Reclassifying Chimps and Enhancing Humans
Two recent articles caught my attention and it is pure coincidence that one is about new evidence for reclassifying chimps in the evolutionary tree and the other is about re-engineering humans.
Dr. Soojin V. Yi* and her colleagues 'performed a large-scale analysis of lineage-specific
rates of single-nucleotide substitutions among hominoids.' They 'found that humans indeed exhibit a significant slowdown of molecular evolution compared to chimpanzees and other hominoids.'
Nucleotides are structural elements of DNA. During evolution, a nucleotide in a DNA sequence can be replaced or substituted. The substitution may result, depending on internal and external factors related to the organism, in phenotypical and organismic differences thus contributing to the temporal and cladistic divergences of Species. Nucleotide substitution is an important component of what is called a Generation Time of a species, or the history of the DNA of this species, or the molecular clock of the species. Generation Time for a species is the average rate of Nucleotide substitution per Loci (localisation on the DNA sequence) and per year. The less there are Nucleotides substitutions, the more the Generation Time is slow.
According to this approach:
Nucleotides substitutions differences between Hominoids and Chimps indicate that Hominoids diverged recently.
Chimps still have the slowest Generation Time among non Hominoids.
Chimps' Generation Time is, among non Hominoids, the closest to that of Hominoids.
Because of this, researchers conclude that Chimps and Hominoids didn't diverge very much and propose reclasifying Chimps among Hominoids.
That's an interesting proposal based entirely on the study of DNA sequences and changes in DNA sequences across species and across time. However small the difference can be between us humans and our closest cousins, the Chimpanzes, one must admit that behavioural differences are huge. We are today studying the Chimpanzes genome and kindly proposing to make them even closer to us, Chimps cannot do this. How this came to happen with such a small difference between them and us ?
Some people might say Language, others might say Technology and I think the second answer contains both since language was the first technology among humans. Language is Technology at its source, the emergence of fine (handy) motor skills, as their practice was made possible in Bipeds, paved the way for a better performance by the speech muscles. There are certainly other concomittant factors that contributed to this first technology, however we have to remember that language is technology and action before it is cognition. Language came first and higher cognition after.
Since it mastered this first technology, our species built on it to extend the power and the number of its tools. Technology, and its cumulative progress, became part of our phenotype and an integral part of our phenotypic expression. It acts on the phenotype the same way nucleotide substitution acts on it. This is exactly what separates us from Chimps and makes the behavioural divergence great despite the small nucleotide substitution.
Now that we are ready to aknowledge our kins as part of our larger Hominoids group, it seems to me that we are ironically using technology to 'enhance' or modify our human phenotype, and the new modifications we are seeking for our phenotype are not just external, they are internal to what defines us as humans; Memory, Intelligence, Mood and so on...
Under the title ' Science will soon give some of us the tools to make ourselves cleverer and stronger. What will it mean for our humanity? ' Madeleine Bunting** wrote a fictional piece based on this new trend in technology that may be called Human Enhancement Technology. Although all technologies are basically enhancement in a certain form or another, the race for making ourselves stronger, brighter, and less depressed, will be routine 25 years from now. It will be based on a two way approach: Genetic manipulations and cognitive enhancement, tools which are used already now in a restrictive manner for people who need them (challenged andor mentally ill people, and might become routine for anybody trying to cope with the ever increasing challenges of life. Bunting's piece, although fictional, is totally convincing because it relies on two premices: our hunger for new technology serving personal purposes like perfection, the ever increasing personal and professional challenges of our societies, and the fact that the technology she describes is already in motion.
''My daughter is 10. Fast forward 25 years, and she is having her first child - early by the standards of all her friends, but she's keen on "natural". Of course, she did pre- implementation genetic diagnosis, and she and her husband (yes, very old fashioned, they married) had some agonising days deciding on whether to modify a genetic predisposition to depression and whether to splice in a gene for enhanced intelligence. In the end, they felt they had no option but to give their baby the best possible start in life.
Five years later, my little grand-daughter is starting school. Again her parents have talked over the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. A pharmcogenetic package is now routinely offered on the NHS after the government decided that, given international competition in the global knowledge economy, there was no option but to ensure the nation's schoolchildren had better powers of memory and concentration. I had my doubts, but I have to admit that my little granddaughter is proving a wonderfully clever creature - a constant source of amazement to me.
My doubts were in part assuaged by the fact that I had already started stronger doses of the same cognitive enhancement drugs. They've helped hugely with my forgetfulness (I'm just hitting my 70s). They are part of a cocktail of drugs I'm now taking to postpone many of the effects of ageing. I dithered a bit but in the end there was no option. I'm doing the childcare for all my five grandchildren and I need to be strong and fit for them. My age expectancy is now 110, so the plan is that I can help out a bit with the great grandchildren too.
What we've been unhappy about is that my daughter has been very tired trying to hold down her job and be a mum, and she's come under a lot of pressure from her boss to get help. What they mean is that she should go on to Provigil. They point out that if she was taking it, she could miss several nights of sleep without any problem. Her colleagues call her a bio-Luddite for refusing. She's already the only one not to have taken her company's early diagnosis - she said she didn't want to know whether she was going to get Alzheimer's disease in 30 years' time. ''
A delicious piece of writing. None of this will be fiction in a couple of years and I don't think we will wait 25 years from now to make this technology routine. Surely, Chimps can still hope catching us one day but we have been, since the dawn of humanity, running in the other direction, a direction opposite to Nature. It is la fuite en avant, as they say in French. As we are starting a new era, the Human Enhancement Technology with its new tools focused on cognitive enhancement will become the technology that will modify the very notion of Humanity itself. As we race towards 'perfection' and pull ourselves from the natural world to a world created by our own making, how would we still define ourselves and, most importantly, how would we adapt our moral values to this new reality ?
*Variable molecular clocks in hominoids (Proceedings of the national Academy of Science, January 31, 2006, vol. 103, no. 5, p.1370–1375)
**There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering, Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, Monday January 30, 2006.