Internet and Evolution

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
19 November, 2018
Editorial: 257
Fecha de publicación original: 27 febrero, 2001

Many people together means something’s on the move

So here we are then. We’ve got the human genome, we’re learning to juggle those genes, we’re putting more and more machines both inside and outside our bodies, we have a culture with a considerable capacity for changing our environment, from the cells within us to our surroundings, and we’re venturing into space and eyeing the planets closest to us with more and more interest. So, does this all mean that we’re getting closer to taking an evolutionary step forward, as many experts claim? Over the last few years, many Net evangelists have maintained it is imminent. The emergence of shared intelligence with machines, the possibility of downloading and sharing our personal memories within these networks, genetic manipulation and the changes wrought by an increasingly omnipresent medical science, amongst other things, are all contributing to a mutation which will be discreet, as always, but decisive from the point of view of the human beings we have been familiar with up until now.

Experts working on evolution, from paleoebiologists to socio-environmentalists, developmental geneticists, anthropologists and technology experts of all kinds, agree that this genetic leap is definitely in the air. What is not so clear is where it will lead. Our power for forecasting –something we have never been very good at as a species– makes it hard to predict with any certainty what these changes will be. Nonetheless, the scientific community specialising in evolution views this as increasingly important both in terms of debate and research. And discrepancies have as much to do with cultural values as with varying ideas on how we came to be here and what is about to happen to us.

There is consensus on how it all began. Over millions of years, the forces of nature determined the diversity of the suits in our genetic pack of cards. The spinning wheel of life, driven by competition for natural resources, avoiding predators, diseases, famine, and, sometimes, just the bad luck of getting in the way of a meteorite or a volcano with its party lights on, brought together, separated, mixed up, mutated, or neutralised the genetic reserves of the species. The species that were better adapted to the environment lived to see another day. Those that didn’t, fell by the wayside, their only legacy perhaps a fossil record of their existence. And then, 5 million years ago, two evolutionary strains developed from the primates: the chimpanzees on the one hand. The other, after getting to its feet, growing a bigger brain and starting to make stone tools two million years ago and going through all the necessary filters, became a distinct species with features as peculiar as a pocket for a mobile telephone and a computer to connect to the Internet.

At what price though? For this is the dilemma. If we have learnt one thing from evolution it is that none of these steps have been gratuitous. One way or another, we pay for them. The culture of “Homo sapiens” has been the result, almost right from the start, of our unflagging efforts to suppress the forces of nature that give us life. Weapons for annihilating predators, agriculture to provide food year round, cities to shelter us from the wrath of nature, medicine to reduce the ravages of diseases. In less than 100,000 years we have managed to protect ourselves quite successfully from the very forces of nature which brought us into existence in the first place. There are a few more things on the agenda, but let there be no doubt that we are working on them.

In the light of events, experts agree on two things: firstly, natural selection no longer operates among human beings and, secondly, the culture and technology which have brought this about have not yet produced significant genetic alterations. In addition, the habits and customs of this culture and technology are tending to homogenise the genetic reserves of the species more and more, thereby affecting one of the crucial mechanisms of evolution: genetic variation. In other words, the diseases of the few become the diseases of the many. And the treatment is the same for all. We are not giving genes the time they need to put on their glad rags for the next party. And that’s a risky business. Now when an unexpected new virus appears on the stage, no-one is safe –not even the prompter. Our evolutionary defences are very low, however impressive our cultural and technological ones might seem.

And it is here that the debate divides into two clear parts. For some, our evolution is coming to a definitive halt, with all that this implies about the stagnation of our genetic makeup. For others, on the contrary, it is just the beginning. Or in other words, we are on the threshold of a spectacular change in direction. Technology in general, and the Internet in particular, are the detonating forces that will propel the species in this new direction. Globalisation will increase the potential for genetic diversity by putting specialised versions of genes, which have never met before, in contact with one another. And by globalisation we mean both physical as well as virtual contact, allowing, via the Net, for the transfer of skills or new visions of our own bodily environment despite the physical, cultural, religious and even economic differences that separate us.

The fact that the culture of the species is moving towards rapid management of massive amounts of information and knowledge, this means a full scale attack on the driving force of our evolution, our brains. Although we still know very little about it, it is estimated that more than a third of our genetic makeup is involved, some way or the other, in the development of this organ and how it works. To what extent is it being affected –if at all– by constant increases in the processing power of machines? How is it adapting to a world where there are already whole generations whose social interaction are in part electronic (and who even get to mate this way)?

And here are some more questions. How will individuals with “designer genes” for resolving specific problems –or whims– affect the species when these are passed on to the next generations? Everything points to the fact that, with or without the genome map, in less than two decades these “Dolly type” interventions will be as easy to obtain as a packet of aspirins at a supermarket. Genes related to longevity, cognitive skills, or the ability to fight stress head the “the most wanted” list at specialised laboratories all over the world. If they exist, they will be found. And if they are found, somebody will be there to have them “served up” immediately. This way, three key factors in natural evolutionary mechanisms will become part of the human genome via technological development.

If we are reading the signs correctly, everything points to the fact that we are about to take a new evolutionary step which will include the canonical modification of our genetic makeup. However, since it is a step motivated by cultural factors, we don’t know which culture will impose itself when we get there. If it turns out to be the present one, we can bet that evolution will be driven by wealth and we will see a new social class with new DNA which will, as is only natural (if you’ll pardon the expression) try not to mix with the rest in order to protect its genome (which would mean suppressing the lust gene because otherwise it would have no more future than a fly at a congress of spiders). If, on the other hand, culture and technology proposes a change of direction in the very social structure of the species, then the route to this possible genetic leap has yet to be unveiled.

Translation: Bridget King