A new variety raised by man will be a far more important and interesting subject for study than one more species added to the infinitude of already recorded species.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
The two images in front of you now tell a story. It’s a story all of your ancestors were a part of, and all of your children and descendants will one day play a role in. It’s the story of humankind and everything we’ve achieved in our time on this planet.
Neither image needs much explaining: a human hand and a smartphone are both familiar to everyone. But how are they connected? And why are they so important?
In a word: design.
The image on the left shows my hand. As hands go it is unremarkable. But the human hand itself is. It is a perfectly formed tool: capable of performing feats of great precision and dexterity; able to sense very small changes in temperature and texture; to communicate ideas and directions to others; to harm and to heal; and to perform a million intensely complicated tasks while very rarely breaking down.
The image on the right shows a smartphone. Again, it is one of billions on this planet. But it’s a triumph of engineering. It’s a more powerful computer than those used by Nasa in the moon landing. It enables me to communicate with millions of other people; to consume and create new ideas, music, news, art; to measure my heart rate and sleeping pattern; to manage my finances and pay for goods and services; and to summon food or transport at the click of a button.
Like my hand, it’s a tool. They’re both fantastically well designed and engineered tools.
Except they’re not.
In fact, there’s a profound difference between the two.
The iPhone was designed and engineered by mankind. We devised and created it. It has a designer, an architect – a guiding hand.
The human hand doesn’t. It is many times more complex than an iPhone, but it has no designer. It has no design. It exists because the random and chaotic process of evolution brought it about over many millions of years…
That’s the way life has been since the dawn of the universe. It has evolved, incrementally and over time. But it’s about to change, very suddenly and dramatically, within the next few years. And it’s thanks to an emerging new technology that allows us to control and direct evolution itself.
Darwin’s theory of evolution brought about – ironically – a revolution in the way humanity saw the world. Until then (and in some places today) people believed in “intelligent design” – the idea that nothing as complex as the universe could have developed alone. It needed a guiding hand: a designer, architect and creator.
We now know that isn’t the case. But it’s easy to see why the idea didn’t take hold immediately. It’s challenging and counter-intuitive. The idea that something as complex as a human hand, eye or brain could have developed out of the unguided chaos of evolution is hard to accept. It feels just too unlikely.
But it’s true: Darwin explained how random genetic mutations are preserved because they aide survival, are passed on to the next generation and become a part of our genetic code. Given enormous amount of time and a virtually infinite number of mutations, this enabled incredibly complex organisms to evolve from far more simple ones.
Inherrent in this idea is that evolution is unguided. As Matt Ridley puts it in his excellent book The Evolution of Everything (with my added emphasis):
The world ‘evolution’ originally means ‘unfolding’. Evolution is a story, a narrative of how things change.
It implies the emergence of something from something else. It has come to carry a connotation of incremental and gradual change, the opposite of sudden revolution.
It brings the implication of change that comes from within, rather than being directed from without. It also usually implies change that has no goal, but is open minded about where it ends up.
Evolution is incredible not just because of the complexity it achieves, but that it does so without meaning to, without planning and without a design.
At its core, that’s what separates the human hand and the iPhone. One has a designer and one doesn’t. As people we’re able to design and engineer tools of great complexity. We’re creators.
But what if those two ideas were to collide? What if we could harness the natural, unguided forces of evolution… and instil some form of design on them?
What if the next phase of evolution wasn’t spontaneous… but orchestrated by use?
What if the next generations of humanity could say they were a product of intelligent design – the intelligent design of mankind, not God?
I’m here to tell you that however radical that idea seems to you, it’s going to happen.
Thanks to gene editing technology – primarily CRISPR – we are now able to rewrite the rules of life. If your genetic code is the recipe book that makes you “you”, we can now delete lines, paragraphs, whole pages we don’t like and change them for something else.
This is change on an evolutionary scale.
It means we can correct mistakes in our genetic code… speed up the process of evolution… to remake ourselves as intelligent designers.
Make no mistake: this is big.
No other civilisation in history has had this power before. The number of uses gene editing could ultimately have are as complex and diverse as the universe itself. It changes evolution from a natural force to one we can influence and shape.
