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Homo Sapiens 2.0—Taking Matters into Our Own Hands

Millions of years ago, humans and chimpanzees originated from a common ancestor, with just a 1.2% difference in their DNA sequences. Yet, if you were to hand this article to one of our distant primate cousins, they’d have a tough time processing it. We have no clue as to why the human lineage was deemed worthy of undergoing an extraordinarily fast rate of evolution over the past two million years. With every new generation, our genomic code undergoes variations to favour adaptability. The present physical human form, with all of its mental capabilities, is a direct product of evolution.

Unfortunately, evolution doesn’t work the same way iOS updates do—the former is an excruciatingly slow and unpredictable process. Netflix binges, junk food, and sleep deprivation are changes in our lifestyle, induced by us, that our bodies can’t cope with. Exposure to artificial light from the screens of our electronic devices is almost unavoidable, but evolution hasn’t been able to program our bodies to circumvent the damage it causes. When compared to climatic changes or the occurrence of an epidemic, these problems may seem trivial, but they do highlight the need for a faster path to adaptation.

In his book, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin states “Natural selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts”. Darwin’s statement was as accurate as could be, given his times. That being said, he had no possible way to foresee the advancements that would arrive in the form of gene therapy, genetic remodelling, and DNA alteration. In the 21st century, these theories are no longer mere science fiction—the necessary basics exist and so does the realisation of their need—it’s only a matter of time before they become reality.

Image Courtesy: cartoonistgroup.com

The genetic revolution isn’t new. The oldest of its commercialised forms, In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), helped a family conceive their firstborn, Louise Brown, in 1978. Her birth shocked the world and was referred to as a “moral abomination” and considered unnatural and against societal norms. Now, just a couple of decades later, millions of children are conceived through IVF but the genetic makeup of the offspring is still a result of destiny. IVF only ensures a viable embryo, it doesn’t guarantee physically and mentally sound progeny.

Preimplantation Genetic Selection (PGS) is basically customisable IVF where instead of just one, many samples of three to five-day-old embryos are created and their genes are sequenced to find out the best combination of DNA matter from the parents. The mapping of the gene code was possible after the completion of the human genome project in 2003, which took 13 years and cost billions of dollars. It is predicted that by the end of the decade, the cost of this process would drop down to 50$ and its completion would require a couple of hours. Once the entire gene code is available, it can be checked for mutations and the chances for disorders can be massively reduced. PGS does what natural selection does, only in a couple of decades less.

A technology called CRISPR, that came out in 2013, redefined traits in genetically enhanced babies. Instead of going through entire sequences of sample DNA, CRISPR simply locates the faulty DNA, snips it off, and adds a replacement DNA. The traits that are preferred can be directly added to the gene which ensures an entire race with the same characteristics. CRISPR may one day enable the parents to create their baby similar to the way they would create an avatar in a virtual reality game, with varied options for hair and eye colour, and most of all, resistance to deadly diseases. Additionally, experiments using CRISPR, such as re-engineering pig embryos to make their organs suitable for transplants in humans, are being performed.

The Earth’s destabilising climate will make it approach its tipping point sooner than we expect it to. It is important to realise that it may be too late to change the environment for our needs. Instead, artificial alterations in the human genome will ensure our existence as a species. If we assume that Earth becomes inhabitable in a century, we would require certain traits to establish life on another planet, say Mars. To ensure the propagation of our species, there would have to be a frontline generation of hundreds of humans with traits best-suited for life on Mars. These would include a preferably higher IQ and a potential for a long and disease-free life. Bodies would become tall and thin in response to an atmosphere with less than 40% of Earth’s gravity, and hairless in a controlled environment where there is no dust. A martian race of humans derived from the present human form would be the fate of our future generations.

Although in theory, we have the tools and research we need to start genetically modifying humans, we don’t see this technology emerging at the rate it should. In the current scenario, it just isn’t practical. One reason is that as genetic engineering develops and gets more powerful the chances of it being abused increase exponentially. The attempt at forming the perfect human race can be misinterpreted and eventually align with ideas similar to those of Hitler’s. The definition of a negative genetic trait needs to be assigned and there need to be certain laws to govern over matters that concern genetic modification.

Since these matters concern the entire race and not just a specific country or community of people, a species-wide informed conversation on our future must be carried out. Whether it may be tampering with genes or the rise of cyborgs, life on Earth for humans is bound to change, and after being governed by millions of years of evolution, it’s time to take matters into our own hands.