of Life and a Vision of the Future. McGraw-Hill.
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Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton UP.
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Maynard Smith, John & Eörs Szathmary. The Origins of Life. Oxford University Press. 1999.
Powers, Simon, C. Van Schaik & L. Lehmann. 2016. “How institutions shaped the last major evolutionary transition to large-scale human societies.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: B. 371:1687.
Smil, Vaclav. 2013. Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature. MIT Press.
Szathmary, Eors & J.Maynard Smith. 1995. “The major evolutionary transitions.” Nature. V. 374: 227-32. March 16.
Williams, R. & R. Rickaby. 2012. Evolution’s Destiny: Co-evolving Chemistry of the Environment and Life. The Royal Society of Chemistry.
Wilson, David Sloan. 2019. This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon Books.
Wilson, Edward O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright.


  1. Jane Kogan

    Thanks, Jake. Read it right through. Something I had never really thought about. I find your argument compelling. Jane

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