The Death of death? Review of “Evolving Ourselves” and unnatural selection

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Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth begins by recapping the evidence for its thesis, which is that our species has become the primary driver of change on Earth and the future of life is in our hands. Not, in year 15 of the 21st Century, an especially controversial declaration. As the authors point out, the evidence is everywhere.

For most readers, though, the meat will be Evolving‘s survey of an immense array of futurist/transhumanist possibilities for continuing to drive change on Earth and keeping the future of life firmly in our not-always-careful hands. (The authors also redefine “evolving” to incorporate all kinds of non-genetic modifications as well as genetic changes.)

A few examples, some of which have been noted previously here at GLP:

  • Staying young and beautiful
  • Designer organs via 3-D printing
  • Precision chemical adjustments for every mood and sexual proclivity
  • Genetic and other boosts to athletic prowess
  • Endless reproduction of our perfect selves via cloning
  • Brain engineering and brain (or head!) transplants
  • Robots that work really well for a change
  • Hybridized human-mechanical interfaces
  • Synthetic life (with the help of newly devised genetic codes)
  • Space travel and the colonization of space and other planets (prompted, WALL-E fashion, by an increasingly intolerable Earth)
  • De-extinction of old species and invention of new ones.
  • Topped by the invention of new sorts of humans
  • And, oh yes, the death of death.

Authors Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans find these possibilities good on the whole. Not surprising, since the two are founders of life-science startups, venture capitalists investing in synthetic biology, Big Data, and genetic technologies, and veteran TED talkers who have been betting on this sort of future for some time now.

Nonrandom mutation and unnatural selection

Like others before them, they argue that we have discarded random mutation and natural selection for their opposites, nonrandom mutation and unnatural (i.e., human) selection. They see this largely as a really recent phenomenon, for the most part ignoring the ten-thousand-plus years of genetic modification that is agriculture, double that and possibly more if you count our invention of the dog.

Sometimes they seem to imply that nonrandom mutation and unnatural selection have been conscious human projects. In fact nearly all of it so far has been a byproduct–not infrequently a toxic byproduct–of carelessness and ignorance. H. sap busy tinkering with the planet and its lifeforms mostly to achieve immediate ends. Lunch, for instance.

Evolving at first presents itself as post-Darwinian, arguing not that Darwin was wrong exactly, but that, a century and a half after Origin, he is just not as right as he used to be. Perhaps this was a marketing strategy, an attempt to seem a little radical ? At the end of the book, though, Enriquez and Gullans walk it back with an appendix that lists some of the many things Darwin was (and continues to be) right about.

I wonder if that appendix was prompted by concern that even mild critiques of Darwin provide fodder for creationists and the so-called Intelligent Design folks. Perish the thought; Evolving‘s central thesis is that H. sap is (or at least has the potential to be) the Creator and Intelligent Designer.

Ethical conundrums and painful policy choices

Enriquez and Gullans do not take much note of the fact that the technical marvels they describe will come to be, if at all, only in rich countries, and many will be available only to rich people. A few million at best. Or, let’s be optimistic, a few hundred million. But there are 7 billion human souls out there. It’s hard to see where most of them might fit in this self-evolving hi-hi-hi tech future.

The authors occasionally acknowledge briefly that the brave new possibilities they sketch out will present ethical conundrums and painful policy choices and are certain to face opposition from the ideological and the politically correct.  They point out, for instance, that a scientist who wants to study genetic differences between groups of people is committing academic suicide, despite the fact that the work would be quite useful, especially to medicine.

But this is a book not much interested in reality checks. Its point is to dazzle the imagination with wondrous potential. Enriquez and Gullans believe the possibilities are thrilling and think you should too.

They convey this exhilaration well. Distribute free copies of Evolving to every high school in the country and kids will be storming the gates of college biology programs, clamoring to become scientists. I hope somebody points out to them that the employment picture for scientists is not encouraging and the future of science funding dour. (Excepting maybe bioengineering and bioinformatics). Here’s a sampling of laments just in the past week about the hard times on which science has fallen. Or, who knows, maybe a galvanized science-minded youth can mount enough political pressure to create a science-friendly world.

When Enriquez and Gullans do acknowledge ethical and policy issues, the choice is sometimes odd. They seem to think people are wary of signing up for genome studies and depositing their DNA in big public databases largely for reasons of shame. But surely the central reason is that people fear  that this information could be used against them, for example by employers and insurance companies. Or, at this stage of our ignorance, that sequencing would disclose some unusual genomic configuration whose danger (or not) is entirely unknown. Or because there’s a chance of finding out things you might rather not, for example that your risk of early-onset Alzheimer’s is high. Or the fact that your father isn’t.

Evolving’s structure is unusual. The book is admirably up to date and appears longer than it is in part because it is divided into dozens of short chapters–some only a couple of pages long. That perfectly suits its smorgasbord approach.

There are extensive notes that are often additional comments rather than references, a glossary, and the aforementioned appendix arguing that Darwin was right about nearly everything after all. My copy, an advance uncorrected proof, lacks an index. That’s tragic for a book that ranges as widely and hops about as much as this one does, but I am relieved to see that there is an index in the version that has just gone on sale.

Tabitha M. Powledge is a long-time science journalist and a contributing columnist for the Genetic Literacy Project. She also writes On Science Blogs for the PLOS Blogs Network. Follow her @tamfecit.

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