Does man dare tinker with his own shape?
Soon science will be able to breed human beings to order: bigger, stronger, handsomer, more intelligent. Creating supermen could be mankind’s greatest adventure but it poses unhears-of risks
N. J. BERRILL Zoology Professor, McGill University
ARE WE ON THE threshold of controlling our own evolution? Will man in the foreseeable future be able to decide on the size, shape, intelligence and disposition of earth's human inhabitants?
Many people think so. The idea of producing supermen is not new, and it definitely lies at the back of the thinking of many scientists. But other questions assert themselves at once. Do we know enough to start tinkering with our own bodies and minds, either now or in the foreseeable future? If we have the necessary knowledge and techniques, will we use them? And if we do. to what ends? This is heady stuff, far more disturbing than any prospect of a journey into space, for it leads to the most dangerous form of power, the manipulation of human nature by human beings.
Where do we stand at present? Having evolved from something less than human, more ape-like in shape and habits than we are at present, with a total of at least one billion years of evolution behind us, are we still going ahead or have we reached a standstill? It used to be, in the days be-
fore village and agricultural life began, when everyone hunted or gathered food in a precarious way, that only those with the best bodies, best brains and most luck managed to live to maturity. We were kept on our toes and pushed ahead by the difficulties of living in a hostile world. Now all is different. We have virtually mastered the world we live in and, at least in western societies, manage to keep almost everyone alive through infancy to ripe old age. Whether good, bad or indifferent, every baby now has a fair chance to produce offspring in turn. Hence the present population and the increasing proportion of misfits and morons. There is little doubt that we have more or less neutralized the tough living conditions that helped make us what we are, even though our motives have been good. In other words mankind has been growing rapidly in size during the last ten thousand years but appears to have ceased improving in quality, and it is quality that matters most. We now either take over deliberately, or go
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into mediocrity, despondency and worse.
It is safe to bet in any case that what human beings can do, some human beings will do. When it is technically feasible to send men to Mars, men will be sent, and some poor fools will even volunteer to go. So when it dawns on enough people that we have the power to control human characteristics like size, sex, brains or life span, it will not be long before the game begins. This is human nature, and humanity already is discovering that it is troublesome to have around.
Evolution is progressive change. Plants and animals have slowly changed during the course of ages, under pressure of circumstances, to become what they arc today. Circumstances have permitted the successful reproduction of one kind of living thing rather than another and so have caused change to proceed in one direction rather than another. Man himself has been practising this in his efforts to produce domestic crops and animals for thousands of years before Darwin put it all in the form of a theory. The whole modern age began, in fact, when our ancestors started to pick and choose the best seed and most docile animals from among those they gathered and hunted, to be sown or bred under control.
Gradually the familiar domestic animal and food plants came into being, markedly different from their wild ancestors. We are still putting the finer touches to all this, so that pigs become fatter, cows yield more and more milk and wheat grows farther north. Pekinese and Greyhound have been bred out of just plain dog. And all by the process of noting the variable qualities or characteristics of seed or offspring and selecting for breeding stock the individuals showing the desired features to the most marked degree. Each step in the right direction is always extremely small and many generations are required to produce any sort of striking result.
We have shown therefore that we can direct the evolution of certain animals and plants for our own purposes and. theoretically at least, the same kind of selection breeding can be applied to mankind and on almost any kind of scale. Plenty of material exists to work with for the human race is variable enough, so much so that we have difficulty tolerating our own varieties. What is this human variability based on and where can it lead?
Genetic variability, which is all that the selective agency of man or nature has to work with, is the result of two very different causes. The most publicized cause is radiation, which may be X-rays, cosmic rays, or radioactive fallout lodged within the body. When the tissues affected are the reproductive cells of either male or female, mutations occur in the hereditary genes. Such mutations appear to be always changes for the worse and obviously this sort of variability is something to be avoided rather than used.
The source of variation that adds up to making one individual different from another in almost every conceivable though small way, is of another kind altogether. It comes from the fact that every human individual has grown from an egg that has been fertilized by a sperm. Both
the egg and the sperm each contain about twenty thousand different genes, one of each kind and each with distinctive qualities and effects of its own. When an egg is fertilized, two nearly identical sets of genes are brought together, so that the fertilized egg has about twenty thousand pairs of genes.
It so happens, however, that while the majority of genes in each set will be identical with their partners, in a very large number of cases the members of a pair will be only approximately the same. Then, in preparation for the next generation when eggs and sperm are being formed anew, each with but a single set of genes, we find there has been an indiscriminate shuffling between partners. Each new reproductive cell, male or female, gets a single complete set but one that is drawn in a mixed-up fashion from those originally supplied by the two parents. Accordingly, it is almost impossible for any child to be exactly like either of its parents or like any brother or sister, excepting identical twins, which develop from a single egg. This perpetual shuffling is the basis of the infinite variability of the human race, the reason why every face and the personality behind it is different from every other. It is like forever shuffling and reshuffling a pack of cards. Up until nownature has played the cards, selecting combinations to suit its game. Can we now take the cards in hand ourselves? And how would we want to play them? To put it another way. if some sort of authority had the power to call the deal of the reproductive pattern of a human community, what could be accomplished without too much difficulty?
It would be fairly easy to select for stature. It would be a straightforward task to produce a race that was on an average six inches or even a foot taller or shorter than at present. Or to produce a race with heavier muscle and bone. Or curlier hair. Or any number of qualities that are not of much importance unless human beings are being bred as robots in a soulless, mechanical civilization. It would be possible to breed or select for increased fertility, though of all human capacities the capacity to multiply seems to be all too evident already. Perhaps breeding a race of pygmies might help in this connection, so that we could pack twice as many in the same space and feed and clothe each one more cheaply.
None of this is what anyone truly wants, for beyond bodily health and enough material security, the hope of most individuals and of mankind as a whole is to become as fully human as possible. In terms of the individual this means far more than physical growth. It implies the full development of all the creative, intellectual and spiritual faculties. throughout the entire life span. Consciously or unconsciously we all know this, and the great religions call for it. Growth is inward as well as outward, and the need, even as we are now. is to be joyful in youth and to grow' in vitality, awareness and wisdom, to create more with hands and mind, to become more sensitive to beauty and wonder, to grow more loving and loved, and to understand more of our place in the scheme of things. These are the qualities that set us aside from the rest of the animal kingdom and establish the nature of our humanity. If we are to evolve at all from our present state, the only meaningful course seems to be to continue in the same direction we have already been traveling.
This is where the difficulty lies. Artists cannot be counted on to breed artists, nor do astronomers breed astronomers even if they breed at all. Nor can the inheritance of general intelligence be predicted. Unusually intelligent parents can produce
“Within a few decades, I feel sure, we’ll know all that is necessary to breed human beings to order”
human vegetables as readily as do other couples, while individuals of exceptional merit tend to crop up everywhere in ordinary run-of-the-mill families. In fact this is one of the great safeguards, in our present state, we have against the possibility that mankind will ever be divided into a small group of self-perpetuating supermen and a vast controlled mass of amiable semimoronic workers. The bright ones would still continue to produce dumb ones and the masses would continue to produce individuals of high intelligence. The capacity and potentiality for revolution is therefore probably with us for always. Yet the key to this whole question of our future is intelligence. At this time, we need more, not less. Ingenuity, not intelligence, produced hydrogen bombs. It would have been intelligent not to have made them, speaking for mankind, and it will be intelligent never to use them.
Intelligence itself is hard to define. It consists of so many things and is usually associated with other human qualities. The majority of the more outstanding creative scientists, for instance, have been well-made men who not only have been constructively creative during a long life but have been more fully aware of the natural and human world around them, more than commonly appreciative of music, art, and literature, and far more than commonly concerned with the general human predicament. They have been unusually human in the real sense of this word. I have spoken of scientists this way because I have known them and, of course, science has been in fashion for some time and has attracted this sort of person. In any case they will serve and, if this is the sort of human we want, only more so, where do we aim in order to get him?
