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What would Darwin do?

May 18, 2015

“Evolving ourselves” by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans is not a self-help manual, but it is a book about what we do, and can do, to ourselves and others. The subtitle is “How unnatural selection and nonrandom mutation are changing life on Earth.”

Non-stop from start to finish, the book chronicles a stunning array of changes and issues with life on Earth. You may even know all of what’s discussed, but when it’s all put in one place, the effect might be overwhelming. For me, a lot was new.

The book begins with “What would Darwin write today?” The authors pluck Charles Darwin from the 19th century and place him in modern Trafalgar Square, London.

“How can everything be so clean and orderly? Where is the soot … stench, ailments? No fleas? … Everyone seems to well fed—in fact, way overfed … where did all the tall folks come from, and why are so many large but weak?”

Allergies? Epidemic obesity? The authors state that if Darwin were alive today, he would revise his work: “the basic logic of evolution has shifted away from capital-n Nature toward two new core drivers: unnatural selection; nonrandom mutation.”

Darwin described evolution in places unchanged by human will. Today, half the Earth’s landmass is altered to accommodate the plants, animals, and whims of human choices. And now, we can modify the genetic code of living things.

Not only modify but create: In 2010, a lab produced the first entirely synthetic genome assembled from a computer file and inserted the artificial DNA into a cell, replacing its native genome. It—“Synthia”—then proceeded to reproduce and live.

The book is full of examples of life modifications we have made. Overall, I found it discouraging; however, it’s not that all human-engineered change is bad. Certainly we have done much to make human life better.

But we have not been wise enough to avoid the likes of Love Canal or the BP “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (also in 2010), so I remain skeptical that sufficient wisdom will be brought to bear on the use of genetic technology. In the book, half the names attached to this science are not human but corporate, a different kind of “human” life.

Genetic engineering is only the most recent tool we wield. Without it, we have done quite well changing our environment, often cluelessly. A big part of our effect is cumulative—there are so many of us. One can correctly say there is no “drought” in California, only too many current water users. Our anthropocentrism no longer works in our favor.

I said last week that confirming my worst fears is not a good pastime, but I was fascinated reading this book. The chapter that first drew me in was: “Is autism a harbinger of our changing brains?”

I’ve had my own evolving theory of autism, which is that humans have not changed genetically but that we have sufficiently altered our experience to trigger entirely new behaviors in our species. But that’s too simple.

I thought of the human genome as largely unchanged during historical times, thinking that true selective pressures took longer and had to be more potent than we experienced during recorded history.

However, there are billions of people now—many alive and reproducing because of human rather than natural “selection”—and thus billions of opportunity for change. Modern medicine and public health practices might be enough themselves to alter the human genome profoundly. (Then there’s the epigenome …)

One thing’s clear: There’s no going back.


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