Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Are we taking evolution into our own hands?

By Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, Special to CNN
Click to play
What is the ultimate reboot?
  • Writers: Many believe despite outside differences, under the skin we're all the same
  • But our DNA knowledge shows there are indeed genetic variations in humans, they say
  • This raises tricky issues. They ask: Should we select for traits to improve our species?
  • Writers: Science may be letting us speed our evolution; we must develop ethical framework

Editor's note: TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website. Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans are co-authors of the new book,"Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species".

(CNN) -- One article of faith that took hold in the 20th century and has only grown stronger is that we humans are all equal -- genetically, anyway. That while differences among people may seem strong because of culture and nationality, under the skin, we're the same.

There are good reasons for believing this. Eugenics, a pseudoscience developed a century ago in top American and British universities, was exported to Germany in the early 20th century with horrendous effects. Highlighting the perceived differences among races allowed monsters to justify forced sterilization, discrimination, slavery and genocide.

But just because mass murderers linked biology to violent racism doesn't mean biology itself is dangerous or meaningless. Over decades the evidence has been accumulating that, just as there are enormous differences in blood types among various populations, there are real differences in other genes as well.

DNA sequencing has come a long way since 2000, when it cost billions to sequence the human genome. Now we can analyze a person's entire genome for a few tens of thousands of dollars. Thousands of human genomes will be made public this year in extreme, though anonymized, detail. Are we born to run?

The new knowledge of DNA will lead to many surprises, some of them uncomfortable.

And as evidence accumulates that there are real and biologically significant genetic differences among individuals and groups of individuals, there are going to be some interesting opportunities and debates.

For instance, elite Olympic sprinters have an overwhelming preponderance of the 577R variant of the ACTN3 gene. Another gene, ACE, carries an interesting variant prevalent in Sherpas and appears to be necessary for humans to be able to climb an 8,000-meter mountain without supplemental oxygen.

Do we want the Olympics to become a showcase for very hardworking, hard-training, mutants? Or do we want to create handicaps for the rest of us, as they do in sailing or golf, providing those who did not pick the right parents the chance to compete on equal footing? Or should we allow gene therapy, introducing naturally occurring genes into the bodies of those who lack a particular variant?

And what happens as evidence begins to accumulate about people's genetic variations in sensory areas and even cognition -- in the ability to taste, smell, touch and think? Temple Grandin on why the world needs all kinds of minds

It is one thing to talk about athletes' genes, but these debates can quickly become far more personal and serious when applied to other human traits -- especially after the Neanderthal genome was sequenced and we suddenly realized the difference between "them" and "us" was only .004% of our genes. Minute differences had a huge impact on attractiveness, reproduction and survival.

We do not have a moral, ethical, legal framework to begin to deal with the challenges of rapidly increasing genetic and other physical differences among individuals and between groups. This deficit is especially serious now that an avalanche of technologies is coming together that accentuates the speed of change, like gene therapy, organ regeneration, transplantation, robotics, brain mapping, combinatorial chemistry, nutrigenomics, microbiomes, and various fertility treatments and options.

Environmental pressures and adaptive changes are not unprecedented. There have been at least 25 protohuman species (erectus, floriensis, heidelbergiensis, neanderthal, sapiens, and so on). As each new group evolved, small genetic variations slowly begat greater cognition, new social behaviors, or improved physical well-being to succeed. We are all cyborgs now

Today we continue to live the same process, but in an enormously accelerated fashion. For better and worse we are transforming ourselves from a Homo sapiens, a species aware of its environment, into a Homo evolutis, a species that directly and deliberately begins to control its own evolution, as well as that of many other species. In terms of impact on our children and grandchildren, this trend will be unsurpassed in magnitude and speed.

So what must we do? First, recognize that human speciation -- the development of new species -- persists today at an accelerating pace. Second, understand that there are so many technologies advancing in so many disciplines, labs and countries that trying to stop this species transition would be like trying to stop the tide. Third, quickly develop rapidly evolving, flexible, ethical, legal, and moral frameworks to guide ourselves and humanity through its greatest challenge,

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.