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Harvey Fineberg: Are we ready for neo-evolution?

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How would you like to be better than you are? Suppose, I said that with just a few changes in your genes you can get a better memory, more precise, more accurate, and quicker or maybe you will like to be more fit, stronger with more stamina. Would you like to be more attractive, self-confident? How about living longer, with good health, or, perhaps you are you are one of those that always yearn for more creativity. Which one would you like the most? Which would you like? If you can have just one. (creativity) Creativity. How many people would choose creativity? Raise your hands, let me see, a few. Probably about as many as there are creative people here. That's very good. How many will opt for memory? Quite a few more. How about fitness? Few less. What about longevity? Ah, the majority. That makes me feel very good as a doctor. If you could have anyone of these. It will be a very different world. Is it just imaginary or, it is perhaps possible? Evolution is been a perennial topic here at the TED conference. But, I want to give you today one doctor's take on the subject. The great 20th century geneticist: T. G. Dobzhansky, who was also a communicant in the Russian Orthodox church. Once wrote an essay that he title: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Now, if you are one of those, who does not accept the evidence for biological evolution. This will be a very good time to turn off your hearing aid, take out your personal communications device. I give you permission and, perhaps take another look at Kathryn Schulz's book on being wrong. Because nothing in the rest of this talk is going to make any sense. Whatsoever to you. But, if you do accept biological evolution, consider this: is it just about the past or is it about the future? Does it apply to others or, does it apply to us? This is another look at the tree of life. In this picture I put a bush with a center branching out in all directions because, if you look at the edges of the tree of life every existing species at the tip of those branches has suceeded in evolutionary terms it has, survived. It is demonstratd a fitness to it's environment. The human part of this branch way out on one end is of course the one that we are most interested in. We branch off of a common ancestor to modern chimpanzees about six or eight million years ago. In the interval there's been perhaps twenty or twenty five different species of hominids. Some have come and gone. We have been here for about 130 thousand years. It might seen that we are quite remote for other parts of this tree of life. But, actually for the most part the basic machinery of ourselves is pretty much the same. Do you realize that we can take advantage in commadeer the machinery of a common bacterium to produce the protein of human insulin use to treat diabetics? This is not like human insulin this is the same protein that is chemically indistinguishable for one comes out of your pancreas. And, speaking of bacteria. Do you realize that each of us carries in our gut more bacteria than there are cells in the rest of our body? Maybe ten times more. I mean think of it when Anthony Damasio ask about your self image. Do you think about the bacteria? Our gut is a wonderfully hospitable environment for those bacteria, it's warm, it's dark, it's moist, it's very cozy. And you are going to provide all the nutrition that they can possible want with no effort on their part. Is really like an easy street for bacteria with the ocassional interruption of the unintended force rush to the exit. But, otherwise. You are a wonderful environment for those bacteria just as they are essential to your life they help in the digestion of the central nutrients and they protect you against certain diseases. But, what will come in the future? Are we at some kind of evolutionary equipoise as a species or, are we destine to become something different? Something perhaps even better adaptive to the environment. Now, let's take a step back in time to the bing bang 14 billion years ago. The earth, the solar system about 4 and half billion years. The first signs of proto life maybe three to four billion years ago on earth. The first multi cell organisms perhaps as much as 800 or billion years ago and, then, the human species. Finally, emerging in the last 130,000 years. In this vast unfinish symphony of the universe life on earth is like a brief measure. The animal kingdom like a single, single measure and human life a small grace note. That was us. That also, constitutes the entertainment portion of this talk so I hope you enjoyed. Now, when I was a freshman in college I took my first biology class. I was fascinated by the elegance and beauty of biology. I became enamored of the power of evolution and I realized something very fundamental. In most of the existence of life single cell organisms, each cell simply divides and, all of the generic energy of that cell is carried on in both daughter cells. But at the time multi cell organisms come on line things start to change. Sexual reproduction enters the picture, and, very importantly with the introduction of sexual reproduction that passes on the genome the rest of the body becomes expendable. In fact, you could say, that the inevitability of the death of our bodies enters in evolutionary time at the same moment as sexual reproduction. Now, I have to confess. When I was a college undergraduate I thought ok, sex, death, sex, death , death or sex, seems pretty reasonable at the time. But with each passing years I come to have increasing doubts. I come to understand the sentiments of George Burns. Who, was performing still in Las Vegas well until his nineties and, one night there is a knock at his hotel room door, he answers the door. Standing before him is a gorgeous scantily clad show girl. She looks at him and says:"I'm here for super sex". "That's fine" says George. "I'll take the soup". I came to realize as a physician that I was working toward a goal which was different from the goal of evolution. Not necessarily contradictory just different. I was trying to preserve the body. I wanted to keep us healthy. I wanted to restore health from disease. I wanted us to live long and healthy lives. Evolution is all about passing on the genome to the next generation. Adapting and surviving through generation after generation. From an evolutionary point of view, you and I, are like the booster rocket design to send the generic payload into the next level of orbit and