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Premise

Suppose a cult has been receiving special "visions" of doom far off into the future. Even though this prophecy of doom is not impending in the here and now, these cultists are very long-term minded and buy into it whole heartedly. The visions tell them to grow wings and fly, or at the very least glide a substantial distance. One day, when doomsday hits, this trait will save the cult members -- so spake the infallible seer who received the visions.

Brainwashed as they are, this bunch is still scientific about achieving this goal. They intend to take small steps at first, like jumping off a rock, then a small boulder. The current members are doubtful that they will see any microevolutions in their lifetimes, but are hopeful that down the road, their decedents will thank them for starting the process. On the even broader scale, the idea is that the cult members will, over the generations, create enough microevolutions to achieve the speciation that they desire. Once the speciation is complete, they will have become the lore-exalted "Winged/Gliding Ones."

Question

How close to complete speciation can the cultists reach? Note the cult term for this speciation is becoming the "Winged/Gliding Ones" as full-blown wings might be a tall order, perhaps the seer meant to become like a flying squirrel. Full-blown wings would be great, but latitude is allowed for less flamboyant speciation that achieves the goal. See success metric below:

enter image description here

Further Clarifications:

  • Reproduction: You decide (mate selection, reproduction rate, ect)
  • Genetic Modification: forbidden, those who "cheat" are excommunicated from the cult
  • Strategy/stimulus: here the default is jumping off of progressively larger objects. But if you really want to change it, just include a description of your strategy
  • Effort/devotion: These people have no day job, they can put everything into this effort

  • Success Metric: Achieve speciation whereby the cultists can fly perpetually or at least glide a distance of 100 yards/meters.

  • Timeframe: While the cultists are infinitely patient, it might be more meaningful to include a few time-frame parameters. For the sake of illustration, we could have 1000 years, 10000 years and 100000 years checkpoints. If necessary, feel free to stipulate your own timeframe.

Note: If you think the cultists are doomed to failing complete speciation, try to suggest the best microevolution they could aspire to (i.e. flaps of skin, better joints for absorbing impacts, ect).

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  • $\begingroup$ Humans can't fly. You will go through specialization LONG before you become a glider With a sole goal of flight you will loose sapience long before you get back tot he flying squirrel $\endgroup$ – Andrey Jun 6 '18 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ When you mention the cultist's strategy, are you saying they make these jumps to kill off those who are not sufficiently adapted to survive them, or that they make jumps they know they can survive repeatedly in hopes that their DNA will "decide" wings might be useful? The latter is not possible with our current understanding of evolution, based on survival of the fittest. The former is more likely to breed for strong bones and flabbiness than wings. $\endgroup$ – Josh Jun 6 '18 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, small nit-pick here: To "glide" 100 yards/meters when you are jumping off of a cliff 1000 yards/meters high is very different than gliding 100 yards/meters from a 100 yard/meter height or 10 yard/meter height. Perhaps specifying a proper glide ratio, like 10:1 or 5:1, is in order here? $\endgroup$ – Steve Jun 6 '18 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you want speciation? One definition of a distinct species is "A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms in which two individuals can produce fertile offspring, typically by sexual reproduction." Why would they ever achieve such speciation by a pursuit of flight? If that's not the definition of speciation that you are using, then what is? $\endgroup$ – Brythan Jun 6 '18 at 23:11
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We don't actually know enough to say. Evolution is not an easy topic to tackle.

First off, there's no guarantees that the cultists will achieve their goal. Evolution is not typically viewed as goal-oriented. It just goes where it goes. It's possible that the "fittest" will not be the ones who fly farthest at first, but the ones whose skulls grow thick enough to deal with hitting the ground all the time. Maybe big-but-useless skin-flaps will be selected for via sexual selection. It's hard to say. We don't really have any scale with which to judge the quality of the cultist's process.

Flight has evolved several times: in insects, bats, birds and pterosaurs. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to use fossil records to get a sense of how long this evolution took. Insects, pterosaurs, and birds evolved long enough ago that its hard to date the skeletons. Bats evolved more recently (roughly 50 mya), but their skeletons are terribly fragile and not very good at becoming fossilized, so we don't have many skeletons. I'd say from the evidence we do have, it would be reasonable to say that flight could evolve in a few million years, given the right circumstances (and some luck). However, we simply don't know enough about how evolution works to know how much faster this could happen. There is literally an open debate right now between punctuated equilibrium, which is the idea that evolution occurs rapidly over a short time followed by long periods of equilibrium, or phyletic gradualism, which states that evolution occurs slowly and smoothly.

