“What will become of us when we take a hand in our own creation--in trying to create the new man will we condemn the old?” - Eric A. Morris, Unnatural Selection (The Outer Limits)
Humanity needs to make a conscious decision on whether it should aggressively participate in the process of human genetic engineering. Natural selection and random mutation has worked well, but being human I am not satisfied with the progress. On the horizon lays the ability to tinker with the code which programs human development. Should we use the tools that will come available for some greater good? But perhaps it is a irrelevant question, since we are not very capable of self-control. We like to tinker when we can--curiosity and pragmatism seem to win. In addition, we tend to do that which is possible because we get societal gratification for doing the improbable.
Most of us have been active in the process of human evolution. We pick mates that have the characteristics we admire. We pass these traits to our children. This natural selection process slowly alters our species. So perhaps choosing genetic code to change is not that radical. It is just a matter of degree. And why should we not have a heavy hand in our evolution? What could we become if we used our evolved brains to improve our descendants? Imagine the good and the unfit changes we could produce. We could make evolution in our case progress instead of a series of mere surviving changes due to natural selection and random mutation.
Isolation is a crucial factor in development of another species from one. Geographical isolation for long periods of time allow the principles of evolution to produce new species. On Earth it may be unlikely that a concurrent and separate humanoid species will evolve from us--with billions of people isolation is now only a dream. A civil society that practices science constricts natural selection, and it does rightfully so. Evolution without genetic engineering has produced a wonderful species in humans, but we can we do better?
Could we increase our ability to fully grasp complex thoughts and ideas and minimize our perceived shortcomings (e.g., greed, laziness, irrationality, lack of compassion for other life forms critical to our survival, dependence on storytelling, inability to grasp large numbers, and fear of nonconforming). Our shortcomings give us character and sometimes great amusement and fear. But with our current population size and our demands on the natural resources, our ability to quickly react and survive as a civilized species has been questioned. The passenger pigeon was once numerous. Evolution produced this wonderful bird with character but with vulnerabilities to a changing environment.
Faced with extinction or reduced survival rates I think we would choose changing our genetic code, but we can not see the impending doom being brought on by our environmental destruction. Many of us do not sense the accumulated environmental and civil degradation that our society is producing. It may be too late for civilization to reverse its actions once it recognizes its follies.
By increasing our talent through genetic alteration we may increase the likelihood of moving forward as a species or, at least, decrease the likelihood of sliding to extinction. Laissez-faire or passive DNA management might be ok for birds but what will natural selection and random mutation produce for us? Would engineered mutations be better than random mutations? Better seems like a poor word choice, but if we had clear objectives and measurable outcomes for our genetic tinkering we could apply scientific techniques to monitor and guide our work. Would we rather have some control over this process and help shape a better future, or would our quirks and hangups so evident in Western culture reduce our survivability.
Of course the whole reason I am interested in this topic is my concern over the quality of the environment. I keep thinking about how to make beautiful places to live. Evolution has produced in us the desire to prefer certain landscapes and aquascapes over others, and when that habitat is not available we readily alter our surroundings to suit our genetically controlled preferences. Some people alter lakes to create homogenous, low-diversity shorelines. Or are these preferences just temporary social norms? Regardless, a smarter person, a smarter community, a smart society would likely create a more just and sustainable culture.
We would be better off with active human DNA management for the purpose of increasing mental capacity? If the objective was to improve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the human mind, then perhaps the answer is yes. The measure of success of any alteration could be determined from simple tests -- similar in logic to the Turing test in that if responses from a genetically engineered human on multiple life situations are indistinguishable from that of an intelligent and wise human being, then the alteration could be considered successful. Perhaps mucking around with genes responsible for physical appearance would be off limits. But, the human genome is complex and a change in mental capacity could ripple in unforeseen ways producing unintended consequences.
Now this question seem like a perfectly rational thing to debate and discuss. But my genetic code is a little different from most.