20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

Evolutionary theory teaches us that life never remains the same. It is constantly changing and adapting. So what might be the next stages in the evolution of humanity and our planet? Here are 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, that try to answer that question.

Illustration by Alexis Rockman, from Future Evolution

1. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks' Culture series deals with the far future of humanity and the AIs who have become our companions, caretakers, and fellow travelers. There are three main predictions that Banks makes, and these are common throughout SF and futurism dealing with tomorrow's humans. One, we have complete control over our bodies, we can live for thousands of years, and our minds can be ported into any body we like, whether that's a giant whale or a robot. Two, humans live mostly in giant, engineered habitats in space such as halo worlds called orbitals. And three, we have invented computer superintelligence called Minds who have a great sense of humor and good ethical values despite a propensity for psychotic violence.

2. The Engines of Light series, by Ken MacLeod
Like his friend Iain M. Banks, MacLeod often writes about a far future where humans can live for eons and traipse around in space. Unlike Banks, however, MacLeod is more interested in how exactly humans get to this state. His Engines of Light trilogy, one of his best series, deals with how a group of mysterious aliens have been experimenting with humanity by relocating colonies of people from Earth to distant planets. Ultimately, these aliens help humans evolve into new creatures who (you guessed it) can live for hundreds of years.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

3. Lilith's Brood and the Patternist series, by Octavia Butler
For most of her career, Octavia Butler wrote about the future of human evolution. In her famous Lilith's Brood trilogy she offers a scenario where aliens rescue humans from the burnt-out remains of our nuked planet. By mating with us, they create a new human species that can control DNA in all living things, as well as regenerate lost limbs and live extremely long, healthy lives. In the Patternist series, humanity is divided between two groups of mutants who eventually become two new human species. One group has powerful psychic abilities but is vulnerable to authoritarian control from a single leader, while the other group forms into feral dog packs ruled by instinct.

4. 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson
In Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel 2312, humanity's future is shaped by our urge to explore and colonize the solar system. Some humans have genetically modified their offspring to be very small, so that they take up less space and fewer resources in crowded spaceships and colonies. Others have become geoengineers who modify ecosystems and animals so that they survive better in space. One character even alters her immune system by drinking microbial life native to the seas of Jupiter's moon Europa. So in Robinson's vision, humanity is in the process of evolving to be better suited to a life in space.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

5. The Bohr Maker, by Linda Nagata
Linda Nagata imagines that our future evolution depends on how we'll use strong nanotechnology to reshape our bodies and the environment. A young woman from the slums finds a lost device called a "bohr maker," which gives her what seem to be superpowers — but are, in fact, just technological enhancements that allow her to control the world at an atomic level.

6. The Nanotech Quartet, by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Like Nagata's novel, the four books in Goonan's celebrated Nanotech Quartet focus on how humanity changes after strong nanotechnology allows us to reshape ourselves and the landscape using complicated programs. As a result, our cities become massive life forms, with buildings that grow like flowers. And humans are all too vulnerable to computer viruses that treat everything as data, including our bodies and minds.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

7. Slan, by A. E. van Vogt
In this classic 1940s novel, we meet the next evolutionary stage of humanity and they're called Slan. These humans have psychic abilities, superintelligence, and heightened reflexes. But they are, of course, subject to great prejudices from the masses of humans who haven't evolved yet. Indeed, this theme echoes throughout science fiction and futurism about tomorrow, most especially in . . .

8. The X-Men, by Marvel Comics
This is the sole comic book series on this list, though we could have included a lot more. That's because X-men perfectly capture one of the most recognized tropes in books about humanity's evolution. Like the Slan, the X-Men possess a genetic mutation that makes them all more or less superhuman. Evolution always begins with mutation, and in science fiction we always hope that mutation will make us more awesome than we are today.

9. More Than Humanby Theodore Sturgeon
One possibility is that humans will form collective hive minds that allow us to become superhuman. Though this idea isn't as widely explored in science fiction and futurism as the idea of superpowered mutants and alien uplift are, Theodore Sturgeon does a fantastic job imagining what it might be like to join a hive mind in this classic novel. Generally, when we see hive minds in science fiction they are represented as dystopian or oppressive, like the Borg. So perhaps it makes sense that we don't generally wish for that to be on our evolutionary horizon.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

10. Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler
Written in the early 1970s, this non-fiction book is widely considered a classic work of modern futurism. In it, Alvin Toffler argues that humanity is evolving very rapidly because our technological landscape is changing so fast. He predicts that humans of tomorrow may have a consciousness that humans today would call schizophrenic. He imagines people appearing to yell into the air, communicating with other people via devices that are nearly invisible (indeed, with bluetooth headsets, it is increasingly hard to separate people on enthusiastic phone calls from people with hallucinations). He also imagines a world of information overload, where our minds are fragmented by data flow; and he speculates we'll have pills that even out our moods to cope.

