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Hacking Darwin

Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

By Jamie Metzl
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Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl

Hacking Darwin (2019) argues that humanity is on the cusp of a future beyond natural selection with the help of assisted reproductive technologies that will enable us to hack our genetic makeup. By mapping the history of genetics, technology and the implications of genetic engineering, it advocates for an informed adoption of the genetic revolution and suggests how to approach its political and ethical challenges.

Key idea 1 of 10

Until now, humanity has evolved through the natural selection of heritable traits.

When combating fruit flies in your kitchen, it may seem hard to believe that these annoying little creatures are related to you. But, in fact, 700 million years ago, a mutual ancestor of humans and fruit flies roamed the planet.

Had you told someone this two hundred years ago, you would have been called a heretic. At that time, most people believed that humans were magically put on Earth by God along with all other creatures and that they had always been the same. This assumption was challenged when Charles Darwin published his classic On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

Based on years of meticulous research from his voyage around the world, Darwin posited that all life on Earth is related. Small, inherited variations in traits enabled populations to compete to survive and reproduce in a process which he called natural selection. In other words, populations evolved since species with more advantageous traits survived and reproduced more than those with less advantageous traits.

Today, most scientists agree that the first single-cell organisms emerged 3.8 billion years ago. Around 540 million years ago, mutations among organisms skyrocketed, exploding into diverse ecosystems of plants and animals. Our species, Homo Sapiens, emerged around 300 thousand years ago. Human traits have been so advantageous that we have survived and multiplied across the planet. In the process, we have outcompeted other species, such as our Neanderthal cousins, to extinction.

Darwin understood the big picture of evolution. But it was one of his contemporaries who took the first steps in understanding how our biological heritage actually works.

By studying the traits passed down to the offspring of over ten thousand pea plants, the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel found that a plant’s traits are formed by pairs of genes inherited from each parent plant. Mendel posited that individual traits are passed on independently of other traits. In cases where the two genes in a pair are different, one gene will always be dominant. That meant that an offspring’s genes are inherited as distinct units rather than being a perfect blend of its parents’ genetic makeup.

Together, Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics turned the tide in biology. In the next blink, we’ll take a look at how we are entering a new era beyond natural selection.

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