“Evolution right now is in the marketplace”
George Church, professor at Harvard and MIT, multi-faceted researcher, entrepreneur, author and advocate of open-access genomics, gives good quote. He means what he says, and expresses it succinctly and vividly. The latest publication to exploit this is The Economist, which just ran a feature about him called "Welcome to my genome" that includes some of Church's predictions for human genetic modification:
In the future Dr Church sees a world in which individuals tinker with their DNA to eliminate diseases, give their offspring extra abilities or simply to look more attractive. … To travel beyond the Earth, astronauts could also have their bodies altered to give them a better chance of surviving the journey. They could be genetically engineered to resist radiation and osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones which would result from prolonged weightlessness. Those that remain on Earth could be altered to reduce their carbon footprint [by making] people smaller.
Church also endorses the concept of "backing up my brain into another that I have in my back-pack" and (smiling) suggests that things people "think are a million years away or never, are actually four years away."
This might be a shock to Neal Jordan, a young science-fiction author, who set his recently-published mind-uploading book Transgod 500 years in the future. Such uploading is also discussed in another new book, The Proactionary Imperative: A foundation for transhumanism, by Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska. Carl Elliott reviewed it in this week's New Scientist under the descriptive online headline, "a manifesto for playing god with human evolution." In print, the title was the catchier "More, or less, than human?" — presumably because the piece closes with the important observation that:
It is precisely because the powerless and disadvantaged have always made such tempting research subjects that strict controls on medical research are essential.
Newly published in the UK, though not due out in the United States till next February, is yet another book that considers such issues, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. His take is darker than that of the techno-optimists. Not only does he question whether modern people are happier than our stone-age ancestors, he is deeply concerned that coming human enhancements will lead to a more unequal society than any we have seen:
"In the 20th century, the main task of medicine was to bring everybody to a certain level of health and capability. It was by definition an egalitarian aim," Harari told the Guardian. "In the 21st century medicine is moving onwards and trying to surpass the norm, to help people live longer, to have stronger memories, to have better control of their emotions. But upgrading like that is not an egalitarian project, it's an elitist project. No matter what norm you reach, there is always another upgrade which is possible."
As a consequence of the efforts of Church (who is mentioned specifically) and others:
"In the 21st century, there is a real possibility of creating biological castes, with real biological differences between rich and poor," said Harari. "The end result could be speciation. We're used to being the only human species around, but there is no law of nature that says there can only be one species of human. With this kind of upgrading treatment we could have, in the not too distant future, more than one human species on Earth again."
Harari is by no means the first to suggest this. Lee Silver notoriously made that prediction — which he seemed to relish — in Remaking Eden, which was first published in 1997. At that time, such expansive views of human possibilities were fueled by the approaching end of the Human Genome Project. Gene interactions turned out to be more complicated than was once hoped, and the wilder speculations died down for a bit. But now, with the advent of more precise gene-altering tools such as Crispr, ambition seems to be rising again, and the repeated warning is regrettably relevant.
The Economist is a business-focused newsmagazine, and notes that since 2007, "Dr Church has co-founded 12 biotech companies and advised many more." His enterprises are mostly focused on genomics, diagnostics, therapeutics and synthetic biology, with a possible sideline coming in DNA-based data storage — all related to his research. They are not apparently driving his choice of projects so much as derived from what he finds and publishes. But he does have a very capitalist orientation, leading him to tell the magazine:
We're well beyond Darwinian limitations to evolution. Evolution right now is in the marketplace.
Church is expressing here an odd combination of hubris and passivity. His ambition takes him "beyond Darwinian limitations" — he can casually discard a few billion years of evolution — and yet he is irresistibly bound to the current economic system. He has that the wrong way round.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: