Stephen Hawking: Transhumanist

The Daily Galaxy:

Although It has taken homo sapiens several million years to evolve from the apes, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, Stephen Hawking points out in his Life in the Universe lecture,  is about a bit a year.

“By contrast,” Hawking says, “there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA.”


This means Hawking says that we have entered a new phase of evolution. “At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information.”

But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred.

“I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race,” Hawking said.

In the last ten thousand years the human species has  been in what Hawking calls, “an external transmission phase,” where the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. “But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage,” Hawking says, “has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes.”

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, has collapsed to about 50 years, or less.

Stephen-hawking Meanwhile, Hawking observes, our human brains “with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written.”

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.

Hawking must be reading some Kurzweil in his old age with his talk of DNA being replaced by mechanical parts.

But I suppose a real Singularitarian would claim that DNA is going to be replaced by quantum parts, not mere mechanisms.

Casey Kazan: Stephen Hawking: “Humans Have Entered a New Stage of Evolution”


3 responses

  1. “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.”

    Mother Nature might meet Father Flintstone at the door with a rolling pin if he does nothing but chip arrowheads with the boys instead of bringing home the bacon.

    While I agree that genetic control of DNA for medically sound body repair is going to happen, the concept of altering the evolution of the brain, animal or vegetable, gives me some weird vibes.

    As cool it would be to have psychic access to the Googleplex and mega gigabytes of personal storage chips, the human brain would probably still have primevil instincts and desires for personal gain that would have adverse effects on other parts of the universe…G:

    1. I think Hawking says that we can engineer all the bad stuff out of us too, like greed Geez.

      I don’t know, this stuff remains to be seen. We may yet blast ourselves back to the Fred Flintstone era and get bashed in our thick skulls by Mama Nature’s rolling pin!

  2. Hawking is probably right, but, being an organic thinker and lacking an understanding of quantum physics will stick to my anti Jetson attitudes. I have great respect for his contributions to science, but can’t help but believe that evolution is a universal truth and will probably progress as usual till the cows come home.

    Keeping in mind that we shumans aren’t at the end of the chain, evolutionalary speaking, It could be that everything we see and experience is composed of vibrations in the octave and all of the harmonics thereof. A concept that,to me, is infinitely old with a future that is infinitely new.

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