From Natural Selection to Intelligent Design
For close to four billion years, the evolution of life on earth has been governed by natural selection. There have been many fascinating twists and turns in the game of life, but its basic rules remained unchanged. Exactly the same principles of natural selection have shaped the evolution of bacteria in the primordial oceans, the evolution of dinosaurs in the Jurassic period, the evolution of archaic humans in the Stone Age, and the evolution of Galapagos finches in recent centuries.
Not all people accept this idea. Religious fundamentalists insist that intelligent design rather than natural selection has shaped life on earth. They argue that the intelligent designs of a great god sculpted the long necks of giraffes, the colorful tails of peacocks, and the jumbo brains of humans. To the best of our scientific understanding, these religious zealots are completely mistaken. The past history of life owes nothing to divine intelligence. Ironically, however, the zealots may well be right about the future. Very soon, the four-billion-year-old regime of natural selection may be overthrown, and life in the universe will increasingly be shaped by the intelligent designs of divine beings. For in the medium future, we humans are likely to turn ourselves into godlike beings, possessing divine abilities of creation by design. This will be not only the greatest revolution in thousands of years of history, but also the greatest revolution in billions of years of biology.
The replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways. The first way is through biological engineering. Bio-designers could re-engineer the shapes, abilities and desires of organisms, in order to realize some preconceived cultural idea. There is nothing new about biological engineering, per se. People have been using selective breeding, castration and other forms of bio-engineering for at least 10,000 years. But recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work, down to the cellular and genetic levels, have opened up previously unimaginable possibilities. For example, scientists can today take a gene from a jellyfish that glows in a green florescent light, and implant it in a rabbit or a monkey, which starts glowing in a green florescent light. E. coli bacteria have been genetically engineered to produce human insulin and bio-fuel. A gene extracted from an arctic fish has been inserted into potatoes, making the plants more frost resistant.
On a grander scale, geneticists have already managed to engineer genius mice that display improved memory and learning skills, and super-worms that live up to six times their normal lifespan. There is no technical reason why we could not start engineering superhumans too. Within a century or even a few decades, genetic engineering and other forms of biological engineering might enable us to make far-reaching alterations not only to our physiology, immune system, and life expectancy, but also to our intellectual and emotional capacities.
The second way that intelligent design might replace natural selection is even more radical. Instead of limiting themselves to working with organic structures, future designers might well use inorganic parts as well, and engineer cyborgs. Cyborgs are living beings combining organic with inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands.
In a sense, nearly all of us are bionic these days, since our natural senses and cognitive skills are supplemented by devices such as eyeglasses, pacemakers, and computers. However, in the medium future this process is likely to go much further. We may start having more and more inorganic devices connected directly to our bodies. Devices that will be inseparable from us and that will change our abilities, desires, personalities, and identities in a fundamental way.
There are already working prototypes of bionic ears, eyes and limbs, which can be connected directly to the brain. These devices are currently used to overcome disabilities, but they might soon begin to be used to upgrade abilities. Below is a photograph of Jesse Sullivan holding hands with Claudia Mitchell. Jesse and Mitchell lost their arms in accidents, and are now using bionic arms, which are operated by thought alone. Neural signals arriving from the brain are translated by micro-computers into electrical commands, and the arms move accordingly. When Jesse and Claudia want to raise their arms, they do what any normal person unconsciously does—and the arms rise.
At present these bionic arms are a poor replacement for our organic originals, but they have the potential for unlimited development. Bionic arms, for example, could be made far more powerful than the organic arms even of the world’s boxing champion. Bionic arms could be replaced every few years, or upgraded when a new model is developed. They could also be detached from the body and operated at a distance. And they could be multiplied at will. You could have six of them, like some Hindu goddess, instead of the miserly two of mere mortals.
Meanwhile, nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells, and even reverse aging processes. Even more revolutionary projects aim to create direct two-way brain-computer interfaces that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read. Such interfaces can link a brain directly to the internet, or to directly link several brains to each other, thereby creating a sort of inter-brain-net. Nobody knows what might be the impact on human consciousness and human identity.
Finally, intelligent design might dispense with organic components altogether, and engineer completely non-organic beings. The Human Brain Project, launched in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain. The project’s director has claimed that, if funded properly, within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could feel, talk and behave very much as a human does. If successful, that would mean that after four billion years of milling around inside the small world of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond our wildest dreams.
Not all scholars agree that the brain works in a manner analogous to today’s digital computers, so it is not at all clear if you could ever create a living brain inside a computer. However, in April 2013 the European Union selected the Human Brain Project to be its scientific flagship, giving it a grant of more than €1 billion. The Europeans, it seems, must be taking this possibility very seriously.
True, the administrators of the European Union not always succeed in forecasting the future accurately. And it would indeed be surprising if all the above forecasts are realized in full. History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialize due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. After Hiroshima and Sputnik, many began to speculate that by the year 2000, nuclear-powered space colonies will pepper the Moon, Mars and even Pluto. It didn’t happen. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet, which is much more amazing then flying to Mars.
So it is best to regard the above forecasts not as prophecies, but as stimulants for our imagination. We cannot be certain how soon and in what ways the regime of natural selection will be overthrown, but we must start thinking very seriously how to run a world governed by intelligent design. Humans are likely to upgrade themselves into gods, able to shape and reshape their bodies, their minds, and the bodies and minds of other life forms. Hence the most important question facing humankind today is “What do we want to become?”. And since we might soon be able to design our desires too, the real question facing us is: “What do we want to want?” Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.
Excerpt from chapter 20, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind