SCIENCE can get really scary. I say this after reading a report about
Chinese scientists who decided to 'improve' a group of macaque monkeys by
making them more intelligent. They didn't do this by training the monkeys (that
would be boring and conventional) but by inserting the human gene thought to be
responsible for shaping human intelligence directly into the brains of these
the 11 gene-hacked monkeys, six survived and while these transgenic primates
have not (yet) started plotting our downfall they have indeed shown signs of
higher intelligence than their 'wild' peers, which makes you wonder if Planet
of the Apes is less a work of fiction and more a remarkably prescient
scientists didn't do this because they secretly long for a world where our
Simian overlords place us in labour camps and zoos but because they feel such
experiments will provide invaluable insight into genetic research and into how
the human brain actually works.
specifically, they want to study how humans developed the intelligence that
has, in a relatively short span of time, made us the (admittedly cruel) masters
of the Earth. This isn't even the first instance of such (mad?) science as
previously scientists in the US have injected glial cells from human foetuses
into mice and ended up with â€¦ you guessed it â€¦ smarter mice.
a purely scientific point of view, this is certainly ground-breaking work but
it is also fraught with incredible, and utterly unique, moral and ethical
What if you could edit out emotion itself?
are other possibilities being studied as well, such as introducing traits from
the animal kingdom into humanity. Consider the tardigrade, also known as the
water bear. This millimetre-long creature is considered virtually indestructible,
and has been seen surviving and thriving in temperatures as cold as -237
degrees Celsius and as hot as 151Â°C.
2007 a group of tardigrades were sent into the vacuum of space for 10 days and
not only did most of them survive, some even had babies! Tardigrades are also
capable of surviving radiation doses of 5,000 to 6,000 grays (a measure of
absorbed radiation) without much ill effect. Humans, on the other hand, can
only handle four to eight grays of radiation. So it's no surprise that
scientists are trying to figure out how to use proteins from tardigrades to
give humans greater resistance to radiation, theoretically allowing us to work
in radioactive environments and even on other planets without much protective
gear. Others have been studying the ability of geckos to generate limbs in an
attempt to give the same ability to humans.
then there is the question of understanding and tapping human biodiversity,
though this field is a political landmine unlike any other and has the
potential to fuel incredibly divisive racial theories, which is one reason it
remains somewhat underexplored.
consider the Bajau 'sea nomads' that have lived at sea in Indonesia for over
1,000 years and are capable of diving 70 metres without any equipment, can hold
their breath for over 13 minutes and can see underwater with clarity that no
other humans can match, all thanks to a genetic quirk and natural selection.
take the genetic traits that allow populations in Tibet, Ethiopia and parts of
South America to adapt to low-oxygen environments and imagine the possibilities
if these were harnessed and transferred? Currently, the only real barriers to
unfettered genetic experimentation are largely ethical and in some countries,
legal. But these are tenuous restraints at best and all it will take to spark a
genetic arms race, so to speak, is for one country to take the plunge, and then
others, for fear of being left behind, will also join in.
may already have begun: in November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked
the world by announcing that he had 'created' the world's first gene-edited
babies, a pair of female twins nicknamed 'Lulu' and 'Nana'. He claims to have
disabled a gene called CCR5 in the girls, which encodes a protein that allows
HIV to enter cells.
Chinese authorities placed Jiankui under house arrest and he was also fired
from the university he worked at and the twins have also been placed under
medical supervision, and their eventual fate is uncertain at best. Whatever
becomes of the girls and the doctor, this door, now opened, cannot be easily
or later genetic engineering will be a reality, with all that it entails. What
if you could ensure that no child is born with Down's syndrome? What if you
could edit away the South Asian propensity towards developing diabetes? Going
further, what if you could edit out emotion itself and heighten musculature to
create a new breed of soldiers? Or perhaps create genetically engineered
geniuses with advantages their 'normal' peers could not match? In the quest to
improve ourselves, would it not be a great irony if we were to engineer
ourselves out of existence?