What's in a name?

The grandson of Charles Darwin, Charles Galton Darwin suggested the name Homo sapientior (wiser man) when speculating about a future human species. Since we don’t really know if that future species will be wiser, I elected to use a more neutral name: Homo nouveau (new man). At the time of my research I did not have any preconceived notion regarding the answer to What Comes After Homo Sapiens?

Many others have coined new terms for a possible future human species and, in the process, have created some confusion regarding their intent in so doing. The confusion is whether they intended to imply an alternative to Homo nouveau as I have defined it or were they simply renaming Homo sapiens.

This distinction is subtle but important. It is best illustrated by referring to Figure 9 in the book on page 42 (of the print version). This figure illustrates the difference between anagenesis and cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the evolutionary branching of a new species from an ancestral species. It is the emergence of a distinct and new species separate from its predecessor. In the case of Homo nouveau, it is a new human species different from Homo sapiens and, as envisioned, coexisting with Homo sapiens. In fact, there is a biological barrier to interbreeding between the two human species.

Anagenesis does not involve the creation of a new species distinct from its predecessor. It is simply the evolutionary change of that same species over time. Normally, we do not assign a new name to species simply because it has evolved over time. This is true even if the difference between a species at one time is greatly different from that same species at an earlier time. That difference could even be greater than that between an ancestral species and a new species created through cladogenesis. It is quite possible—in fact even likely—that the difference between Homo sapiens of today and the early Homo sapiens of 250,000 years ago is far greater than the difference between today’s Homo sapiens and my speculated Homo nouveau.

In looking at the popular nonfiction science literature, this distinction is not always clear. Take, for example, Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus.  Did Harari intend to suggest that the future Homo deus is a new human species distinct from Homo sapiens (cladogenesis) or is he simply re-characterizing a future Homo sapiens (anagenesis)? Harari’s intent in writing his book was quite different from mine. He was not focused on the issue of speciation so much as the cultural and technological changes that he anticipates Homo sapiens is encountering. My conclusion in reading his book is that Homo deus is not a new species distinct from Homo sapiens, but rather our evolutionary future, i.e. anagenesis. Harari views Homo deus as a kind of “upgrade” to Homo sapiens in which our technologies convey god-like powers on us to improve longevity, happiness, intellectual and other capabilities. The issue of speciation is not discussed.

Similarly, Paul Knoepfler’s book GMO Sapiens uses this term to apply to a subset of future Homo sapiens who have undergone genetic engineering for the purposes of human enhancement. These people are still Homo sapiens.

Max Tegmark suggests that we change the name of our species from Homo sapiens to Homo sentiens in his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. This is in anticipation of the time when artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where it dwarfs human intelligence. Tegmark’s premise it that humans will still be distinguished from these superintelligent machines because of our consciousness or sentience, which the machines will lack.

The book Homo Prospectus brings this notion to the present. The authors are simply suggesting an alternative name for the current Homo sapiens species, suggesting that our unique distinguishing feature is not how “wise” we are but rather how capable we are in imagining the future—prospection.

I would characterize John Hands’ fabulous book Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe as the history of everything. Although he never uses the term Cosmosapiens in the book except in the title, it is obviously meant to imply a broad connection of human evolution to the evolution of the cosmos in general.  In any case, it is not the name of some future species—or more precisely, it seems to be the name of all human species past, present and future.

There is one book that appears to be predicting and naming a new future human species: Homo Evolutis by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. They define Homo evolutis as a species “that directly and deliberately controls the evolution of its own and of other species.” This will be done through germline genetic engineering. But even they muddy the concept. Since it will be Homo sapiens that will do the initial genetic engineering, it is not clear if they are renaming Homo sapiens (anagenesis) or describing the new species that is created by Homo sapiens, which, in turn, will continue to use genetic engineering to create yet more species.

After all is said and done, there is no question that Homo nouveau as I define it will be a distinctly new human species fitting the definition of a cladogenesis speciation event. It is the only clear-cut fully-described such case I have found in the nonfiction literature.  If you know of others, please respond here.