Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain). This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.
One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general). In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most. By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.
This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible. It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.
With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.
Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications
After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA). The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.
Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms
People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc. Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.
One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering. There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques. The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.
We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species. As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc. There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels. This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel). In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.
On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively. Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria. These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.
In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound. With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed). Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.
It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.
In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years. For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced. The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).
By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals). The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc. Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered. By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.
If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products. This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house. There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure). If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device. If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.
Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.
Transcending the Human Species
Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species. Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated. In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.
Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features
With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely. It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.
If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity. Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory. It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well. Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.
If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.
Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well. For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether). Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch). Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals. Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.
Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features
So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc. For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings. It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).
Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms. What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes? Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether. It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.
Malleable Human Nature
When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself. Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.
Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors. Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it. So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution? And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.? Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems. To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process. This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.
It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce. That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes. Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors. Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.
Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality. Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc. Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.
To Be or Not To Be?
It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment. Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal. One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology. There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology. There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself. Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).
If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market. Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications. Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology. There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not. So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.
As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA. If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance). This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.
Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species. We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation. What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.