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How Humans Are Still Evolving To Avoid Extinction

How Humans Are Still Evolving To Avoid Extinction
By David Ewing Duncan

As humans accelerate our impact on the earth and on ourselves, will 50,000 years of self-evolution both destroy and save us?

A review of Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.

Humans may be approaching a dodo moment of truth, a nexus where we either adapt to rapid changes in our environment, or go extinct. (The dodo being the flightless, goofy-beaked bird native to the island of Mauritius obliterated by hungry European sailors during a few decades in the 1600s.)

Unlike the dodo, however, humans so far have avoided annihilation. This is despite threats that ranged from saber-toothed tigers 10,000 years ago to thermonuclear bombs now. We have adapted so well that over seven billion of us dominate vast swathes of our planet, up from a mere tens-of-thousands living haphazardly on the African veldt 150,000 years ago. Many of today’s billions—though certainly not all—live in a degree of comfort and security unimagined even by our grandparents’ generation.

Still, many people feel a nagging anxiety that somehow our marvelous technologies might turn against us. As human activity has accelerated at an ever more dizzying pace in the past 150 years, and even faster in the past 50 years, we live our lives even as a vague unease manifests in places such as the local multiplex, where Hollywood spins out one post-Apocalyptic blockbuster after another.

Now here comes a book by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans called Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth to provide a brisk and highly readable survey of the wonders and potential calamities humans have zealously created to avoid going dodo. Our ingenuity has brought us everything from air conditioners and clean water to antibiotics and the Internet. It also has spawned climate change, an alarming rise in autism and allergies, a hole in the ozone near Australia, and the extinction of hundreds of species. (Anyone who denies this is a dodo.)

Futurist Enriquez and biologist-turned-investor Gullans dub this human-generated fervent “unnatural selection,” a process that has not only altered Earth, but humans as well. One of the points that separates this book from both the “we’re screwed” and the “we’re too smart to fail” camps is that each side is given their due. The book then swerves into fresher territory to suggest that the human organism has not remained as static as we may think.

For instance, radical changes in our diet and lifestyle, plus a changing environment have caused a change in 7 percent of human DNA in just the past 5,000 years—a nano-blink in evolutionary terms. New studies also suggest that experiences ranging from war to exposure to chemical toxins by grandparents have caused changes in grandchildren just two generations later. (Check out the book excerpt on the grandparent effect in Wired.)

Sex patterns also have changed, many would think for the better given the pill and other forms of birth control that allow recreational sex with fewer consequences, including overpopulation. Yet changes in human sexuality have caused everything from potentially catastrophic drops in birth rates in Japan, Italy, and other countries to a lessening of libido in a surprisingly large number of people who are uninterested in sex. (See the chapter titled “Brave New Sex.”) In part this knowledge comes from a better understanding of epigenetics, processes in our bodies whereby environmental exposures and other factors can turn on and off genes within a single lifetime that can be passed on to offspring.

More recently, unnatural selection has been augmented by what the authors call “nonrandom mutation,” another adaptation where humans have learned to deliberately read and rewrite the genetic code of people and other organisms. We are also delving into the mysteries of the brain, creating powerful drugs and other treatments for disease, manipulating cells to regrow damaged tissue, and beginning to build devices and implants that are already fusing human and machine. Much of this remains crude and not yet ready for use in humans, though many new technologies that now seem like science fiction are likely to work in some form in the near future.

“What thrives on Earth now depends on an evolutionary seesaw,” write the authors. “On the one side sits the full weight of nature, of the traditional forces of evolution, natural selection and random mutation, leading to extraordinary diversity, continuous extinction, and speciation. On the other side sit the wishes of a single species, H. sapiens.”

After addressing this seesaw in some detail—although at times the book moves too briskly through the thickets of new technologies—the authors then offer their solution. Essentially, it’s a throwback to that kitschy, but prophetic 70’s television show “The Six Million Dollar Man” and a line spoken in the opening credits that insisted: “We can rebuild him.” (“Him” being Major Steve Austin, played by actor Lee Majors.) After a devastating accident Austin is rebuilt into a super-bionic being able to run faster and hear and see better, among other improvements.

Enriquez and Gullans—co-founders of Excel Venture Management—have spoken and written about this rebuilding idea before. In 2009 Enriquez delivered one of the more popular TED talks ever—with 2.5 million views—that he called Homo evolutis. This became a short TED book written with Gullans under the same title. Both the talk and the book take a grand sweep of hominid evolution to suggest that the Earth has seen many species and subspecies of hominids before, including Neanderthals and Homo habilis, among others now extinct—and will see more. Except that this time humans may design and build their own version.

If this sounds fantastic, it is. Except that many of the technologies that the authors describe have a high probability of actually happening in people in the next 50 to 100 years. This is something that even a skeptical journalist like myself has come to realize as I cover the medical technology space.

Which begs the question: Who gets to decide what our new human species might look like? One suspects that U.S. Senator Ted Cruz or Iran’s supreme leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might design a new human using different specs than one the authors – or you or me — might build.

Enriquez and Gullans discuss many of the ethical and moral issues raised by their provocative proposition, which is appreciated since sometimes those who purvey the “we can rebuild us” solution to cure human ills are too starry-eyed about the pluses of technology without fully considering the downsides or the ethics. Yet I would like to see more of this—perhaps a follow-up book that lays out how we make these decisions? Hopefully this would include what a philosopher friend once described as a species he and others have called Homo moralis.

