At the San Diego Comic-Con “Special Edition” in November 2021, we had the good fortune to host a conversation among scientists that delved into how the technology of the modern world is changing how humans evolve. Here are a few key takeaways and some thoughts about what we can expect in the not-so-distant future.
Dr. Nathan Lents, Ph.D. (professor of biology, John Jay College) moderated a conversation with Dr. Brian Brown (professor, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai), Dr. Alessia Baccarini (assistant professor, genetics and genomic sciences, Tisch Cancer Institute), and Dr. Michael Petrascheck (associate professor, Department of Molecular Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute.) Together, they discussed how modern science has the potential to make people “super.”
A New Kind of Evolution
Lents provided some background on how humans have used technology as an extension/enhancement to our bodies for millennia. He cited the stone chopper developed in Paleolithic times (approximately 2.5 million years ago), used mostly for butchering, “as the most important piece of technology that humans have ever invented.” The stone chopper is recognized as the first time humans offloaded functionality from our bodies to our tools. This changed the evolutionary pressure from shaping our bodies to perform work to, instead, inventing tools which perform the work for us.
The development of fire is also a major game-changer in human development. Fire meant humans could offload the work of our mouths and our stomachs. This allowed us to quickly consume a wide variety of nutritious food, especially meat, for which our mouths are poorly designed. From this point forward, never again would our species be forced to wait around for mutations to emerge to help us solve our survival challenges. We humans became able to reshape our environment instead of just reacting to it. Because of fire and the enhanced nutrition it enabled, our brains swelled with the gray matter of calculating interneurons and the white matter of trillions of neuronal connections.
Hacking Our DNA
In the modern era, we have learned to literally “hack” our immune systems with vaccines. Vaccines serve as a form of human enhancement because they trick the body into mounting an immune response to a pathogen that a person might one day face. Brown — who specializes in the development of new DNA and RNA-based therapies — described the power of the immune system. He stressed it is the only cellular system that can change its genetics after you’re born. It can actually evolve.
Much of the excitement surrounding near-term human augmentation surrounds the potential of mRNA vaccines. These vaccines can be developed at lightning speed. Dr. Brown said the initial COVID-19 vaccines were completed within weeks of the Jan. 10, 2020 posting of the virus genome. Their versatility also allows them to be used against non-traditional maladies like cancer, and can even be used to suppress an immune response, which is what you need for diseases like diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
Baccarini and Petrascheck delved into genome editing via CRISPR, sharing examples of “super” animals and people that were born with a naturally occurring myostatin gene mutation which caused “super-strength.” Myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy manifests as reduced body fat and doubled muscle mass. The condition provides a physique that comes close to what we see in comic book heroes. For those who aspire to become a super-criminal, one might consider engineering a mutation to the SMARCAD1 gene, which manifests as the lack of fingerprints. The scientists stress that before we consider making these changes intentionally, one needs to remember that these modifications always come at a price. Petrascheck says with the myostatin mutation described above, “If you run into a famine you’re probably going to be the first one to starve.”
AI and Augmentation
More feasible (and far less scary) in the short term, is the promise raised by the rapidly evolving science of human-machine interfaces. Iron Man serves as the ultimate example of human augmentation via machine and AI, and we are getting closer to that ideal all the time.
Brown cited the stunning progress of ECOG (electrocorticography), where an electrode plate is put in direct contact with the brain’s surface to measure electrical activity. Paralyzed humans via ECOG can now communicate with others via their thoughts being translated into text. Brown claims “The next step will be plugging into your brain for navigating virtual worlds” where humans can reinvent themselves to perform all kinds of “super” activities not available in the physical world.
These and other super-human technologies are the natural evolution of our extension and enhancement of our natural human capabilities — starting with fire and evolving to today’s technologies.