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We are on the verge of creating an entirely new species of human.

Now, my clear penchant for genetics, technology, and biomedical research might have you thinking that I’m referring to some kind of cybernetic monstrosity concocted by the New World Order to act as their war minions and slave class.  I might be, on any other day.  Today though it’s something different.

The correct term for this process, the process of creating new species, is speciation.  It’s what happens when a new branch of evolutionary identity starts to grow away from what’s currently known.  It happens all the time, mind you.  Every form of life on Earth is evolving, always have been, always will be.  In large populations – like the human population, which is somewhere near 7.3 billion people as you read this – speciation is rare.  In fact, the human population is undergoing pretty much the opposite of speciation right now.  We intermingle and breed across diverse genetic groups, and this has the effect of homogenizing our collective gene pool.  In terms of the health of our species as a whole, this is a favourable thing.  It creates gene lines with diverse origins, and tends to promote the most successful genetic traits that our various races maintain.

I’m sure you’ve seen the picture of the beautiful Mediterranean woman, with the golden brown skin and incredible green eyes, whom scientists claim embodies the typical human female appearance in several hundred years.  That picture is the product of statistical analysis based on common phenotypes and diversity trends from around the planet.  Eventually, Homo sapiens will sport a typically brownish skin colour, will maintain certain height and weight ratios, and will have predominantly greenish eye colour.  That isn’t to say that lighter or darker skin colours won’t exist, or that brown or blue eyes will be unheard of, it just means that on average, those traits will become rarer over time.

As mentioned, speciation is almost the exact opposite.  It’s what happens when part of a population becomes separated and isolated from the rest.  Over time, the two groups will evolve in different directions.  This is because the new mutations that appear in each group with each new generation aren’t shared between them, and thus they take distinctly different paths from the point of separation.  If, at some time in the future, they again come into contact with the other group, they can again begin to diversify their genetic identity, as long as they haven’t been separated for so long that they’re no longer genetically compatible for mating purposes.  When that happens, it’s considered that a new species has emerged.

This happens all the time, and has happened since the first single celled organism came into being a couple billion years ago.  It’s easiest to see in populations of animals that we’ve bred for specific characteristics, such as dogs, cattle, chickens, and even in wheat and corn.  In the case of dogs for example, at some point in our past, once an advantageous relationship had been formed between wolves and man, the men started selecting pups from litters that had the best chance of having the most desirable traits.  Eventually, the humans began limiting the opportunity to breed to only the animals that showed those characteristics, which gave those animals (and their genes) a better chance at survival.  In time, the humans had bred an entirely new species of canine, the dog.  It was distinctly different from the wolf, both in appearance and behaviour, and through continued selective breeding ultimately became what we know as the hundreds of different dog breeds there are today.

In the case of dogs, however, that separation or isolation I mentioned that’s necessary for speciation wasn’t a physical barrier or great space between the animals.  It was the humans actively selecting for desirable traits.  So some cross-breeding did occur between the parent species of wolf and the modern dog (and still does today), so while domesticated dogs are considered a unique species, they aren’t so different from wolves that they’re genetically incompatible.  This fact is why we have some breeds of dog that aren’t readily identifiable to the layman; we call them mutts, usually.  These dogs are the product of genetic diversification among the many breeds alive today, and are another example of the homogenization of genetic traits in large populations.

As I said, the key part of this process is the separation of the two breeding populations.  It needn’t be a physical barrier, a large distance is often all it takes for the speciation process to begin.  All one needs to do is look at the striking variety of Galapagos finches, as Charles Darwin did, to see that even short distances, combined with unique evolutionary selection pressures is enough to start the ball rolling.

And this brings me to the precipice we humans seem to be standing on.

I suspect there isn’t a single person reading this who isn’t aware that NASA and other space agencies around the world are planning a manned mission to Mars.  If you weren’t aware of that, well you are now.  That mission is exciting and holds much potential for scientific advancement, as well as the sheer thrill of achieving something, as a species, that’s never been done, and was long thought completely impossible.  Interplanetary travel!  Incredible!

Mars One, whose mission is to “establish a human settlement on Mars”, is largely thought by experts and non-experts to be a one-way-mission.  That is, those who are selected to go will not be returning to Earth.  In other words, it’s a suicide mission, albeit a scientifically fruitful one.  At this point, we don’t really know how long or how successfully those lucky (or unlucky) astronauts will be able to survive on the surface of the red planet, though I don’t think there’s anyone betting on them becoming a permanent Martian colony.  That doesn’t mean we won’t get to that point eventually, it’s just that these first pioneers of deep-space travel aren’t likely to survive beyond their own lifetimes, however long that may be.

But here’s the interesting bit; if they do manage to survive indefinitely, or more likely, when we send another crew to establish a permanent colony in the future, those people will effectively become Martians.  Their home will be Mars, not Earth.  If/when those people begin to breed on the Martian surface, in what can only be described as an alien atmosphere, with drastically different values for gravity, oxygen, CO2, UV radiation, visible light radiation and a hundred other variables, their offspring will live their entire lives in an environment that applies such drastically different evolutionary selection pressures that there’s no telling how they might end up.  And given enough time, say 50 generations, perhaps more, the sons and daughters of the first Martian settlers will no longer be human.  Given the vast distance between the planets, the likelihood that physical contact between worlds will be extremely rare, and the enormous difference in selection pressures in that environment, establishing a settlement on Mars is not akin to colonising another planet, but rather splitting humanity into two distinct, and eventually, two genetically incompatible groups…or species.

I won’t dare to tell you whether the above is a desirable outcome or not, for I’m very much undecided myself.  It invokes visions of interplanetary war, exotic Martian diseases, and the emergence of new space-cultures so alien to us now that our imaginations are utterly incapable of envisioning them.  Though I do wish I could look into the future and get a glimpse of our Homo martis neighbours.