Anthropologist believes “cultural evolution” is on the horizon for human species

By Sarah Nolan

Evolutionary anthropologist Cadell Last believes humans are undergoing an evolutionary change as drastic as mankind’s transition from primates, which occurred some 5 to 8 million years ago. His theory, published earlier in 2014 in “Current Aging Science,” suggests that as early as 2050, humans will reproduce much later in life — if at all — and have an average life expectancy of 120.

“I feel like the future of human life history could look a lot like an extended childhood where individuals will be able to freely engage in cultural activities without the stress of ensuring that their activities have market value,” Last wrote in an email.

Last, a Ph.D. student at the Global Brain Institute in Brussels, emphasized this trend has existed since the beginning of time.

“Throughout the evolutionary history of primates there have been three major life history transitions towards later sexual maturation and longer lifespan,” Last wrote in “Current Aging Science.” 

The first three transitions took place from animals like lemurs to monkeys, then to apes and eventually humans. However, Last believes there will soon be a fourth transition.  

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    While the three initial transitions to species that have delayed reproduction and longer life expectancies can be attributed to changes in brain size in mammalian species, Last believes that the fourth transition will be primarily cultural, not biological.

    He argues that before the Industrial Revolution, both fertility and mortality rates were high. 

    The post-industrial world saw a decrease in both, a result of increased economic development and industrialization after the discovery of fossil fuels.

    Last refers to this as “parents choosing to invest time and energy in the ‘quality’ of offspring as opposed to the ‘quantity’ of offspring” in his theory.

    “As far as the developed world is concerned, these two trends associated with the demographic transition are expected to continue accelerating (i.e. reduction of fertility and mortality) as improvements in socioeconomic conditions only serve to intensify these processes,” he wrote in his theory.

    Last emphasizes that the size of our brain is no longer growing, but the amount of information we take in every day is. That factor, paired with today’s advanced technology, will push individuals to explore cultural vocations such as music, art, science and engineering, he said.

    “Robotics and artificial intelligence should completely eliminate routine, low-skill, low-education jobs within the next 20 years. They will probably eliminate many not-so-routine jobs as well. This should allow for a dramatic shift from human cultural abilities focused on mundane problem-solving tasks to human cultural abilities focused on more exciting and creative endeavors,” he claimed.

    Rachel Anderson, senior in LAS, said she does not believe that Last’s theory is realistic, especially the idea that technology will eliminate so many jobs.  

    “I don’t think that people are going to have more time to spend on things they enjoy,” she said. “Even for college-educated students, jobs in many fields are getting more sparse and competition is fierce and becoming even more horrible.”

    Charles Roseman, a professor in evolutionary genetics in Anthropology, is not quick to stand by Last either. He said he believes that Last’s ideas of higher complexity, older age and a better life do not hold true for many people in the world.

    Roseman said he believes Last’s theory is only applicable to the economic elite.

    “I think that what you’re looking at is a very old argument that’s being rehashed with the latest window dressing,” he said. “This is evolutionary in the sense that we wouldn’t recognize it today; there’s a lot different ways we talk about evolution historically. This is one of them. Everything is getting better, everything is for the better and progressing, ignoring the fact that there’s a lot of variation and extinction.”

    Roseman said Last’s theory is no different than evolutionary theories from the 1940s and 1950s. He said that by looking at cultural publications, the future was portrayed as “a leisurely lifestyle,” where “robots clean your house and there are flying cars.”

    Sarah can be reached at [email protected].