life's forms modify the Earth: full human control (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Friday, December 01, 2023, 23:46 (141 days ago) @ David Turell

Some ae trying it:

"Thousands of years ago, humans began to identify plants and animals with preferable traits and selectively breed them, which amplified these traits in their offspring. This approach gave us agriculture, one of the most transformative cultural inventions in human history. Later, artificial selection in animals and plants helped us understand genetics, and how genes evolve in populations. But as effective as it’s been, artificial selection is still fairly limited.


"Now biologists hope to dictate how evolution happens at the molecular level, and to exert as much direct control over the reproductive process as we do in crops. Can we orchestrate evolution, mutation by mutation, toward whatever outcome we prefer?

"Remarkably, we’re already partway there. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognized work on a method called directed evolution, which allows scientists to engineer new biomolecules. One of the winners, Frances Arnold, pioneered a way to mutate proteins in the laboratory and then measure their functionality — say, how well an enzyme metabolizes sugar. It’s then possible to isolate the protein candidates of interest, mutate them, and select further, until we have generated a protein with improved function (in this case, an enzyme that metabolizes sugar very efficiently). In this sense, chemists are operating like dog breeders, but without relying on sexual reproduction to generate the protein offspring. Rather, they are generating a diverse population of proteins and measuring their properties in mere hours. And by selecting what they want, they are controlling how evolution happens.


"These breakthroughs demonstrate that in some form, evolutionary control is a thing of the present, not the future. But most successful examples have taken place in a small number of settings: microbes, microbial communities and proteins. And even further, existing efforts focus on control over short time periods — no reasonable scientist purports to be able to control molecular evolution acting over decades or centuries (outside of the artificial selection that has taken place over millennia). True control over the evolutionary process remains strictly limited by our current knowledge and tools.

"While the technical challenges of evolutionary control remain substantial, the ethical barriers are also notable. The issues overlap with those around genetically modified organisms. When we engineer a mutation into a strain of corn that confers the ability to grow even in stressful environments, we influence future generations of that strain of corn. Furthermore, embryo selection in humans can resemble artificial selection, giving us the ability to steer the appearance of human traits in future populations. In general, overzealous applications of these technologies can be driven by a kind of genetic determinism — the naïve view that the meaningful differences between organisms within a population can be explained (mostly) by their genetic makeup.

"Should we ever try to naïvely steer evolution in humans and other organisms over a longer timescale, we would fall victim to a sort of evolutionary determinism, which holds that we can and should have full control over how life evolves in the future. Ultimately, these ambitions are misplaced. They underestimate the caprice of biological evolution — the difficulty of considering all the forces that shape how life functions and flourishes. Some may imagine that artificial intelligence can help resolve these uncertainties. But AI is not a panacea for ignorance. It is most effective when we already understand the vagaries of the system that we are attempting to model and predict. Evolutionary biology doesn’t quite meet this standard — at least not yet.

"We can (and should) simultaneously gush at the ambition of modern biology and have the presence of mind to recognize our limits. For example, the eugenics movement suggested that the human race could be improved using the sorts of methods that gave us domesticated animals and crops. We now understand it was both bigoted and based on bad biology. Examples like these are cautionary tales, and they should teach us that careless attempts to control tempestuous forces like evolution are bound to fail."

Comment: my attitude is, guys cool it. We are not Gods or God-like. The article doesn't mention the attempt to sterilize male mosquitos, but that is a small reasonable attempt.

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