A century ago, the design of 21st-century man was unimaginable to anyone but sci-fi writers, and even they didn’t go far enough. No one foresaw a species able to prevent pregnancy with a pill. Or able to snake a wire up an artery to restore bloodflow. No one anticipated the sub-species of “Real Housewives”—women bronzed in tanning beds, filled with silicone and injected with a poisonous toxin to smooth wrinkles.
Such interventions are but a prelude to the human-design innovation to come, predicts Juan Enríquez, founding director of Harvard Business School’s Life Sciences Project. We’ve been given glimpses of that future: the thriving field of regenerative medicine is using stem cells to regrow old organs—and build brand new ones. Cancer patients have received new windpipes built from their own cells; spinal columns are being augmented with polymers. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edward Boyden’s lab has successfully downloaded a mouse’s memory to a computer, raising all sorts of possibilities for externalizing human memory. Scientists are isolating “high-performance” genes such as ACE, linked to the ability to adapt to high altitudes, and 577R, which is found in most Olympic power athletes. Meanwhile, neuroprosthetics are redefining “bionic man” with artificial limbs powered via little more than a bit of electric current and the person’s thoughts.
Man’s instinct to re-engineer is hard-wired, Enríquez says in an interview with Maclean’s. “We’ve transformed poisonous berries into beautiful heirloom tomatoes,” he says. “We’ve taken wolves and made them into various species of dogs; we’ve taken corn and made it a completely unnatural plant—grains the same size and colour.” And now, in making the human body itself the platform for innovation, we’re propelling the evolution of the species itself. In Homo Evolutis: A Short Tour of Our New Species, an ebook he co-authored with Steve Gullans, Enríquez writes that Homo sapiens have already evolved into “Homo evolutis,” defined as “a hominid that takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of his species, her species and other species.”
The result, Enríquez says, will be an explosion of various species of varying genetic composition. And soon. Our children or grandchildren, he says, could take different enough biological forms from us to be considered another species entirely.
In conversation, Enríquez dials back his timeline slightly. “Though it takes centuries for entire species populations to separate, you are going to start to see clusters, looking like very different types of things.” The history of genetically modified food offers a model, he says: “Over 20 years, plant life in one place is completely different from another. Grain harvested in Canada is very different than grain harvested in parts of Europe.” New natural selection will hinge on money and government policy: “Some countries will veto procedures like stem cell and gene therapies; others will push for them,” he says. “And you’ll get every type of variety in between.”
Evolution isn’t linear, he says, noting we’ve been conditioned by the human timeline pioneered in Ernst Haeckel’s black-and-white silhouette drawings—“something climbing out of the primordial ooze that becomes a monkey, then a human, then a human sitting at a computer.” Rather, evolution branches like a tree. “You tend to get various versions coexisting,” he says, noting we’ve already seen 30 Homo sapiens iterations.
Thousands of loosely connected pieces are accelerating the process: “How we drug ourselves, the kind of information we put in our brain, what we eat, technology.” The rise in autism is an example. Enríquez theorizes it could stem from rapid evolution of the human brain, as the average person is barraged by more data in a day than people living a century ago absorbed in a lifetime.
The upshot will be societal shifts more seismic than those of both the industrial and digital revolutions, he predicts. As for specifics, he’s mum. “You have to be really arrogant to say, ‘I know what humans are going to be like in 500 years,’ ” he says. History shows that genetic flux influences societal values. Enríquez uses the example of blue eyes, which didn’t exist until 10,000 years ago, when they emerged by way of the Black Sea, resulting from a mutation in the OCA2 gene that turned off the mechanism producing brown melanin pigment. “If you told me 11,000 years ago that it turns out people are going to have blue eyes and it’s going to be really successful and get people modelling contracts and mates I would have said, ‘Ha!’ Which is totally wrong.”
One safe bet is hominids of the future being as smooth as seals, with character-defining scars a thing of the past. “The focus now is duplicating the capacity humans had in utero to heal without scars,” says Gail Naughton, CEO of San Diego-based Histogen Inc., and a pioneer in the tissue-implementation field. “Scarring is unwanted cosmetically, but medically, too, it’s very harmful in that it reduces the function of organs or bone cartilage...