Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth

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9781617230202: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth
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“We are the primary drivers of change. We will directly and indirectly determine what lives, what dies, where, and when. We are in a different phase of evolution; the future of life is now in our hands.”

Why are rates of conditions like autism, asthma, obesity, and allergies exploding at an unprecedented pace? Why are humans living longer, getting smarter, and having far fewer kids? How might your lifestyle affect your unborn children and grandchildren? How will gene-editing technologies like CRISPR steer the course of human evolution? If Darwin were alive today, how would he explain this new world? Could our progeny eventually become a different species—or several?

In Evolving Ourselves, futurist Juan Enriquez and scientist Steve Gullans conduct a sweeping tour of how humans are changing the course of evolution—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. For example:


   ·  Globally, rates of obesity in humans nearly doubled between 1980 and 2014. What’s more, there’s evidence that other species, from pasture-fed horses to lab animals to house cats, are also getting fatter.
   ·  As reported by U.S. government agencies, the rate of autism rose by 131 percent from 2001 to 2010, an increase that cannot be attributed simply to increases in diagnosis rates.
   ·  Three hundred years ago, almost no one with a serious nut allergy lived long enough to reproduce. Today, despite an environment in which food allergies have increased by 50 percent in just over a decade, 17 million Americans who suffer from food allergies survive, thrive, and pass their genes and behaviors on to the next generation.
   ·  In the pre-Twinkie era, early humans had quite healthy mouths. As we began cooking, bathing, and using antibiotics, the bacteria in our bodies changed dramatically and became far less diverse. Today the consequences are evident not only in our teeth but throughout our bodies and minds. 

Though these harbingers of change are deeply unsettling, the authors argue that we are also in an epoch of tremendous opportunity. New advances in biotechnology help us mitigate the cruel forces of natural selection, from saving prematurely born babies to gene therapies for sickle cell anemia and other conditions. As technology like CRISPR enables us to take control of our genes, we will be able to alter our own species and many others—a good thing, given that our eventual survival will require space travel and colonization, enabled by a fundamental redesign of our bodies.

Future humans could become great caretakers of the planet, as well as a more diverse, more resilient, gentler, and more intelligent species—but only if we make the right choices now.

Intelligent, provocative, and optimistic, Evolving Ourselves is the ultimate guide to the next phase of life on Earth.

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About the Author:

JUAN ENRIQUEZ and STEVE GULLANS, PH.D., are cofounders of Excel Venture Management, which builds start-ups in synthetic biology, big data, and new genetic technologies. Enriquez is a bestselling author and a global authority on the economic and political impacts of the life sciences. He is a TED “all-star,” lectures around the world, chairs the Genetics Advisory Council at Harvard Medical School, and was the founding director of Harvard Business School’s Life Science Project. Gullans was a professor at Harvard Medical School for eighteen years, applying breakthrough technologies to diseases such as cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. He has published more than 130 scientific papers in leading journals. He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1998. The authors live in Boston.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

What Would Darwin Write Today?

Imagine we somehow plucked Charles Darwin out of his nineteenth-century home and placed him smack in the middle of modern-day Trafalgar Square, London. What would he make of it?

After the initial brutal disorientation, this dissector of human strengths and foibles would start to observe: How can everything be so clean and orderly? Where is the soot, horse dung, squalor, gruel, stench, ailments? No fleas? And where are all the Oliver Twist–like urchins? Everyone seems so well fed—in fact, way overfed. People look familiar but also very different; where did all these tall folks come from, and why are so many large but weak? Why are there so few kids and so many old people—and why do the white-haired folk appear so healthy? He would marvel at the variety of foods, halal carts, taco trucks, schnitzel stands, and rolling organic juice bars. But he would also wonder about the signs that read PLEASE INFORM YOUR SERVER OF ANY ALLERGIES.1 Then he would focus closer: Everyone looks clean and has teeth. Children can read and have free time to play . . . but why are adults running through Trafalgar Square wearing short pants and neon shoes? Why don’t some of the old people have wrinkles? Why are many kids and elderly drawing deep breaths from inhalers?

When you know what to look for, the symptoms of rapid evolution are all around us; in just 150 years the human species has changed. We have redesigned our world and our bodies while at the same time becoming an ever more domesticated and smarter species. But taking control of our own evolution can also generate surprises; symptoms of rapid evolution include explosions in autism, allergies, obesity, and a host of other changes, not all positive ones.

Until relatively recently only a minority of humans lived in the kind of poverty depicted in the works of Darwin’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, in cities where destitution, sickness, filth, and early death were commonplace. The majority of people lived much closer to a state of nature in the brutal world Darwin described in his most famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, where nature was the ruler and driver of evolution and two key forces determined what survived and thrived on this planet: natural selection and random mutation.2

To recap Bio 101, natural selection means that you see only those species* that adapted to a particular environment well enough to reproduce generation after generation. In other words, “survival of the fittest.” If a given group of creatures does not find enough food, fend off predators and diseases, and find suitable and healthy mates, then that species goes extinct. Random mutation means that the core genetic code, the DNA that underlies our biological traits, slowly varies through chance from generation to generation.3 Usually these changes are benign and unnoticeable. Occasionally significant changes help individuals reproduce and survive better than their ancestors. But sometimes they can lead to horrible genetic diseases.

If Darwin were to write A Tale of Two Centuries, to play again on his famous contemporary, he would describe vast and unrelenting change. For nearly four billion years, nature selected what lived and died. Life forms adapted by mutating randomly so that at least a few specimens sometimes hit the jackpot and survived as environments altered, pathogens evolved, new predators emerged, and food sources changed.

The goal of this book is not to argue that Darwin was wrong; just that he is not as right anymore. Over the past century, as our species grew by billions, concentrated in cities, smartened, and domesticated itself and its surroundings, we became the fundamental driver of what lives and dies. This change is so radical that if Darwin were alive today, he would likely revise a significant part of his great works, because the basic logic of evolution has shifted away from capital-n Nature toward two new core drivers:

Unnatural selection*
Nonrandom mutation*

Darwinian logic and nature continue to define and drive the evolution of all life in places where humans do not yet impose their will—in those spaces untouched by cities, farms, parklands, and vacation homes. But these once vast tracts are now rare. Half the landmass on Earth is now covered by what humans want, not by what would naturally grow without the intervention of our species. Oceans, rivers, and lakes are depleted. In just a few centuries, we have terraformed, fertilized, fenced, seeded, and irrigated enormous sections of what was once forest, savannah, desert, and tundra to accommodate our plants, our animals, our wishes. This is unnatural selection.

In the past couple of decades, the pace of evolution ramped up fast as humans invented ways to deliberately redesign the genetic code of living organisms. We developed powerful, cheap, and rapid ways to read, copy, and edit the genetic code of bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, and humans. When we engineer cancer-prone mice and long-lived worms, we alter not just how many of a species exist but also the essential nature of the species. It is this new phase, nonrandom mutation, in which we substitute random, slow evolution with rapid, deliberate, intelligent changes, that would shock Darwin.

What thrives on Earth now depends on an evolutionary seesaw. On one side sits the full weight of nature, of the traditional forces of evolution, natural selection and random mutation, leading to extraordinary diversity, continuous extinction, and speciation. On the other side sit the wishes of a single species, H. sapiens. Darwin wrote extensively on what happens when plants and animals are domesticated and redesigned by humans, but he did not make the logical leap that should these trends continue, humans would end up extending their influence to encompass the planet and themselves, matching and then exceeding the forces of natural selection and random mutation.4

While many instinctively associate the word “unnatural” with bad stuff, our transition away from Nature toward a more gentle and weakened “nature” has been spectacularly successful and beneficial to humans. Life expectancy in the UK in 1856 was 40.4 years.5 Now, because “we are the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will,” we live almost twice as long and more than 99 percent of our babies and children survive in the developed world.6 In domesticating plants, animals, environments, and ourselves we increased not just survival but also our quality of life.

Along this journey we acquired an awesome responsibility; as we select and design what lives and dies on this planet, we drive evolution. Our ability to read, copy, and rewrite life code now accelerates faster than Moore’s law for improvements in computers, making it ever faster and cheaper to redesign flowers, develop exotic foods, build bacteria to manufacture therapeutics, and design animals that serve and entertain.

The first part of this book showcases various symptoms, and potential causes, of rapid human-driven evolution. The second section explains the various ways we have of altering life forms and how to quickly change any species. In the third section we cover what it means to read and write life code to our own specs, and what happens as we begin to edit life forms on a grand scale. Then we discuss how we might choose to evolve ourselves and some of the ethical implications of these choices. Finally we explore using our newfound powers to revive and restore the extinct, speciate ourselves, design synthetic life forms, perhaps even leave the planet.

So what does it mean to leave a part of Darwin’s theory behind and enter a new paradigm of human-driven evolution? It means we increasingly bend nature to our own desires. Many of the sick or weak are no longer relentlessly culled by natural selection. This transition away from nature operating and guiding life forms to our doing so may just be the single greatest achievement and challenge, so far, for the human species. As a result we can begin to answer questions like: How do we want to design life? What do we want humans to look like in a few hundred years? Do we want other hominin species walking around? What should we do with all the synthetic life forms we are creating? While there are certainly many wrong and perilous answers to each of these questions, getting it right potentially means continuing to improve the overall human condition, leading to better health, longer life span, and greater control over our daily lives. There is already much discovery to be proud of, and the adventure of controlling and guiding life has just begun.

SYMPTOMS OF REAL-TIME EVOLUTION

Is Autism a Harbinger of Our Changing Brains?

The Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report (MMWR) is in some ways a medical version of the Kelley Blue Book, the publication that provides the value ranges of used cars. The MMWR provides, in mind-numbing detail, just how many people got sick or died last week. It’s not exactly beach reading, and it’s usually as exciting as watching paint dry. But within the endless columns and statistics of the MMWR, the patient and persistent can spot long-term trends and occasionally find serious short-term discontinuities.

Physicians and epidemiologists get excited by short-term discontinuities; a sudden increase in an extremely rare tumor, like Kaposi’s sarcoma, can be a harbinger of a massive infectious disease epidemic with a long incubation period, AIDS. The dozens of patients entering the hospital with this rare tumor in 1982 grew into 75,457 full-fledged AIDS cases in the United States by 1992.1

Conditions and diseases develop and spread at different rates. A rapid spike in airborne or waterborne infectious diseases like the flu or cholera is tragic but normal. A rapid spike in what was thought to be a genetic condition, like autism, is abnormal; when you see the latter, it is reasonable to think something has really changed, and not for the better.

Usually changes in the incidence of a genetically driven disease take place slowly, across generations.2 Diseases such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia result from well-characterized DNA mutations in single genes, and the inheritance pattern is well understood: If parents carry the gene and pass it to a child, the child will be affected. Cystic fibrosis occurs in 1 of 3,700 newborns in the United States each year with no significant change in incidence over many years.3 Similarly, sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease. One of every 500 African Americans acquires the errant gene from both parents, and we can predict the incidence of sickle cell anemia with some regularity.4 You cannot “catch” these kinds of conditions by sharing a room with someone; you inherit them. If your sibling has cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, then you have a 1 in 4 chance of also being sick.

Autism is diagnosed in 1 percent of individuals in Asia, Europe, and North America, and 2.6 percent of South Koreans.5 We know there is a strong genetic component to autism—so much so that until recently autism was thought to be a primarily genetic disease. There is clearly an underlying genetic component to many cases of autism. If one identical twin has autism, the probability that the other is also affected is around 70 percent. Until recently, the sibling of an autistic child, even though sharing many of the same parental genes and overall home environment, had only a 1 in 20 probability of being afflicted. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s child, genetically unrelated, has only a 0.6 percent probability.6 But even though millions of dollars have been spent trying to identify “the genes” for autism, so far the picture is still murky. The hundreds of gene mutations identified in the past decade do not explain the majority of today’s cases.7 And while we searched for genes, a big epidemic was brewing.

In 2008, when the MMWR reported a 78 percent increase in autism—a noncontagious condition—occurring in fewer than eight years, alarm bells began to go off in the medical community.8 By 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was reporting a further 30 percent rise in autism in just two years.9 This is not the way traditional genetic diseases are supposed to act. This rate of change in autism was so shocking and unexpected that the first reaction of many MDs was that it wasn’t really that serious. Many argued, and some continue to argue, that we simply got better at diagnosing (and overdiagnosing) what was already there.10 But as case after case accumulates and overwhelms parents, school districts, and health-care systems, there is a growing sense that something is going horribly wrong, and no one really knows why.

What we do know, because of a May 2014 study that looked at more than 2 million children, is that environmental factors are driving more and more autism cases. Whereas autism used to be 80 to 90 percent explained/predicted by genetics, now genetics is only 50 percent predictive.11 We have taken a disease we mostly inherited and rapidly turned it into a disease we can trigger. Now the chances of a brother or sister of an autistic child developing autism is 1 in 8 instead of 1 in 20.

The rapid pace of today’s human-driven evolution may not be giving humanity time to adapt and to reach a steady state within a new environment. Autism may be just one harbinger, one symptom, of our radically changing world. Almost every aspect of human life has changed—moving from rural to urban; living in an antiseptic environment; eating very different sugars, fats, and preservatives; experiencing novel man-made stimuli; ingesting large quantities of medicines and chemicals; being sedentary; and living indoors. Given so many transformations, it would be surprising if our bodies and brains did not change as a result.

The DarWa Theory Revisited . . . and a Glimpse at a New Theory

Charles Robert Darwin was a man of extraordinary courage and integrity. As a teen he intended to be a preacher, yet what he studied and observed in nature was increasingly at odds with his intended profession. Much of his family, except his grandfather, opposed his theory of evolution.1 His wife was especially concerned he would be condemned to hell. Darwin himself wrestled with serious doubts; he never even used the word “evolution” until forty-two years after he first started writing about biology.2

Over decades Darwin accumulated examples, thought, wrestled with his faith, and refrained from publishing, despite a large collection of clear evidence that creatures evolve.3 And then came an extraordinary crisis. Darwin received a letter from an obscure specimen collector working in the far reaches of present-day Indonesia. Wracked by malaria, Alfred Russel Wallace had nevertheless crystallized his observations, after decades of traveling the Amazon, Malaysia, and Indonesia, into a single letter—one that described in detail what would become the theory of evolution.

Wallace was not a “gentleman,” in a class-conscious era when only gentlemen were supposed to become scientists, gain entr...

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