Below is a Q&A with the authors.

How are humans self-evolving?

Juan Enriquez: We’ve gone from being a majority rural species to being a majority urban species in less than a century. You would expect that there would be a substantial change not only in our species, but also in every species that lives around us. We are seeing that in animals both domestic and wild going obese, in more allergies and in conditions like autism, which we believe are symptoms of very rapid evolution.

Steve Gullans: More research and evidence is showing that animals, plants and bacteria can adapt to the environment in single or two generations. A lot of the changes you see today are a response to the environment we are born into and the environment our parents lived in.

You write that some of these changes have been beneficial.

JE: We have domesticated ourselves to the point where we are, on the whole, a far less violent species. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t pockets of violence like ISIS, but you just couldn’t live in the scale and size and complexity of the cities we have today if we weren’t a whole lot more peaceful than we were even a century ago.

How much of this evolution is intentional and how much unintentional?

JE: The big change has come over just the last 30 or 40 years, with the deliberate human engineering of ourselves and of our environment. There’s still a whole lot we don’t know. But we know enough that we can begin to very deliberately design gene code into viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, and even ourselves.

How are we, or should we, be using this awesome power?

JE: Our objective in this book wasn’t to come across as know-it-alls and say we have the answer for every implication of the biggest and single most important technology humans have ever developed, but it was more to present a debate and a framework that says look, “If your kid comes down with measles, it used to be the consequence of God’s will or bad air or a natural cycle of disease and death.” But if you get measles today it’s a deliberate choice.

SG: We have both a safety and moral issue to deal with. I think the safety issue will sort itself out in the next 10 to 20 years, and the moral issue remains to be debated.

JE: We can drive things to extinction today. We can drive smallpox to extinction, or polio. As we do that, we alter many of the species on earth. That is not natural selection; that is human selection. I don’t think there’s an aspect of our lives that doesn’t change. I think this is going to alter religion. This is going to alter governments. It’s going to alter who is rich and poor. It’s going to alter medicine. It’s going to alter human livelihood.

Will humans adapt fast enough given the pace of change?

JE: If you want human beings to survive for long periods of time, you have to be able to get off this planet, because there are things that go horribly wrong—super volcanoes or supernova explosions, or global warning, or a methane eruption.

You mean travel to other planets? How do we do that?

JE: We have to think about how to live a whole lot longer because now we don’t live long enough to make exploration of other places viable. We may not be radiation-resistant enough. We may not have bodies that will allow us to get pregnant in space. It becomes an issue of human survival to be able to understand these technologies well enough to put different colonies in different places, otherwise you’re betting everything on 17 black.

If we think an intervention is beneficial, genetic or otherwise, for the future, are we capable of acting to make this happen?

SG: When you talk about interventions that decide whether someone should live longer, whether someone should actually be given an intervention for nonmedical reasons, you’re asking an individual and society to simultaneously reach a conclusion. We’re not prepared for that. We’ve seen a lot of these discussions around the in vitro fertilization debates over the last thirty years. Today is the time to begin the debate. We need leaders on all sides of the aisles to step in.

How does our self-evolution impact the rest of the planet?

JE: We are not only changing our diet, temperature and a few other variables, we are also adding things that have never existed like chemicals and lifestyles—like daylight all day long. So we’re experiencing a reaction in animals, plants, and humans. Sometimes beneficial, people are taller and living longer, and sometimes not so beneficial, we’re seeing outbreaks of autism and allergies. We do know that we can make life better for ourselves, but we do not know what it is going to do to our kids.

You talk about people among us who are adapting faster—we might term them super people.

JE: Absolutely. There are some people who are far more resistant to HIV, and more resistant to diabetes, and to all kinds of things. If you can safely insert a [genetic] trait to correct a disease, fair enough. But if you did something to improve sports performance or something to improve beauty, how safe does it have to be before you are allowed to apply that? It sounds easy to say well it shouldn’t be applied to aesthetics, except that there’s a real impact in terms of overall wages, job prospects and results if you’re taller or more beautiful. It’s the ark experiment on a big scale.

I think of the billions of people who don’t live all that much better than our ancestors did. What about those left out of the modern world?

SG: The actual technical stuff to modify a living entity is no more difficult than a recipe out of a cookbook. These are technologies that actually exist in the bacteria that live in dirt or our houses. This stuff can be done anywhere by anyone with a connection to the Internet and a few little utensils from the kitchen.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

SG: We do adjust. If you go back 100 years ago and say people had no qualms about exposing themselves to radioactivity, or asbestos or many other toxic things, or smoking, then in a generation they figured it out because they started to get sick. We don’t know what the effects of things that our grandparents were exposed to, or we are exposing our grandchildren to. One thing I worry about is the perspective that everything is negative and bad. We just don’t know enough about what is good, because the medical literature never looks at it.

JE: Think about 1600, or even 1800, the kind of temperatures that persons were exposed to before we had heat and air conditioning, thermal clothing, and down jackets. Today we’re living 23 hours a day between call it 68 and 72 degrees, and that is completely abnormal. You would expect this to lead to a whole lot of resetting of epigenomes, perhaps changes in resistance, changes in weight—we don’t know because we don’t study these things

What will humans look like in 10,000 years?

JE: I think humans are going to be unrecognizable in 10,000 years. I do hope we keep a common humanity in the sense of human rights that is applicable to all of the variants.

This column originally appeared in The Daily Beast.