11. Next Nature: Nature Changes Along with Us, by Koert van Mensvoort and Hendrik Jan Grievink
This collection of essays, images and ideas from Next Nature magazine explores how humans will redesign their bodies and the environment using new technologies. Unlike an X-men or Slan type scenario, where humans randomly mutate into super-beings, Next Nature assumes we'll engineer ourselves into better shape.

12. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway
This essay collection contains Haraway's classic essay, "The Cyborg Manifesto," which suggests that in the future there will be far fewer distinctions between humans, machines, and animals than we have today. Partly this will be the result of changing technologies, but it will also be cause by humans' evolving relationship with machines and nature. As we understand better our places in the ecosystem, it will be harder and harder for us to see a stark division between humans and animals, for example.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

13. Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Bodies, Our Minds — and What It Means to be Human, by Joel Garreau
In this look at the near future of humanity, reporter Joel Garreau explores how surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and high-tech implants could create a species of super-humans — or destroy us.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

14. Citizen Cyborg, by James Hughes
Bioethics professor James Hughes argues that humans are already enhancing themselves using technology and medicine, and this will only become more common as the century wears on. His great thought experiment in this book is to ask how our laws and democratic processes will change to deal with enhanced humans who may be smarter and faster than anyone alive today. He wonders whether the future of our evolution may be something that governments will mandate or forbid.

15. Amped, by Daniel Wilson
In his SF novel Amped, Wilson asks many of the same questions that Hughes asks in his scholarly work in Citizen Cyborg. Wilson imagines a future where people who have been enhanced with brain implants have an identifying mark so that people know when they are dealing with somebody who has been "amped." Again, humans have taken charge of their evolution — and that process has become deeply political.

16. Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering, by Jamais Cascio
Futurist Jamais Cascio explores the way we might transform the geophysical processes of our entire planet in order to change not just the direction of our own evolution — but to transform the way everything around us evolves, too. Geoengineering could help humanity and our ecosystem survive long enough to keep evolving into super-beings or something else. Or it could make our planet completely uninhabitable. Either way, it's possible that humanity will take control of its evolution in the future by changing the environment so that it adapts to us, rather than the other way around.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

17. The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurtzweil
Like Future Shock, Kurtzweil's book is a classic work of modern futurism — and it fits in nicely with the science fiction traditions of Iain M. Banks and Linda Nagata. Kurtzweil believes that humans will invent machine superintelligence, and that those machines (like Banks' Minds) will help humans transform our bodies so that we can live for hundreds of years. Eventually, we'll have devices like the Nagata's bohr maker, so that we can control matter at the atomic level and create an infinite amount of anything we like. He also believes we'll be able to upload our brains into machines, just as the people in Banks' Culture do. After the Singularity, humans will truly emerge as another species.

18. Collapse, by Jared Diamond
A good book to read alongside The Singularity is Near is biologist Jared Diamond's careful work of cautious optimism about how civilizations destroy themselves. Instead of perceiving a future of boundless resources, Diamond describes a future of limited resources that must be used sparingly. If we are to avoid the pitfalls of many great civilizations that exhausted their local ecosystems and fell due to warfare and starvation, we must focus on designing sustainable cities and communities. Machine superintelligence is nice, but before we can get there we need to use our ordinary human intelligence to make Earth livable for as long as possible.

20 Essential Books About the Next Step in Human Evolution

19. Future Evolution, by Peter Ward
Geologist Peter Ward has written a number of provocative books about humanity's fate, and the fate of our planet. Here he's created a fascinating look at what will happen to life on Earth after a mass extinction that takes out humans, and when the planet begins to heat up as the sun changes. Illustrated by Alexis Rockman, the book is a mind-blowing work that straddles the line between science and science fiction — and makes you realize that humans are but a puny little blip in the long history of life's evolution on Earth.

20. Evolution's Arrow, by John Stewart
Australian evolutionary biologist John Stewart (no relation to The Daily Show) wrote this book as a passionate argument in favor of using evolution as a way of thinking about where we want to go next as a species. He explores everything from how we might modify our consciousness, to why we might want to explore space. It's a strange and interesting little book, half philosophy and half science, that manages to persuade us that "evolution" could be the answer to our eternal question, "What is the meaning of life?"