juan_enriquez's picture
Managing Director, Excel Venture Management; Co-author (with Steve Gullans), Evolving Ourselves

Speciation is coming. Fast. We keep forgetting that we are but one of several hominids that have walked the Earth (erectus, habilis,neanderthalis, heidelbergensis, ergaster, australopithecus). We keep thinking we are the one and only, the special. But we easily could not have been a dominant species. Or even a species anymore. We blissfully ignore the fact that we came within about 2,000 specimens of going extinct (which is why human DNA is virtually identical).

There is not much evidence, historically, that we are the be all and end all, or that we will remain the dominant species. The fossil history of the planet tells tales of at least six mass extinctions. In each cycle, most life was toast as DNA/RNA hit a reboot key. New species emerged to adapt to new conditions. Asteroid hits? Do away with oceans of slime. World freezes to the Equator? Microbes dominate. Atmosphere fills with poisonous oxygen? no worries, life eventually blurts out obnoxious mammals.

Unless we believe that we have now stabilized all planetary and galactic variables, these cycles of growth and extinction will continue time and again. 99% of species, including all other hominids, have gone extinct. Often this has happened over long periods of time. What is interesting today, 200 years after Darwin's birth, is that we are taking direct and deliberate control over the evolution of many, many species, including ourselves. So the single biggest game changer will likely be the beginning of human speciation. We will begin to get glimpses of it in our lifetime. Our grandchildren will likely live it.

There are at least three parallel tracks on which this change is running towards us. The easiest to see and comprehend is taking place among the "handicapped." As we build better prostheses, we begin to see equality. Legless Oscar Pistorious attempting to put aside the Special Olympics and run against able bodied Olympians is but one example. In Beijing he came very close, but did not meet the qualifying times. However, as materials science, engineering, and design advance, by next Olympics he and his disciples will be competitive. And one Olympics after that the "handicapped" could be unbeatable.

It's not just limbs, what started out as large cones for the hard of hearing eventually became pesky, malfunctioning hearing aids. Then came discrete, effective, miniaturized buds. Now internally implanted cochlear implants allow the deaf to hear. But unlike natural evolution, which requires centuries, digital technologies double in power and halve in price every few months. Soon those with implants will hear as well as we do, and, a few months after that, their hearing may be more acute than ours. Likely the devices will span a broad and adjustable tonal range, including that of species like dogs, bats, or dolphins. Wearers will be able to adapt to various environments at will. Perhaps those with natural hearing will file discrimination lawsuits because they were not hired by symphony orchestras…

Speciation does not have to be mechanical, there is a second parallel, fast moving, track in stem cell and tissue engineering. While the global economy melted down this year, a series of extraordinary discoveries opened interesting options that will be remembered far longer that the current NASDAQ index. Labs in Japan and Wisconsin rebooted skin cells and turned them into stem cells. We are now closer to a point where any cell in our body can be rebooted back to its original factory settings (pluripotent stem cell) and can rebuild any part of our body. At the same time, a Harvard team stripped a mouse heart of all its cells, leaving only cartilage. The cartilage was covered in mouse stem cells, which self organized into a beating heart. A Wake Forest group was regrowing human bladders and implanting them into accident and cancer victims. By year end, a European team had taken a trachea from a dead donor, taken the cells off, and then covered the sinew with bone marrow cells taken from a patient dying of tuberculosis. These cells self organized and regrew a fully functional trachea which was implanted into the patient. There was no need for immunosuppressants; her body recognized the cells covering the new organ as her own…

Again, this is an instance where treating the sick and the needy can quickly expand into a "normal" population with elective procedures. The global proliferation of plastic surgery shows how many are willing to undergo great expense, pain, and inconvenience to enhance their bodies. Between 1996 and 2002 elective cosmetic surgery increased 297%, minimally invasive procedures increased 4146%. As artificial limbs, eyes, ears, cartilage begin to provide significant advantages, procedures developed to enhance the quality of life for the handicapped may become common.

After the daughter of one of my friends tore her tendons horseback riding, doctors told her they would have to harvest parts of her own tendons and hamstrings to rebuild her leg. Because she was so young, the crippling procedure would have to be repeated three times as her body grew. But her parents knew tissue engineers were growing tendons in a lab, so she was one of the first recipients of a procedure that allows natural growth and no harvesting. Today she is a successful ski racer, but her coach feels her "damaged" knee is far stronger and has asked whether the same procedure could be done on the undamaged knee…

As we regrow or engineer more body parts we will likely significantly increase average life span and run into a third track of speciation. Those with access to Google already have an extraordinary evolutionary advantage over the digitally illiterate. Next decade we will be able to store everything we see, read, and hear in our lifetime. The question is can we re-upload and upgrade this data as the basic storage organ deteriorates? And can we enhance this organ's cognitive capacity internally and externally? MIT has already brought together many of those interested in cognition—neuroscientists, surgeons, radiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, computer scientists—to begin to understand this black box. But rebooting other body parts will likely be easier than rebooting the brain, so this will likely be the slowest track but, over the long term, the one with the greatest speciation impact.

Speciation will not be a deliberate, programmed event. Instead it will involve an ever faster accumulation of small, useful improvements that eventually turn homo sapiens into a new hominid. We will likely see glimpses of this long-lived, partly mechanical, partly regrown creature that continues to rapidly drive its own evolution. As the branches of the tree of life, and of hominids, continue to grow and spread, many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities, a homo evolutis.