Based on our own race, we can comfortably say that we can tweak melatonin levels in our skin over the course of maybe a few thousand years, but we don't see anything as dramatic as you want, so it seems unlikely that the cultists would see any good results this side of 10,000 years. But who knows?

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  • $\begingroup$ Good points. But given what we know, 10,000 years is pretty optimistic. (And we'll ignore the issue of whether the "cult" can stay true to its purpose for that long...) $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Jun 6 '18 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkOlson Optimistic, yes. My gut instinct would be that we're talking a million years minimum, but scientifically, we don't know enough to say that 10,000 years couldn't be enough. We can, however, say that 1,000 years is probably too little, given how much adaptation we have seen in the last 1,000 years. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jun 6 '18 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ We actually do know enough. We have a huge amount of experience with selective breeding. Selective breeding, by itself, is not capable of making the sort of gross changes requested to a large mammal in only 500 generations. It's almost in the category of "Well, you haven't seen anyone jump off that bridge. How do you know it will hurt?" Remember: Just a gliding membrane like a flying squirrel's wouldn't be enough -- wing suits are only effective at much higher speeds than you get jumping out of a tree or off all but the highest cliffs. $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Jun 6 '18 at 21:17
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Never

Problem 1, there is no design for a flying human. We can't just grow hang-gliders on humans, there is no anatomical layout to support that. Humans would need to replace their arms to have wings. Humans would need to alter their entire anatomy to fly. Humans can't carry their stupidly large brain, and hundreds of pounds of support tissue that it needs. If you were to dead focus flight with every genetic decision, you would slowly devolve to a small monkey like creature. Soon enough IQ would plummet so low that you would no longer have a cult. Specialization would occult long before this happens.

And by soon I mean millions of years. Christianity has changed inside and out many times in a few thousand, this cult will have zero continuity before they see any real change. They will not know the original language, and not live on a landmass resembling where they started. They will by then have had every disaster they could possibly be preparing for.

How large is this cult anyway. A couple of hundred people for instance would just struggle to maintain enough genetic diversity to continue producing fertile offspring. Making breeding decisions like "He has better flight traits, he should breed with every woman" would require hundreds of thousands of members. This cult would have to be a nation.

So now we have a nation, that only breeds how it's government instructs, that remains for a million years, and is not whipped out by outside forces. They manage to invent and stick to a body plan that can both glide and be sapient. I think this may work in Warhammer 40k universe, but not in something science based.

So what can they do? Just grow strong enough to carry gliders on their backs. Make it part of their ceremonial dress. Have them always on hand when it's time for the apocalypse.

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    $\begingroup$ ‘And so it was decreed that all should wear wingsuits, and the makers of nylon rejoiced’ $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jun 7 '18 at 8:33
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It would take some tech wizardry

Evolution as a process works (roughly, I'm by no means a biologist, but highschool bio was enough for a general idea) through random mutations, followed by breeding, and reproduction of that specific trait. The issue here is that humans don't currently have anything that would even resemble a "helping you survive great falls" trait, so it would be difficult to figure out, initially, who they would want to be breeding simply because we don't know which bits of DNA would push us towards that goal.

That being said, let's say these cultists have some sort of Holy Device (perhaps created by the Infallible Seer while he was under a trance), which is actually a ridiculously advanced DNA analyzer. Not only does it provide a map from gene to trait, but it can generate a genome map based on applying specific traits to a template: say, 'build-template(human, [bird_wings])', 'build-template(human, [flying_squirrel_flaps])' or even 'build-template(human, [penguin_feet, anteater_snout, gills]).'

Then it would need a function to generate a difference profile to the template, accounting automatically for gender, race, or any other trivial difference from the template. If a member was above a certain, ever increasing percent match cutoff, they could be selected to lead the cult forward by reproducing with other above-the-cutoff individuals. You could either select a cutoff low enough to allow sufficient candidates for reproduction, or you could force the 'chosen ones' to produce many offspring.

