Essays and discussions

The Future of Humanity

At the beginning of the twenty first century, one issue more than any other has dominated the public view of science: genetics. This issue has caused many social and ethical problems that, at the moment, we're not dealing with. So far, these problems have just been swept under the metaphorical carpet, but to move forward, we must at least attempt to deal with them.

Before I start, let's make one distinction clear. I have no problem at all with the concept of genetic manipulation. I think that it's possibly the most exciting concept in the history of humanity. However, I do have a problem with the companies that are doing the work in this field. Companies such as Monsanto are unethically marketing products based on a technology that should still be in trials for profit and I in no way support what they are doing. Having said that, in this article, I will focus on broader issues without dealing with these multinationals.

Genetic science is moving at an unbelievable speed and scientists are now contemplating doing things that would have seemed like magic to previous generations. However, the rate of change of science has far exceeded the general rate of change of society. Many of the things now in the realms of possibility of science are regarded as unacceptable or unethical by society. Things such as genetic modification or cloning are very emotive issues and issues that we, as a society, must deal with head on.

There are many reasons to be afraid of genetic modification, just as there are many reasons to be afraid of just about anything else, but in the same way as we balance out the risks in other areas, we must do the same in this field. The study of genetics will lead to many developments, especially in the field of medicine, but of course, there are many other benefits of genetic modification. For example, perhaps we could develop crops that could grow in the very hot, arid climates such as Saharan Africa where famine is a problem or crops that give a harvest twice a year. How much of a benefit would these be in developing countries? Or cloning. Imagine taking a few cells from a patient and growing them a new heart, or kidney, or liver that the body would be certain to accept. At the moment, the pinnacle of cloning technology is Dolly the sheep, but even going from there, the pigs that have been cloned could also be adapted to provide organs for human transplantation until we can perfect human cloning of organs. Some people may have a problem with this, but if it was a choice between dying and having a pig's heart, hey, help me on to the operating table. This does cause a problem with what to do with the rest of the pig, but if it can be passed along to the food industry, then that problem is resolved. Although, being vegetarian myself, I wouldn't eat it, I know many people that are partial to bacon. Mind you, in saying that, if you were eating a pig that had 'donated' it's heart to a human, would that count as cannibalism? – Hey, I didn't say that it would be easy!
And then, we can look further afield in time, it is my hope that within a century or two, we can go from small-scale genetic modification to genetic engineering.

Let's face it, humans aren't evolved to live in modern society. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, and modern living causes many diseases and problems, from obesity to stress. Imagine an unborn child genetically engineered so that they could never get obese, or engineered so that they would be better adapted to the modern twenty-four hour society. The possibilities are astounding, perhaps after we stabilise the world's population, we can even extend the human lifespan, although not too much – would you want to live forever? I think that, perhaps, two hundred years may be a good lifespan for a human being, just over double what we have at the moment. Long enough to contemplate eternity, but not long enough to feel weighed down by it.
And then there's another aspect to this. Modern medicine has evolved to the point where natural selection has all but ceased. We can keep people alive, and ensure them a long, active life, long after nature would have given up on them. So apart from random mutations, humans may have stopped evolving. So now, I think that we are ready to start thinking about taking our evolution into our own hands.

However, we're not ready for this kind of power yet. Not only are we still immature as a species, but our knowledge of genetics is still sketchy at best. If I may make an analogy with software development. There are three stages to maintaining a large-scale software system that is outdated and obsolete but vital to the running of a company: reverse engineering, design recovery and forward engineering. At the moment we're still at the first stage, where we're 'reverse engineering' our genetic code (the human genome). It is estimated that the Human Genome project should have finished it's work within five years, and then we can start on the second stage where we examine everything that we've uncovered until we really understand it and only then, should we start to take our first tentative steps in forward engineering what nature provided us with.

It will be a long process, and one that we must take only with great care, but I believe that the future shape of humanity lies in the hands of humanity.

Of course, in this brief article, I've only scratched the surface of the ethical debate that rages behind the scenes of genetics. For example, choosing the sex of a baby, or choosing it's physical features. Is this ethical, and who should pay? Of course, they say that money lies at the root of all evil, and one of the major fears about genetic engineering is that it will create an underclass of people who can't afford genetic treatments. This is a very real problem and one that we can't afford to ignore. I don't have all (or even any of) the answers, but problems like these are ones that that the creature that we call society will have to deal with in the coming decades and centuries. We can at least start to think about it now.

– April 2000

Back to topTop of page
Printable version of this article