HUMAN EVOLUTION AND GENETIC ENGINEERING

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HUMAN EVOLUTION AND GENETIC ENGINEERING

In the rice fields of Thailand, one farmer ploughs his soil with a water-buffalo, a method known for centuries. At the same time, his neighbour uses his buffalo only to carry modern tools to the fields. Halfway around the world in the Azores Island a man makes a donkey carry a huge load of seed fertilisers to the fields. He will spend all day at the task just as his ancestors had done, even though chemical fertilisers could be spread in a few hours with modern equipment. Similarly in Egypt, one elderly man chooses to plant pure-strain crop even though all his neighbours have switched over to high-yield hybrids.

The question as to why in the same social group or unit some people adventurously grab a chance to venture into unknown fields or experiment with a new idea while others are quite happy to stick to the same old beaten track has puzzled psychologists. Where does such resistance to innovation come from? Is it learned and therefore acquired or is it an evolutionary inheritance, and therefore inherent in the biochemistry of the human species.

Even at the molecular level, chemical reactions that liberate vast amounts of energy do not occur spontaneously but require a triggering event—a spark, a disturbance in equilibrium to overcome a sort of chemical barrier; the minimum amount of energy necessary for change to take place in a substance. At the macrophysical level, inertia and static friction ensure that the status quo will be maintained unless powerful forces come into play.

HUMAN EVOLUTION AND GENETIC ENGINEERING

Since all living organisms are influenced by the laws of chemistry and physics, resistance to change reappears in the biological realm also. In some species such as the sea-turtle and the armoured horseshoe crab, the ideal strategy in the evolutionary struggle has been passive avoidance of all change— a trait seen in many human beings also.

But for most species, survival depends upon adapting i.e. adjusting to change. According to biologist Albert Szent – Gyorgyi who won the Nobel Prize twice, all non-living matter is trapped in endless entropic decay whereas living things are charged with syntropy, a drive towards self-improvement. The very use of living tissue in his view produces its growth and development and enhances the ability to confront the next challenge. If then, nature has a special benefit in store for living systems that seek improvement, why do some humans resist change?

According to one scientist, who has studied the manner in which human beings adopt new ideas and innovations, though most people are willing to change we adopt a new ideas at different speeds i.e. some of us are adopters who easily grasp the significance of a new concept and venture to take the risk of trying something new. After the new idea proves itself opinion leaders then convince other people of its utility. Most of us are later adopters cautiously waiting to make sure that a new idea has no hidden dangers or unexpected consequences that may prove to be hazardous. Then there are those who are known as “stragglers” who resist innovation until its utility has been proved beyond all doubt. This scientist is of the opinion that a new idea must have five qualities before it can be accepted and adopted:

  1. First of all it must appear tangibly better than previous solutions to a problem.
  2. It must be of an order or simplicity that a potential adopter can understand it.
  3. It must be compatible with non-variable factors in an environment—tools, for example.
  4. Potential adopters must be able to hold a trial run to test the utility of the idea.
  5. Lastly the result must be observable.

All the five criteria are in the eye of the beholder. The farmer in Egypt may not understand the complexity of hybrid grains. Similarly, the farmer in the Azores may avoid chemical fertilizer because it requires equipment more complicated than the donkey and spade that he is familiar with.

Human evolution has depended upon maintaining a proper balance between adventurous fanatics and cautious conservatives while the group in the middle creeps along mildly defying entropy. Resistance to change can in a sense be regarded as Nature’s safety device designed for maintaining the continuity of the species. While we need the stragglers to hold securely to established survival strategies, we also need courageous explorers for taking risks and moving forward to improve the species. It is the dynamic tension between two extreme groups that ensures that our species will continue to survive stresses and strains.

Biologists do fear that the human race is doomed to extinction considering that of the millions of organisms evolved on earth in more than three billion years nearly all have disappeared. But the only reason they feel a bit optimistic that a human race might be somewhat different is that we understand to a slight degree the process of evolution, mutation and selection. In other words, human beings could avoid extinction if they use their knowledge to guide the course of human evolution and succeed in creating a better species—a superhuman.

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A respected geneticist working in a famous Institute in the United States feels that within fifteen years it would be possible for human beings to begin practising a selective breeding programme by following a method suggested by the late Geneticist Dr. Harmann Muller. Muller had advocated that all infants should be sterilised at birth after technicians take a sample of the precursors of their eggs or sperms. The cells will then be kept frozen. Only after an individual has died will society take a decision in respect of procreation. The necessary eggs and sperms of those selected will be obtained by advanced technology from the frozen precursors and used to fertilise eggs in test tube. The resulting embryos will be implanted in receptive uteruses.

This geneticist is strongly in favour of such a procedure as a means of improving the human race. He is optimistic in envisioning a world in which people decide they want their children to have the best genes, not necessarily the parents’ own genes. The problem of course is how to decide what is best. While everyone agrees that the choice should depend on intelligence, longevity, energy, freedom from genetic disease and good ethical standards, there are many who feel that the actual process is only not easy but also perhaps not desirable. These critics feel that the long term social and evolutionary consequences of applying genetic engineering to humans could be disastrous. They fear that genetic technology will be accessible not only to poets, scientists, and artists but also to fanatics and dictators. They feel that history has shown that such power may not be used solely in the interests of the welfare of mankind. After all what guarantee is there that some Nero or Hider may not use such a powerful tool to breed a race of ruthless dictators and make this planet a living hell!

In addition to the social and ethical implications of such questions, the critics are pessimistic about the possible evolutionary consequences that we cannot anticipate. They feel that mankind is not mature or intelligent enough to begin making these drastic changes in the human gene pool. They are apprehensive that human beings are immature though brilliant and may destroy all life on earth and bring to an ignominious and disastrous end, billions of years of fruitful evolution.

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On the other hand, advocates of the positive value of genetic engineering feel that man today is in the same position in which his ancestor two million years ago had found himself. Just as homo habilis had in his hand the first rudimentary tool and just as the use of this tool, led to his rapid evolution into us (homo sapiens), we have in our hands the first rudimentary tools e.g. genetic engineering by means of which mankind can escape extinction and move forward to broad sunlit uplands and better days.

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