Medical ethicist Harvey Fineberg presented at TED back in March 2011. His talk, “Are we ready for neo-evolution“, was one of the more memorable talks of its kind. Understanding that we are products of the evolutionary process, Fineberg emphasizes that we are not a final culmination, but still subject to the same variety of environmental, biological and climatic forces that shaped us in the first place. We are, however, in a different position from all other animals with which we share the planet. Namely, we have the capacity to alter our evolution in ways other species cannot, both indirectly and, soon, perhaps directly.
Fineberg’s talk deals exclusively with the trajectory of human evolution in the coming millennia and the paths we might take. I’ve listed a few key points and open questions for discussion below.
- Has the pace of human evolution slowed compared with previous eons? What factors might have led to this declivitous slide toward genetic stabilization?
- How will we adapt to the changing conditions of our universe, such as climate change? Will those adaptations be sufficient to prevent our demise?
- What about our physiology will be different just 100,000 years from today (e.g., less body hair, longer fingers)?
Fineberg offers three possibilities:
1st possibility: No further evolution. Medicine and modern treatments have preserved the genes which would normally die out sans these palliatives.
2nd possibility: Natural evolution will continue via small infusions of genomic changes over time.
3rd possibility: Neo-evolution (aka self-directed evolution). This is evolution guided by us in the choices we make, such as choosing the sex of our children, making adjustments to our own genome and that of our offspring to reduce certain predispositions to illness, and other pre-programmed emendations that lie not too far off in our future. In this way, artificial selection could work much faster than its natural counterpart.
One can draw parallels to the dystopian Gattaca, where one day intelligence, life longevity and predefined health conditions are not only chosen at birth but necessary to maintain pace with society. Would neo-evolution continually raise the bar higher until traditionally idolized traits are rendered meaningless? Would words like ‘talent’ and ‘skill’ lose all context? And who would have access to these tinkerings? Would the benefits of guided evolution offset the costs of individuality, hyper-conformity and an inflating genetic lacuna between rich and poor? These are complex questions with perhaps no convergent answers.
External link: Are we ready for neo-evolution?
Feature image via risinglifemedia.com