Speeding up Evolution
by Jan Baughman

Gene therapy and cloning remain at the cutting edge of technology while scientists, ethicists, theologians and normal people still try to grapple with the implications and the argument that nature should be left alone to take its course. While our superior human intellect has long enabled us to toy with other species such as horses and dogs and tomatoes, we aren't so quick to jump at improving ourselves (one can always fall back on a more Supreme Creator who must have intentionally included a few flaws and shortcomings). In fact, there is a lot we could do with a few characteristics that have evolved or that we have created in subhuman life forms. Today's tomatoes are engineered to have a thicker skin and firmer body in order to minimize damage during transport. I'll take that gene. I can't wait two million years for it to suddenly appear.

Farmers have long understood the benefits of selective breeding, and with the advent of genetic engineering can purchase cotton seeds for plants that produce their own pesticides or are genetically resistant to damage from such sprays. In five years, they will have plants that produce cotton in different colors (perhaps one day, we'll have a cotton that is self-cleaning.) But human beings, they're not to be tampered with.

Interestingly, it is the non-human species who seem best adapted to so-called modern life, though their shapes and functions and abilities were developed without the prior knowledge or influence of the trappings of modernity (or so it would seem) and certainly without human intervention. I envy many of them, each day, on my way to a job with the teaming masses commuting at a stand-still. Dogs don't have to go to work every day (except for some who were bred for specialty jobs; not thanks to their own evolution). I admire my cats' ability to sleep through the night (and day) without worrying about short-term interest rates or the price of heating oil. In fact, they are quite well-adapted to the complex world in which they live. Since their opposable thumbs aren't quite long enough to open a can of food, they have evolved humans to open it for them. Which of us is the smarter of the two? Asexual reproduction existed long before humans, yet we're just now (in billennium speak) perfecting it.

Some day the human body will be better adapted to the inconveniences of the modern world, but I don't presume that gene therapy will progress quickly enough for my benefit. Even if it does, the ethics debate will continue long after any altered genes would be of some use to me. Evolution moves faster -- and I am still hoping to see some evidence of it before I reach the end of my life span. Even if evolution takes millions of billions of years, there must be a point, a dramatic and definable point in which a new characteristic appears. But can the change occur within a lifetime? I train rigorously with the hope that one day my body will develop an instinct to hibernate. If only it would come...I would be settling in about now for a blissful snooze that would carry me right through the rain, the holidays and the marketing of the Millennium. And I'm sure that in the spring when I awoke, life wouldn't be noticeably different.

Published November 28, 1997
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