Using an updated and more detailed version of Darwin’s famous Tree of Life diagram, and tracing the evolution of the Universe up to the appearance of Humans, medical ethicist Dr. Harvey Fineberg gives a compelling — and even a bit unsettling — talk on the evolutionary future of the Human race. In passing, he notes that since the appearance of modern humans (Homo sapiens), some 25 hominid species have arisen…all but us having gone extinct.
Dr F presents his audience with three possible choices that we humans can make: we can stop evolving altogether (a sort of biological stasis), we can continue to evolve naturally (without intentionally altering our genetics, for example*), or, we can take control of our biological evolution through genetic modification and make ourselves “better”.
He notes that we are in the process of identifying genes that determine longevity, memory, strength, beauty and even creativity…and provocatively asks the audience: which would you choose (if only one could be chosen)?
Most in the audience opted for longevity.
Noting powerful developments in bioengineering such as directed evolution and cell reprogramming (i.e., creating pluripotent stem cells), Dr. F makes a convincing argument that the moment of choosing one of these futures is nearly upon us (or fully attainable within the next 100 years) and poses a series of questions:
Will we choose to change our cells (eliminate defects that cause disease)? Most likely, yes. But then, would we also alter the cells/genes of our off-spring? Would we take this even further, tweaking our cells to produce “super attributes”?
If you had this ability, what would you choose to do with it? What kind of world/society would we be making for ourselves ? A better one? Or, a more boring one (where conformity reigns; convergence of genetic choices onto a few common attributes)?
In concluding his talk, Fineberg asserts that we are approaching the point where we will be able to “compress” evolution, that is, to make biological changes in ourselves in a very short time span (say, within one hundred years) that would take Nature thousands or more years to achieve on its own, without human prodding.
He calls this “neo-evolution” and defines it as evolution that is “guided and chosen by us.”
Are we ready for Neo-Evolution? Watch the TED talk
Author Comment: There is no mention in this talk about class and cultural differences, that is, all societies are not equally advanced or affluent, and not all people in all societies will have such “choice” or access to the technology that affords them. Indeed, many will have choices forced upon them. Strange that an ethicist would fail to mention this, though the TED talks are limited to ten minutes and seek to be provocative and exciting; talking about class inequities is not very exciting. — M. R.
* Fineberg notes in his talk that we already preserve “bad genes” through medical advances (that prolong life) that Nature, left to its own natural selection, would have eliminated, so, this second option may already be off the table.
About Harvey Fineberg
Harvey Fineberg studies medical decision making — from how we roll out new medical technology, to how we cope with new illnesses and threatened epidemics. Full bio and more links
Top image: Humans, as depicted on a Pioneer plaque, are one of the four extant hominid genera; NASA
Diagram: Page from Darwin’s notebooks around July 1837 showing his first sketch of an evolutionary tree.