Will advances in biotechnology usher humanity through the glass ceiling of auto-evolution? Might science be moving faster than Darwin bargained for? Is the concept of a uniquely evolved hominid species too much to imagine?
The completion of the human genome project eight years ago sparked an explosion in biological curiosity that hasn’t been seen before. The examination of the informational code that each one of us carries has undoubtedly brought us one step closer to finding out who we are. But a core of scientists, ears firmly to the ground, are beginning to concern themselves with a question that, they believe, will become more and more relevant in an age of accelerating biotechnologies. The genome has brought us some way in understanding what humanity is. But, did Darwin predict that knowing more of who we are, might drastically change who we’re going to be?
“There are weeks when decades happen. And there are decades when weeks happen,” explained Juan Enriquez, the co-author of Homo Evolutis, at a conference in spring of this year. Enriquez believes that we are occupying a period of immense change. With a rich bed of evidence harvested from the achievements of biomedical science and gene research, who is to say he’s wrong? Enriquez paints a vision of a human race subject to control over its own evolutionary destiny. Now that we are equipped with the knowledge, and in many cases, technology to do this, will there be anything there to stop us?
In Enriquez’s future, humanity will manipulate not only its own inheritance of genes, but will also be capable of a myriad of other self-benefitting feats. Enriquez envisions that the technology of optogenetics might be employed in the use of neural imaging to create an informational record of the brain that we have never seen before. This could lead to a time where one might download neural information in binary; or, more simply, keep one’s memories, thoughts and feelings on a hard drive. He also draws inspiration from recent stem cell research in China which now makes it possible to create an entire cloned organism from once skin cell. The implications are unfathomable.
Another ethicist, Harvey Fineburg, speaks confidently of a neo-evolution, which places humanity as the sovereign of evolution. “We can take a process that would normally require one hundred thousand years and compress it into something which might take 1000 years, possibly even 100 years”. Fineburg refers to a method of protein engineering called directed evolution. It uses laboratory technique to accelerate mutation and create an ultimate selection of desirable attributes for a cell. What we’re seeing is a microcosmic acceleration of evolution. These scientists have harnessed the driving force that leads to survival of the fittest to create something which has never existed in nature. Already, we are pushing the boundaries of what we thought conceivable and what many consider manageable.
The most damning evidence for this future is drawn from the rapid developments in biotechnology. Fineburg states that, “…gene technology is moving as fast as that associated with computers. In 1990 it cost $2.7 billion to sequence the human genome. It is estimated that now the same task could be achieved for as little as $20,000.”
So when human is the master of its own evolutionary destiny where are we to go from here? Enriquez believes that such control wielded over the development of a species is leading us to a change in order of magnitude so large that we might be on the cusp of a neo-evolution into a different species altogether: a super hominid: The Homo Evolutis.