Engineering Our Way To Extinction

Introducing the super hominum

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Meet what is being dubbed CRISPR 2.0, a newfound way to make single-letter changes in DNA base letters using CRISPR/Cas9 technology as a platform.  We are now, more than ever before, capable of modifying human (and animal) biology in ways that could, in the not too distant future, affect the entire human race.  Nothing stands in our way.  Existing recommendations, such as the 2017 National Academy of Sciences and Medicine report, supporting germline (i.e. hereditary) genetic modifications for treating or preventing serious disease or disabilities, are just that, suggestions.  While enhancement modifications are not advised, it may well be a short matter of time before that line is crossed. Private funding, nationwide DIY laboratories and other contexts may allow gene editing technology to evolve better and beyond, giving birth to patient zero: the first super hominum.

We are in a period of scientific wonder, where incredible discoveries and applications are a daily phenomenon. The possibilities, stand-alone or combined, are mind-blowing and intimidating at the same time. For instance, if we marry gene editing capabilities with artificial intelligence technology, the result could be one magnificent specimen.

It would seem precise laws or regulations are called for, banning the practice of human germline editing but for certain applications. In the U.S., there currently are no legal barriers — except as related to federal funding for research. The thing is, much good could come out of liberally editing out genetic mutations that contribute to disease and lower life quality and expectancy. Also, a laxer regulatory regime means the U.S. has fewer reasons to fall behind competing jurisdictions.

But what of such an unhindered freedom? Could the possibility of betterment lead to the extinction of the faulty, charismatic human as we know him?  Prior drivers of mass biological extinctions have included asteroids, volcanos and other occurrences, but they had one common source, namely, mother earth — changes to her biology, ecology, chemistry and her other systems. But a shift is taking place and human beings are now implicated.  Thanks in most part to human activity, there is much talk about the earth’s upcoming sixth mass extinction event, with the annihilation of three quarters of the globe’s animal species at stake.

However, perhaps a different kind of human-driven decimation will take place instead. Globally, birth rates are dropping, due in large measure to declines in fertility. This, coupled with automated technology’s impact on human work and employment, will result in a less than favorable economy. The economy itself is not only dependent on an effective workforce (in sufficient numbers and skills) but also on the health of our planet, which is not in great shape. Climate change and other disruptive forces establish the lay of the land. Like it or not, out of necessity, the human being of today may be driven to “evolve” in ways never thought possible merely fifty years ago. It may be a question as to who gets there first, at one extreme the slightly unethical actor with a penchant for DIY biological systems or, at the other, government-sanctioned genetic modification to stand up to changing conditions.

The perfect storm, fueled by scientific and
technological progress is headed our way such that how we live and exist today
may be a thing of the past.  We are on the cusp of eradicating medical and aesthetic imperfections and refined functions through cyborg implants.  But beware of lack of barriers and eccentric dreams and where they may lead.

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