By Roland Watson

In this series so far, I have talked about how we - the human species - need to evolve; and also some of the issues that pertain to accomplishing this type of change. In this article I will continue the discussion, beginning with an examination of the prospects for our success.

Will we make it?

The great uncertainty for humanity, and for that matter for all other life, is will we make it? Are we a species at an end, or one in transition? Are we in a stasis, and will we stagnate, or will we evolve further?

I think the answer to this is that we will evolve, or at least we will try. Our conditions have changed - we changed them, and our present form is insufficient to meet their requirements. Therefore, we must seek a new form.

However, we may well fail. We may die out as a species, before we achieve the evolution necessary for our extended survival. In this regard, it is important to recognize our greatest weakness - and also that of all other life - which is our short life span, specifically, the length of our childbearing period. If environmental conditions were to deteriorate markedly, we might not adapt fully in this space of time. We would not bear children, either at all, or who could survive in such conditions, and in a few short years we would be extinct.

It is of course impossible to say if this will occur. We have no idea at all of our present species survivability - at least beyond the next few decades - of how much environmental conditions will degrade and of our ability to adapt to them. Furthermore, there is no way to know, if our evolution is successful, what the characteristics of our successor species will be.

Just as homo sapiens were incomprehensible, necessarily incomprehensible, to prior hominids, so our future species will be - or would be, if there is one - to us.

Can we shape our successors?

On the other hand, perhaps this - the unknowability of the future - is not actually the case. It might be possible to predict our successors, even shape them, if we are at the actual point of transition.

Life breaks free when it is at the limit, when there is no place left to go. Humanity, as a species - and you as an individual member of it - is approaching, and may even be at, this limit.

But, there are no limits!

It is quite possible that we are at the cusp, at the crux, of our existence. If so, we are like the first homo erectus to see into the world of the homo sapiens. Where are we going? What are we going to see next? Can you see it?

I said before that I think the next century will bring a greater rate of change than the last. But, paradoxically, I am also saying that there is nothing left for us to do. The resolution of this is that if such change does occur, for humanity as a species, it will be - one - evolutionary, and in the context of an environmental collapse; or - two - it will represent our collapse as a species - our extinction.

I also said that much of this change will be unpleasant. Evolution, the actual process of evolving, of establishing a new equilibrium, and certainly also the process of going extinct, is unpleasant!

Evolution by genetic engineering?

If humanity does evolve, it will be via one of two general processes:

- Through the purposeful genetic manipulation of our species.
- Through traditional, natural mechanisms, both physical and behavioral.

I will begin with the first possibility, that of physically making a better human through genetic engineering, if only because it can be dispensed with so easily. There are many problems associated with this, and the most obvious of these is determining which genetic changes to effect.

The likely starting point will be disease resistance, and this is actually already underway. Many diseases have genetic contributing factors. People with certain genes or combinations of genes are predisposed to get them. As such linkages can be worked out, gene therapy, theoretically, can be applied to eliminate the predisposition. However, the success of the technology to date has been minimal. Such therapy has yet to show real progress.

Genetic manipulation to fight inheritable diseases is - seemingly - a laudable end, but the question remains: where would it lead next? For example, various genes may be implicated in criminal, or even just mildly anti-social behavior. Some researchers will inevitably look for these linkages, and once they are unearthed the tendency will be to want to fix them, too. Altering such a gene is like neutering, call it what it is - castrating - a cat. It is pure eugenics. Hitler would be proud.

I can add that some genes that predispose individuals to unacceptable or nonconformist behavior also contribute to characteristics that society designates as desirable, such as creativity. This raises another question, and which is not only theoretical: Should we destroy creativity to engineer conformity? The answer, of course, is no.

More deeply, when scientists – in this case neurologists and psychiatrists – when they talk about various behavioral syndromes as being faults that must be corrected, in some cases this may be true but in others it is not. Some modern syndromes, such as reward deficiency syndrome, which is the mechanism believed responsible for much impulsive behavior, and also addiction, should not be viewed this way. To do so involves the making of a large, but hidden, assumption, which is that we know the course that human evolution is taking or should take. However, we can only speculate about this. Having certainty is precluded.

Even worse, it will not stop here. We could even end up with "designer" humans. Such geneticists will be our future plastic surgeons. Do you want to be, or do you want your children to be, bigger, faster, smarter, lighter-skinned, or more sexually able: more attractive, or with better "equipment"? Anything, or at least we will be told anything, is possible.

The answer is no

But, of course, it's not. The first reason for this is that the genome is too complex. Many such experiments will not work out as planned. We will not get the expected changes. For instance, every individual has two copies of each gene, and for genetic engineering to work both of these must be excised or shut down. For this and many other reasons, it is far from foolproof.

Also, as changes are effected the overall genome will be degraded, with all manner of possible negative consequences, including on our species survivability.

Furthermore, there is the issue of time. Evolution, even when it is initiated by an abrupt environmental change, still requires a lot of it. Our efforts will attempt to compress this period, and as such they will not work.

As an example of this, consider our trusted companion and "best friend," the dog. I compared us to dogs earlier, in the series on the background of our species: specifically, the different ways we are like them. But, this can be turned around. We do not resemble dogs; rather, they resemble us, meaning our idea of what we would like them to be. Dogs are our creation. We bred them from wolves, using what is known as "artificial selection." In this process they retained many of the genetic traits of wolves, but they also developed new genetic traits through this breeding. But in doing this, it is important to recognize what they gave up. Many breeds of dogs cannot survive in the wild. Through our manipulation they have lost this ability, and are dependent on us. There are no, and there never will be any, wild poodles! This species development, which has occurred over centuries, is a failure. Without us, it would revert. Therefore, it is not a case of evolution. And, such is the likely fate of any human "evolution" attempted via genetic engineering, particularly since it would be tried in an even shorter period of time.

However, even given these risks, which are unavoidable, it appears inevitable that genetic scientists will try. The temptations, of fame, and wealth, of the satisfaction of unraveling the genetic code, and then playing with it, of being God, or Dr. Frankenstein, will be too great to resist. Because of this, it is not only a tragedy waiting to happen, but also one that will almost certainly occur.

The only thing you can do, really, other than protest it - which you should - is ensure that it does not happen to you, or your children. Do not let anyone have access to your genetic information, and for no reason, including to enhance disease resistance, let anyone tamper with your, or your family's, genes.

You can also think of it like this. How will you respond to your children when they ask: "Mommy and Daddy, why did you do this to me? I'm not a human being anymore?"

In the next article, I will present my theory of the three stages of human development.

© Roland Watson 2015