Short of learning to turn gravity on and off or travel through time, that’s about as close as we’ll get to being masters of the universe.
And it’s a relatively recent breakthrough. CRISPR itself has only been around for the last five years or so, and we’re still learning just what we can achieve with it. But academics and researchers are already thinking ahead to what it will ultimately mean. For instance, Harvey Fineberg began his 2011 TED talk by making the following remarks:
How would you like to be better than you are? Suppose I said that, with just a few changes in your genes, you could get a better memory – more precise, more accurate and quicker.
Or maybe you’d like to be more fit, stronger, with more stamina. Would you like to be more attractive and self-confident? How about living longer with good health? Or perhaps you’re one of those who’s always yearned for more creativity.
Which one would you like the most? Which would you like, if you could have just one? (Audience member: “Creativity”) Creativity. How many people would choose creativity? Raise your hands. Let me see. A few. Probably about as many as there are creative people here. (Laughter) That’s very good. How many would opt for memory? Quite a few more. How about fitness? A few less. What about longevity? Ah, the majority.
These are the choices that will soon be available to us, or to our children.
Or perhaps to us, about our children. The concept of guiding evolution – something so complex we could never truly understand what our actions had done – may seem crazy to you. (That won’t stop it happening.) But think about it like this: if you were about to have a child and the doctor asked you if you’d like to dramatically reduce its chances of suffering from cancer, diabetes, depression, heart disease, obesity… what would you do?
I know what my answer would be. YES! Do it! Do everything you can to help my child live a healthier, happier life.
Now what about making them more creative, optimistic, fitter, stronger, smarter?
Again, I know what I’d say.
There’s an element of this that feels like a science fiction novel, I know.
But believe me when I say that this world is coming. Gene editing is one of the fastest growing areas of research. Almost every week, we discover a new way of manipulating the technology and redesigning our lives. And this year we’ve seen that translating into financial returns, with several gene editing firms IPOing.
There’s nothing like a good crisis to spur innovation though. It’s at times when the equilibrium is threatened that human ingenuity is at its strongest. I mentioned science fiction a second ago, so I’ll use an example from a sci-fi novel to explain what I mean.
In the Neal Stephenson novel Seveneves (alert: spoilers ahead), humanity is pushed to the very brink of extinction. In fact only seven people survive. They’re all women. They’re the seven “eves” of the new human race. Backs to the wall, they’re forced to innovate – genetically. They each engineer offspring with the characteristics they believe the human race needs: for some strength, for others creativity, others leadership, analytically ability, and so on. In doing so they save the human race. They also create what are essentially new strains and species of humanity.
Resurrecting the chickenosaurus
Lest you think this is all just moonshine – the breakthroughs of a 100 years from now, not something that we’ll experience in the next few years – let’s look at some hard examples of this at work.
For instance, we’ve already achieved “reverse evolution”.
We know that our genetic code tells the story of our evolution. There are whole strings of code in there that are leftover from an earlier version of species that are no longer expressed. We know for example that birds are descended from dinosaurs. That means somewhere in a bird’s DNA lies dormant dinosaur DNA.
Well, it turns out we can now “wake” that dormant DNA. Researchers found that birds – chickens in this case – have a cluster of genes that give them a beak, which overwrite the earlier dinosaur genes that gave them teeth. By silencing the new genes, they were able to breed a chicken with teeth – a reversion to its ancestral state.
That’s evolution in reverse. And it’s the kind of thing that leads to suggestions we could re-engineer horses so that they grow horns on their head and have unicorns running around Silicon Valley.
That may seem like an odd use for a profound technology, but that’s part of the point. The number of different uses of gene editing are only now being understood. The number of different options and developmental paths are mind-bogglingly diverse. Some will be better than others. And as a free market in gene editing develops, you can bet people will become increasingly creative in their uses of the technology.
At its core though, this is all about intelligent design. It’s about humans having the power to rewrite the rules of life and reengineer living things to be the way we want them to.
In short, to become creators.
Tomorrow, we’ll take this one step further… and look at how humankind is pushing the limits of life itself, taking steps towards immortality.
Publisher, Exponential Investor
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology