the daily galaxy strikes again!
When you’re looking for a glaring example of bad information and sensationalistic articles, The Daily Galaxy, a popular science tabloid, never disappoints. Their writers are either touting some nonexistent breakthrough in anti-aging research about to make humans immortal, or breathlessly quoting people authoritatively saying pseudoscientific things with a very profound tone, and filling their articles with glaring errors. And even worse, in this case, the person saying these pseudoscientific things is Stephen Hawking who is a brilliant theorist in the realm of astrophysics but has unfortunately decided to venture into rather cliched transhumanism…
The basic premise of his reported lecture is that the way humans transmit information between each other in the form of ink on paper and bits and bytes should be compared to the slow but steady change in our DNA as an extension of our evolution. And once we have the right technology, we could customize our own genes and take evolution into our own hands. Note how the word evolution is being used, sort of like a trendy buzzword in a science fiction novel rather than a set of biological processes that keep our genomes in constant flux. Even the most profound book and the most important data exchange between different people has absolutely zero effect on our genetic makeup. Our ability to communicate is a byproduct of evolution, not another form of it,
Hawking tries to compare rate of the change in our DNA to the rate at which we can communicate and uses it as evidence that we’re basically outgrowing biological evolution. But we only needed a single mutation in our genome to grow much larger brains, the very same brains that allow us to exchange so much data. It’s not a question of how fast your DNA changes but where and how. It’s as if evolution is being presented as a quasi- Lamarckian process, something that strives towards complexity instead of producing it as a byproduct and in its final stages, the most advanced creature it produces leaves the biological world for a life of custom genetic manipulations and high tech synthesis. But that’s not what really happens. Human intelligence is a fortunate confluence of the typical errors in genetic codes and natural selection in an environment that gave brain just a little leeway over brawn. What we intend to do with that intelligence is our decision, not that of evolution.
That brings us to the idea of customizing our genes with advanced technology, something that could be done in the not too distant future but laden with all sorts of consequences. People have been trying to improve their offspring for decades, sometimes resorting to eugenics programs to make it happen. However, the idea that by manipulating our genes we could take control over evolution’s randomness is flawed at is core. Evolution’s diversity and complexity is based on a wide variety of genes that are in constant flux. Over millions of changes, a beneficial trait might appear and spread. If we try to lock down our genomes to suit our idea of what’s good for us, we would be missing out on other positive traits that might evolve and would in a sense, put the brakes on our evolution rather than really do something beneficial.
A more rational approach could be to try and fix obvious problems such as serious genetic diseases, taking a calculated risk of nearly removing those genes from the pool of hereditary information, and let nature take its course. This way, we wouldn’t control our evolution but instead, mitigate its inevitable speed bumps. And we’ll also need to keep in mind that when we try to design some sort of super abilities, our DNA isn’t the only thing that counts. At best, we can create a propensity for high intellect or athletic ability. But without extensive nurture and serious training, these potential talents would never manifest themselves. Different people have different abilities and its our combined diversity that makes our society work. Why not just nurture the talents which are working out for us already instead of trying to customize what we want to be and probably ending up with what could only be described as mediocre results?
Finally, there are other glaring errors in the article itself. It starts out by stating that we evolved from apes over a few million years. However, hominids and apes branched off from a common ancestor. About 100,000 years ago, modern humans branched off from the hominids and became our ancestors. There’s also the mistaken use of prepositions. Creatures don’t evolve from or into anything. Instead, they branch off until the genetic drift between them and their ancestors is so wide, they’re now an entirely different species. Maybe I’m being a nag but it seems to me that articles concerning evolution should be written with an accurate description of what’s happening in the process, something apparently too much to ask for from The Daily Galaxy…