Forget Darwin, DNA Science Could Soon Let Humans Play God

Ethical ramifications are potentially monstrous, but evolutionary controls may soon be in hand.

By + More

It's a dream for most of us--change who we are to conform to an ideal notion of who or what we should be. Well, it might be a real option one day soon. And the changes that may occur will make plastic surgery look like child's play.

The ability to engineer life (essentially rewriting the DNA code) is going to lead to a revolution that dwarfs both the industrial and digital ages--and may lead to an entirely new human species, says Juan Enriquez, managing director of Excel Venture Management.

[Read Scientists' Life's Work to Search for It Aboard Mars Rover.]

"The new human species is one that begins to engineer the evolution of viruses, plants, animals, and itself. As we do that, Darwin's rules get significantly bent, and sometimes even broken," Enriquez says. "Eventually, we get to the point where evolution is guided by what we're engineering. That's a big deal."

But he also believes that the knowledge unlocked by the sequencing of 10,000 human genomes will change everything. At its core, the central issue will be a deliberate effort to alter what we consider to be the human species.

Not that the path won't be rough. The idea of genetically altering man is fraught with ethical questions. For that reason, it has largely been avoided since the '30s and '40s, when the Nazis adopted the eugenics movement that came out of elite American universities.

The issue of genetic variation "was disastrously misapplied," Enriquez says. "But you do have to ask, if there are fundamental differences in species like dogs and horses and birds, is it true that there are no significant differences between humans? We are going to have an answer to that question very quickly. If we do, we need to think through an ethical, moral framework to think about questions that go way beyond science."

[Read Forget Conventional Wisdom: Israel Can Nix Iran's Nukes.]

In the mid-1920s, culture wars were dominated by the debate between creationism and evolutionary thinking. In 1925, John Scopes had been found guilty of teaching that mankind arose from something other than divine creation. But the United States was not the only country passionate about the issue.

The young Soviet Union, in its effort to stamp out organized religion, was determined to prove that men were descended from apes.

In 1926, a leading Soviet scientist, Ilya Ivanov, decided that the most compelling way to prove the Soviets correct would be to breed a humanzee: a human-chimpanzee hybrid. He received leader Joseph Stalin's blessing, and funding for the experiments was granted at the highest levels of the Russian science academies. He also received the blessing of the directors of the world-famous Pasteur Institute in Paris.

But Ivanov's efforts ultimately failed, he fell out of favor in one of Stalin's purges, and he was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1931. He died in March 1932. Today, Ivanov--whose quest likely spawned the King Kong/Planet of the Apes movie phenomenon--is long forgotten except to a few historians. But his idea lives.

[Read For DARPA, Defense Planning Proceeds at Mach 20.]

Given the ease of doing the experiment, it's likely that creating a chimp/human hybrid has been tried elsewhere unofficially. No humanzee report has ever been confirmed, though, which suggests that, despite the similarity of our DNA to chimps, it's just not compatible enough to naturally produce a hybrid.

As scientists better understand how DNA works, the reason for this seems to be emerging. There appear to be at least nine pericentric inversions in chimp chromosomes as compared to our own. An inversion is when a section of the chromosome gets reversed end to end. If the inversion doesn't involve the center of the chromosome where the arms are joined, it is called a paracentric inversion and seems to have little medical effect on the individual involved.

A pericentic inversion, however, does involve the section where the arms of the chromosome are joined and can cause medical problems. It also makes it less likely that the individual can produce a viable offspring when mated with one without the inversion. If the chromosome inversions in a chimpanzee ovum could be reversed to match those in a human, however, a viable fetus might be created.

There are also archaeological records implying that chimpanzees and human ancestors may have mated for more than a million years--explaining why we may never find the "missing link." According to one new theory, chimps and humans shared a common apelike ancestor much more recently than was thought. Thus, the thinking goes, modern people are descended from something akin to chimp-human hybrids. That is a new idea, and it challenges the prevailing view that hybrids tend to die out. It also strongly suggests that some of the oldest bones of "proto-humans" may have belonged to a line of non-hybrids that did die out, and were not human ancestors at all.

The idea that new species emerge in a slow and stuttering fashion was favored by Charles Darwin. But many biologists now favor the idea of clean breaks, with the "pure" lines of emerging species being stronger and fitter than hybrids and thus thriving while the hybrids perish. In fact, about 10 percent of animal species are capable of interbreeding with related species, even though the number that do so in any population is very small.

But just as science proves the impossible in nature, it also proves the possible in laboratory settings. If the human species emerged as a "humanzee" hybrid--and the science now shows us how to replicate that process in a laboratory--it begs the question: Will we do so again? Enriquez says yes.

As Charles Darwin spins is his grave.

  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.
  • Read Wave Disk Engine Could Be New Hybrid Powerplant.
  • See the latest political cartoons.