then, drop off into the sea. I think we would all understand the sentiment that Woody Allen express when he said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." Evolution does not necessarily favor the longest lived. It does not necessarily favor the biggest or the strongest, or the fastest, not even the smartest. Evolution favors those creatures best adaptive to their environment. That is the sole task of survival and success. At the bottom of the ocean bacteria that are thermophilic and can survive at the steam vent heat, that would otherwise produce if fish were there su vid to cook fish. Never the less, had manage to make that a hospitable environment for them. So, what does this mean? As we looked back at what is happened in evolution and as we think about the place again of humans in evolution and particularly as we look ahead to the next phase. I would say that there are a number of possibilities. The first is that we will not evolve we have reached a kind of equipoise. And, the reasoning behind that would be first, we have through medicine managed to preserve a lot of genes that would otherwise, be selected out, and be removed from the population and, secondly, we as a species have so configured our environment that we have managed to make it adapt to us as well as we adapt to it. And, by the way we immigrate, and circulate, and, intermix so much that you can't any longer have the isolation that is necessary for evolution to take place. Second possibility is that there will be evolution of the traditional kind; natural imposed by the forces of nature. And the argument here will be that the wheels of evolution grinds slowly but they are inexorable. And, as far as isolation goes when we as a species do colonize distant planets there will be the isolation and the environmental changes that could produce evolution in the natural way. But, there is a third possibility. An enticing, intriguing and frightening possibility. I called neo-evolution. The new evolution that is not simply natural but guided and chosen by us as individuals in the choices that we will make. Now, how can this come about? How could it be possible that we will do this? Consider, first the reality that people today in some cultures are making choices about their offspring. There in some cultures choosing to have more males than females. It's not necessarily good for the society but is what the individual and the family are choosing. Think also if it were possible ever for you not simply to choose the sex of your child but for you in your body to make the genetic adjustments that genetic adjustments that will cure and prevent diseases. What if you could make the genetic changes to eliminate diabetes, or alzheimer, or reduce the risk of cancer, or eliminate stroke. Wouldn't you want to make those changes in your genes? If we look ahead these kind of changes are going to be increasingly possible. The human genome project started in 1990 and, it took 13 years. It cost 2.7 billion dollars. The year after it was finished in 2004 you could do the same job for 20 million dollars in 3 to 4 months. Today, you can have a complete sequence of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome at a cost of about $20,000 and in the space of about a week it won't be very long before the reality will be the 1 thousand dollars human genome and, it will be increasingly available for everyone. Just a week ago, the national economy of engineering awarded its Draper Prize to Frances Arnold and Willem Stammer. Two scientists independently developed techniques to encourage the natural process of evolution to work faster and to lead to desirable proteins in a more efficient way. What Frances Arnold calls directed evolution. A couple of years ago the Lasker Prize was awarded to the scientist Shinya Yamanaka for his research in which he took an adult skin cell a fibroblast and, by manipulating just four genes he induced that cell to revert to a pluri potential stem cell. A cell potentially capable of becoming any cell in your body. These changes are coming. The same technology that has produced the human insulin in bacteria can make viruses that will not only protect you against themselves but induce immunity against other viruses. Believe it or not there is an experimental trial going on with vaccine against influenza that is been grown in the cells of a tobacco plant. Can you imagine something good coming out of tobacco? These are all reality today and the future will be ever more possible. Imagine then, just two other little changes. You can change the cells in your body but, what if you can change the cells in your offspring. What if you can change the sperm, and the ovum, or change the newly fertilize egg and give your offspring a better chance at a healthier life. Eliminate the diabetes, eliminate the hemophilia, reduce the risk of cancer. Who doesn't want healthier children? And then, that same analytic technology, that same engine of science that can produce the changes to prevent disease will also enable us to adapt super attributes, hyper capacities that better memory. Why not have the quick wit of a Ken Jennings. Especially if you can augment it with the next generation of the Watson Machine. Why not have the quick twitch muscles that will enable you to run faster, and longer. Why not live longer. These will be irresistible and when we are at a position that we can pass it on to the next generation and, we can adopt the attributes we want we will have converted old style evolution into neo- evolution. We'll take a process that normally might require a hundred thousands years and we can compress it down to a thousand years and, maybe even in the next one hundred years. These are choices that your grandchildren, or their grandchildren are going to have before them. Will we use these choices to make a society that is better, that is more successful, that is kinder or will we selectively choose different attributes that we want for some of us and not for others of us? Will we make a society that is more boring, more uniformed, or more robust and more versatile. These are the kinds of questions that we will have to face and ,most profoundly of all. We'll we ever be able to develop the wisdom and to inherit the wisdom that we'll need to make these choices wiser. For better or, worse, and sooner that you may think these choices will be up to us. Thank you (applauses)

Video Details

Duration: 17 minutes and 21 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Views: 149
Posted by: janet98 on Apr 26, 2011

This is an informative video.

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