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Stephen Hawking's warning that genetically altered superhumans could wipe out the rest of us doesn't mention a likely characteristic of the future elite

Andy Kiersz
Stephen Hawking

AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel

  • The Sunday Times published an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's posthumously-published book "Brief Answers to the Big Questions" in which the esteemed scientist warned that genetically-enhanced humans could become a dominant overclass.
  • This is a concept that has been explored in science fiction, and emerging technologies combined with rising inequality could lead to such a dystopian outcome.
  • Hawking doesn't write that the first humans to take advantage of genetic modification will be the ones who can afford it, but it's hardly a stretch to expect the ultra-rich to become the first super-humans.

The Sunday Times published an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's posthumously-published book "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," to be released Tuesday, October 16.

In it, Hawking wrote that humanity is "now entering a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA." He predicted that, while it's likely that we would begin with medical interventions to cure or prevent genetic diseases, scientists would eventually discover how to modify more complex traits like intelligence and aggressiveness.

Hawking warned that the power to change DNA could lead to the emergence of a genetically-enhanced elite that could eventually dominate or even wipe out the genetic have-nots of a future civilization:

"But some people won't be able to resist the temptation to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease and length of life.

"Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won't be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate."

So the ultra-elite of the future will be healthy, intelligent, and long-lived. They'll probably also be rich.

Fast Company's Michael Grothaus pointed out that it's not unlikely the super humans will be ultra-rich. After all, who can afford the newest, ground-breaking technology? The people who can afford everything else.

Looking at the current state of society, one can see how Hawking could extrapolate such a genetically polarized future, and how money would factor into it. Income and wealth inequality are high and rising, while intergenerational mobility is stagnant in many parts of the US, as The New York Times recently reported.

Emerging technologies like fast genome sequencing and genetic modification using CRISPR, if accessible only to a small, wealthy elite, could lead to the kind of genetic class divide Hawking described.

The idea of genetic enhancement leading to a dominant class of superhumans has been explored in science fiction, including the classic Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and the 1997 movie "Gattaca." As Professor Hawking warned, emerging technologies could make those dystopian visions come true.

Read the full excerpt from "Brief Answers to the Big Questions" at the Sunday Times here.

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