The cutaneous senses are those by which external objects or forces are perceived through contact with the body (“Cutaneous senses”, 2013). The submodalities that relay tactile, thermal, painful, and itching information to the central nervous system (McGlone, Reilly, 2010) are comprised of nerve impulses that travel from the peripheral to the central nervous system (Bishop, 1946). One can conclude that the loss of cutaneous senses can lead to various effects including dangerous circumstances due to this disadvantage. According to researchers at the 2017 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Annual meeting in Boston, our senses of sight, smell, and taste will continue to evolve and change based on the environments we live in (Korte, 2017). There is a mismatch being noticed, though, where the evolution that occurred previously is essentially the opposite of what is occurring now. Our senses are no longer evolving due to a need for acuity in an outside world. Our senses are now changing and evolving in the opposite direction. This paper will discuss some of the consequences of this inversed evolution, and how it [the environment] has pressured influences in the current development of our senses.
Although humans belong to the order Primates, and we do have differences in our senses than lower primates such as lemurs and lorises, our senses have evolved differently due to the environments in which humans find themselves (Wilson, 2015). The Neanderthals, for example, were not sedentary, nor did they live and move in darkness, nor stare at a computer screen for various hours every day (Johnston, 2017). Scientists have warned that this change in evolutionary behavior has helped to make humans short-sighted, obese, and depressed (Johnston, 2017).
A consequence of losing our cutaneous senses is prevalent in burn victims. Research has studied the cutaneous sensibility of skin areas where nerves were regenerated (Metcalf, 2017). In recent years various strategies have been used on burn victims to ultimately regenerate the barrier function of the epidermis while also recovering some aesthetic aspects. Patients have complained, though, of chronic pain in the skin and a loss of sensation altogether (Blais, Parenteau-Bareil, Cadau, Berthod, 2013). That is one of the setbacks and consequences of losing our cutaneous senses. For burn victims, one of the problems to solve is the return of cutaneous sensations and a better quality of life. Tissue engineering is one of the methods being implemented to improve cutaneous nerve regeneration (Blais et al., 2013). If our sense of touch, sensitivity to pressure, and temperature have evolved in the same manner as some of our other senses, then our environments have actually made us more sensitive to our surroundings. In a contradictory manner, though, we may be using our senses less. Humans have become more susceptible to injury, dangerous circumstances, and dangerous situations because our environments are more structured, mechanical, and ultimately industrialized (Moya, 2018).
We are no longer evolving in the same manner as the hunter-gatherer evolved. We do not need to search for food, nor run fast to kill prey, nor run fast to survive. We now have grocery stores with aisles full of food, and we need not run to survive since we have become more domesticated in nature. In 2014, Amazon launched Prime Pantry where food is chosen and purchased on Amazon.com and then delivered to your door. That is even further in the timeline of evolution, and where we are doing less of what made us evolve in the first place. As per Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection we must struggle to survive, hence the acuity in sight, speed in motion, muscle mass. Also, “some variations allow members of a species to survive and reproduce better than others,” (NECSI, n.d.) which means that those that evolve at the necessary speed, and with the necessary traits, will continue their lineage of survival. This is what made us evolve from lower primates to higher primates, for example. Now evolution is partially coupled with industrialization, and how we adapt to our surroundings in that sense (Moya, 2018). We are beginning to order our groceries. Companies like Amazon have revolutionized retail – we go to brick and mortar stores less – and other like Uber and Lyft are taking the majority places, while the minority is who drives.
This is an inversed evolution if compared directly to how and why humans have evolved in the past. We needed to become stronger, faster, keener, more sensitive to our cutaneous senses, and all of our senses, in fact. If we were to agree with Ray Kurzweil, though, then we would be living through the singularity by 2045 (Galeon & Reedy, 2017). The singularity is that point in time when all of the advances in technology, most specifically in artificial intelligence, will have created a machine that is smarter than a human being (Galeon et al., 2017). Now that we are not evolving to run faster, gather food for survival, and procreate more efficiently we may be evolving to align better with our surroundings – digital technology. This seems to be the mismatch that researchers and scientists are seeing. Our eyesight is getting worse. We are more sensitive to light. We feel pain more easily as well. Kurzweil believes that the singularity is a moment in time for humans to improve. Essentially, the singularity may be ripe for human evolution to occur. Can we plan evolution, though? We are not AIs, programmed by someone to create X and Y variables. Kurzweil does believe that by the 2030’s we will be connecting our neocortex to the cloud (Galeon et al., 2017). We may have our thoughts easily accessible to whomever has access to our “cloud”. This can be a whole new type of crowdsourcing, where the masses actually work together in the comfort of their own homes without needing to interact much (Moya, 2018).
The industrialized, and now digitized environment in which we live has pressured these changes in our evolution and this different state of evolution as well. We are evolving to adapt to our surroundings which include computer monitors, touch-screen cell phones, Bluetooth headphones, Talk-To-Text communication, and AIs around the house that tell us the weather, traffic, or a silly joke. The pressures of the past are not what are causing our senses to evolve now. We are losing the sensitivity we once had, and it is more so because we do not need it as much as we did then. Haptics are one example of where we are headed. Augmented reality and wearable devices are another. It may be, though, that something we will be making a lot of use of, though, is speech, or a form of communication. We will need a way to interact, and speech will be the primary method. We are moving towards the singularity in every way, and there is no stopping that. Our environments have caused our senses to evolve in what seems to be a backwards motion. They are now less “sensitive” to our environments as we have known them. It may be other senses are becoming more prevalent in our need to adjust to a new normal.
Future Research of Cutaneous Senses
Future research on the topic of our senses and evolution may include further discussion of the singularity, and how our senses will adapt to a world that is less hands-on. More needs to ne known about current technology trends, but also about the nature and use of our senses in current behavior – socially, professionally, personally. This is research that seems to tie in with future artificial intelligence possibilities, but certainly knowledge that can augment the understanding of human beings and their place in the Kurzweil’s singularity of 2045.
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Galeon, D & Reedy, C. (2017, October 5). Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045. Futurism. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/kurzweil-claims-that-the-singularity-will-happen-by-2045/
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Johnston, I. (2017, February 20). ‘Mismatch’ between the way our senses evolved and modern world is making us ill, experts warn. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/pollution-evolution-senses-sight-smell-taste-short-sighted-obesity-depression-aaas-a7590666.html
Korte, A. (2017, February 20). Surroundings and Evolution Shape Human Sight, Smell, and Taste. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from the American Association for the Advancement of Science website: https://www.aaas.org/news/surroundings-and-evolution-shape-human-sight-smell-and-taste
McGlone, F. (2010). The cutaneous sensory system [Abstract]. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 2, 148-159, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.08.004
Wilson, G. (2015, July 20). The way our senses developed: Why we see and smell the way we do. ABC News. Retrieved from the ABC News website: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-20/the-way-our-senses-developed/6626456