Technological Change and Alien Encounters

02 May 2013

"For about two million years all humans had were stone tools, but the technological change is accelerating – every generation has undergone more change than the last. Every technological invention facilitates a whole new set of possibilities, so the pace of human technological change is just going to get faster and faster."

Human evolution in the digital age is a hot topic in scientific and social debates. This weekend, South Australian Museum Evolutionary Biologist Dr Mike Lee will present his ideas on how fast we adapt physically and mentally to our gadget-filled environment. This fascinating talk is part of TEDxAdelaide  on Saturday 4 May titled Technological change and alien encounters: lessons from the fossil record.

Dr Lee will use evidence from the fossil record and important evolutionary events such as the Cambrian Explosion and dinosaur extinctions, to suggest interesting ideas on the future of human evolution, as well as evolution on alien worlds.

"There's a lesson from the past about how humanity will probably evolve – and that lesson is the Cambrian Explosion. For two billion years evolution did almost nothing, and then in the space of about 10 million years everything happened," Dr Lee said.

During the Cambrian Explosion, all the major groups of animals we see today evolved simultaneously.

He explained that today there is a general consensus about the occurrence of an evolutionary cascade: the evolution of predation happened around the same time as the evolution of vision and locomotion, leading each feature to influence and accelerate the evolution of the others.

Dr Lee has suggested that we may not even recognise ourselves (technologically speaking) a few hundred years into the future. If we came into contact with an alien race on a similar technological evolutionary trajectory to ours, they would need to be at a similar stage of technological advancement for us to be able to meaningfully relate to them. The possibility of that is tiny.

Dr Lee is a passionate scientist who strives to understand how life has changed and why. In his office at the South Australian Museum, he's been attempting to fine-tune a program to better understand evolutionary history. It's a program that creates the phylogenetic (or family) trees that are used by biologists to visualise relationships between different species.

Dr Lee describes himself as an evolutionary biologist with a wide range of interests and a knack of connecting different people from different fields for collaborative projects. "I try and understand important evolutionary problems, such as the origins of major, novel evolutionary groups, such as birds from dinosaurs or snakes from lizards."

It's understandable, given his upbringing in the '80s in Brisbane, living in an area laden with bearded dragons and other creatures. "I was basically a kid who liked chasing after lizards," he laughed. "I had great mentors and role models at the University of Queensland, and a couple of really inspiring lecturers who got me on the path to research."

Dr Lee then completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, where he studied fossil reptiles from South Africa. Subsequent work has led to major discoveries that have made the cover of Nature, such as snakes with legs, and the first complex eyes in the fossil record. He is Senior Researcher at the South Australian Museum and Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide, and is working on the interface of molecular and morphological evolution.

So what does an evolutionary biologist do on a day-to-day basis?

"I used to do a lot more field work," Dr Lee explained, "but now a lot of what I do is about analysing datasets – both genetic and morphological. We have a huge influx of data, and the biggest bottleneck in scientific research isn't chasing animals and getting data anymore – it's being able to analyse it."

Dr Mike Lee will be speaking in Session 2 at the TEDxAdelaide Explore event: Bonython Hall – 231-232 North Terrace, Adelaide, SA, 5000.