Eventually, through random chance and selective reproduction, this group would be able to "evolve" into a biologically reasonable creature with wings. However, an interesting side effect of this process of selection would be the automatic separation and stratification of those above and below the genetic similarity cutoff. It's likely that those below the cutoff would be viewed as inferior or lesser, and there could be some fun looking at that. Secondarily, there would have to be a council to choose when to upgrade the cutoff. It would likely be easier to keep their sway over the cultish populace by not informing them about the details of the process, only that they were going through a testing period. You didn't mention any sort of deity, but the council may make something up, just to keep the power dynamic stable. Who all would know about this process and false diety (whether all the chosen, or just the council) would be up to you, but somehow you have to keep the power structure in place over a very, very long time.

Tl;dr : You'd need a really, really advanced version of Google maps to tell them how to get there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding, Griftor! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 6 '18 at 21:13
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There are two ways this can go.

If the cultists are willing to use genetic engineering, they will be much more efficient and will achieve their goal faster. It will still take more generations than we could expect to see in a lifetime, because it will involve a lot of trial and error. But they know what to look for: flabby skin, long arms, light bones. Think of a midget version of Michael Phelps, that got morbidly obese and then lost all the extra weight in record time, with osteoporosis on top of it. That's just the starting template, it will take time to get proper wings from there.

If they are willing to go through the natural selection route... Some of the things that would help flying would be deleterious for us. Lighter bones usually means weaker bones, for example. Also remember that mutations happen at random, they are not controlled. And nature will select those mutations which are helpful now, rather than a mutation that will become useful for a very complex trait in the future. Birds didn't develop flight in one single step - it took dozens of millions of years and more mutations than we can possibly imagine. Each of those mutations would not grant flight by itself, but would provide some advantageous adaptation to the environment where their bearers lived.

For those people, the ability to fall from ever higher heights would be more positively selected than the traits that could someday lead to flight.

Finally, speciation happens not when you develop an amount of traits, but when genetic drifting has been so extensive that members of a given isolated population can no longer breed with members of other populations. Even if your cultists end up developing wings, those could have to do with genes occupying the loci of what is currently genetic garbage for us. Such people could still mate viably with us.

If you do want a separate species... With genetic engineering you can add extra chromosomes, or recombine the existing ones into a smaller amount of chromossomes but with the same genes. Without genetic engineering, there is no saying how many generations it would take - but looking at animals such as wolves and dogs, I'd bet more than a dozen thousand years of guaranteed, planned breeding would be needed. Given the horny nature of humankind, I'd say that it's a wasted effort.

And I don't think this cult would last more than a couple generations, anyway. Crackpots aren't exactly good at dating, usually.

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Now that its complicated... more than the amount of years it would be more like the amount of time between generations, small changes could be seen in just about a few generations with selective breeding, something like the breeds of dogs, actually the nazis attempted something like that, it was called eugenics, so given how terrifically immoral that is, lets suppose this cultists do it anyway, I'd say that in around a 100 generations you could see huge changes in morphology, possibly even the starting of something like flying, 200 generations and it would become a certainty

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    $\begingroup$ The "100" and "200 generations" seems to be rather speculative. All of our experience with selective breeding of animals (and we have hundreds of generations of breeding in many cases) has never produced anything like major morphological change -- merely changes in size. Can you supply some background to those numbers? $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Jun 6 '18 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ sure thing, the 100 to 200 generations its very speculative but its based on those changes of size, they usually become very strong after 6 or 7 generations, given that evolution its nothing else but those changes accumulated over time I think of that as a plausible timing link $\endgroup$ – Eric Jun 6 '18 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ just to stay in perspective, assuming each generation to be around 25 years there had been only around 480 generations since the neolithic (12,000/25=480), and that was without active selection, just normal evolution, anatomically modern humans have been around just for 2000 generations. $\endgroup$ – Eric Jun 6 '18 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see anything in that that supports 100-200 generations as being enough to selectively breed flying humans. $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Jun 6 '18 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ it is because most of the pieces are already there, it would be just to develop something like squirrels or bats, some skin between the arms and the chest and for flying lighter bones and a lot less muscular mass, all of which its not that far fetched, there are already a few separated diseases that causes just that, it would be just to selectively choose them until they become common traits within a population $\endgroup$ – Eric Jun 7 '18 at 17:30

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