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Evolution: Man is far from finished

Humans have not completed their development by far. But how will evolution and modern technology change us? Is the next jump a design question?

"If biology had used revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, strategies, there would most likely be no life on earth."

Evolution is a never-ending process, though we may have the impression that something is not really moving - at least as far as our biological properties are concerned.
Changes on the genetic level are usually very slow, the classical mechanisms of mutation and selection only take effect from generation to generation. By contrast, epigenetic processes can be effective much faster. For example, effects of famine on the physiology of subsequent generations have been demonstrated. Another source of biological variation is the microorganisms with which we live in close symbiosis: The intestinal flora is responsible for the substances in which our food is released, and thus can exert massive influence on the physiology. The research on the complex effects of the microflora on human health, psyche and behavior is still in its infancy, but initial indications point to far-reaching effects.

Evolution & Epigenetics

In biology, change is daily business. Living things are constantly changing, new species are evolving while others are dying out. Only very few species survive for unusually long periods, and because they are so extraordinary, they are called living fossils.
It has long been thought that evolution works a little bit like fitness training: if you make a muscle a lot harder, it becomes thicker and stronger, and in some way, this trait is inherited to the next generation. The Lamarcki School The inheritance of acquired properties was by the Darwinian theory of evolution which sees only the source of change as a source of change, and allows the adaptation process only through the interaction of these random changes with the living conditions - that is, through selection. Until recently, mutation and selection were considered the only mechanisms effective in biological evolution. Through the discovery of epigenetics, which involves the switching on and off of genes, among other things due to environmental influences, the Lamarckian idea experiences a revival. In addition to mutationally acquired properties, organisms undergo mutability by activating and deactivating already existing information.

Revolution vs. evolution

In addition to these strictly biological factors, social and cultural influences also play a crucial role in the evolution of species, especially in those with highly complex cultural and technological innovations. These forms of innovation are much faster: If the effect of a genetic change is not seen until the next generation, then technology can be outdated in less than a year. The technological development is experiencing an acceleration, which has led to the fact that within a human life the communication possibilities from telex to video telephony experienced a real revolution. But is that really a revolution?

Apart from the faster sequence of innovations, the process of our technological development is more like an evolution, a process of change, usually without the active destruction of the existing. The older technologies will still be around for a while, and will gradually be replaced by new ones that actually represent an improvement to the status quo. So it is significant that despite the clear technological superiority of smartphones, these have not completely displaced either classic mobile phones and certainly not fixed-line telephony. Evolutionary processes are characterized by the first diversification that either persists or ends in one variant displacing the other. Revolutions, on the other hand, start with a destructive act in which existing systems are eliminated. On the ruins of this destruction then build new structures. If biology had used revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, strategies, there would most likely be no life on earth.

The technical man

Cultural and technological developments seem less based on random innovations than biological evolution. However, the possibilities are so varied that it is impossible to make reliable predictions about where the journey will go. Some general trends seem to be foreseeable: The evolution of humans will accelerate as technology becomes more and more integrated. The human-machine interfaces are becoming more intuitive - as we already see it through touchscreens instead of keyboards - and increasingly integrated. So from today's perspective, it seems very likely that people will soon have implants to control their gadgets.

Evolution without ethics?

Especially in the field of medicine, these visions are promising: Autonomously controlled insulin regulators could modulate insulin delivery through implanted sensors so that diabetes would be a much less burdensome disease. The transplantation medicine promises new potential by the ability to produce whole organs in the 3D printer. Of course, research is still very far from being translated into broad-spectrum therapeutic treatments, but the vision seems quite likely. Genetic diagnostics play an increasing role in reproductive medicine. This raises ethical issues.

The designed human

In prenatal diagnostics, genetic analyzes are used to estimate the probability of survival. In artificial insemination, such methods could also be used to select certain qualities in the offspring - the edge to the designer baby is very narrow here. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis makes it possible to choose the gender of the implanted embryo - is that still ethically acceptable?
While the selection of embryos for many may still fall into a gray area whose ethical implications have not yet been finally clarified, science has already taken the next step, which further reinforces the relevance of this question: CRISPR is a new method in genetic engineering, which makes it possible to bring about targeted genetic changes with relatively simple means. At the beginning of August, the first successful manipulation of a human embryo using the CRISPR Cas9 method was reported. The researchers deactivated a gene that is responsible for heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Since the gene variant inherits dominant, all carriers suffer. Thus, eliminating the defective gene variant not only reduces the likelihood of a person becoming ill but rather means that instead of a guaranteed disease of a person and half of their progeny, no one falls ill.

The immense opportunities to alleviate human suffering, coupled with relatively easy feasibility, lead to a pronounced enthusiasm for this new method. However, there are also warning voices: how well can the system be controlled? Is it really the case that only the intended changes are triggered? Can the method also be used for dark intentions? Last but not least, the question arises as to whether it can work out if even the biological basis of our humanity no longer escapes our influence.

The feasibility limits

The scientific and technological innovations allow us to take the future into our own hands as never before. Thanks to the cultural and technical possibilities we have been able to transform the world according to our wishes and needs, we can now influence our biological future. In manipulating the world as we wish, humanity has not been praised for its deliberation and wisdom in dealing with resources. In this light, concerns about the latest scientific innovations seem appropriate. A worldwide discussion of the ethical implications is highly overdue. It is imperative to develop guidelines that regulate the use of technologies that can fundamentally change humanity. Conceivable is a threshold of usefulness that must be exceeded in order to allow genetic modification. Where do you draw this line? Where is the border between still healthy and already sick? That this transition is rarely clear, among other things, shows the annual recurring discussion about the definition of mental illness. What is defined as a disease is the result of an agreement, not an immutable fact. Consequently, a simple rule that gene alterations should be allowed when they counteract a disease is not really effective. The complexity of the problem is so pronounced that a comprehensive debate is inevitable in order to find a meaningful solution.

Photo / Video: Shutterstock.

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