Other things being equal, a large brain is likely to be better than a smaller one. A brain that is wide between the ears and high in the middle is likely to be better than a narrower one, when individuals are of the same size and weight. Voltaire’s brain admittedly was little more than half the size of Cuvier’s, the famous French anatomist, but Voltaire was a small lively person and Cuvier was a rather ponderous encyclopedia. Modern studies attempting to relate intelligence and brain, as a matter of fact, show that you cannot measure a man’s brain and safely conclude how intelligent he is— or was. At least one other very important factor enters the picture and that is the arterial blood supply to the brain, for the brain at work uses up oxygen faster than any other organ in the body. In other words, a good brain works well only if it has a good fueling system, so that if we want to select for increased human intelligence we have to select for brain size and proportion in combination with an exceptionally good circulatory system. These two qualities by no means necessarily go together, which is at least one good reason why it is so hard to predict where unusually high intelligence is likely to crop up. Even this combination however does not guarantee the desired performance, for environmental upbringing, both of family and society, has a most important role, in the same sense that fine bulbs do not produce fine flowers unless properly cared for. And in the case of brains even this may not be enough. They have to be put to use and kept in use. A Rolls-Royce in a garage may be a tribute to its maker, but a
Volkswagen crossing a mountain pass is also a tribute to its driver.
Brains and the mental processes and qualities that go with them are what matter most, both now and in relation to the shape of things to come, unless of course we decide that a society of happy nitwits is the ideal state. Yet this is only half of what makes us truly human. The other part is this: we not only live longer than almost any other creature, certainly longer than any other that lives so hot and so fast, but we live younger for longer than anything else alive. We mature when most creatures of our size are already dying. We have a long drawn-out infancy, childhood, adolescence, and we drag our youth in some ways, with all its love and laughter, fun and games, to the end of our lives. To get more of this we need to increase this youthfulness from the beginning and have little to gain by belatedly patching up old worn-out bodies in the hope of living for a century. A longer life span, with a greater capacity
for living, will come only when we discover how to produce babies that grow more slowly and mature later, so that adolescence is reached in the twenties instead of the mid-teens. Then we may find ourselves living far past the century mark and loving it. Any other form of life extension will be ashes in our mouths. And these things are all related. Large, well shaped brains maintained by vigorous, vital bodies, and a further slowing down of our rate of growth and development, would make us more human in every way that matters. What are the prospects?
With regard to knowledge, we do need to know a good deal more concerning human inheritance. There are research institutes that are concerned with just this. Even now, however, we know the principles and we possess the basic information, and are somewhat like the nuclear physicists when it was first decided to make an atom bomb. Within a few decades we will, I feel sure, know all that is necessary.
The main problem will be how to put such knowledge to effective use. Human beings are not atoms, neither are they mice. They are men and women, wilful at heart and never for long controllable by any form of authority. Yet without some sort of control, voluntary or otherwise, nothing can change the present apparently aimless drift. When we know exactly what to look for as the best breeding stock for an improved race of mankind, and know enough to recognize the good from the not so good—what then? Left to themselves people will go their
own sweet way and private enterprise will prosper at the expense of public welfare. There are however several possible courses of action.
A tyrannical dictatorship, with ideas of its own and the necessary means at hand, might for example include a sterilizing chemical in the public food supplies and either give fertility pills to the preferred progenitors of the next generation or perhaps rear them on a special diet from the first. In their own way bees do just this sort of thing and have been remarkably successful at it for a good many million years. Alternatively, a less despotic authority, with or without public approval, might heavily tax those considered less fit to be contributors to the new human breed and, at the same time, subsidize fully the chosen minority. In a very literal sense this would be the survival of the fittest, with man as the arbiter.
There are many forms of inducement, either way, and we are an ingenious race, perhaps too ingenious for our own good. All that is necessary is to treat ourselves as we treat our cattle, which brings us to a critical point: the use of artificial insemination. The effectiveness of this procedure for improving breeding stock is already well established. Male semen from a prize bull, for instance, is collected, stored in refrigeration for months if necessary, and used when needed to inseminate large numbers of worthy cows. By this method it is possible to speed up the process of stock improvement to a remarkable degree. And, as we are now aware, artificial insemination is already practiced on this continent and elsewhere to induce pregnancy in women whose husbands arc sterile. There is no reason
to suppose that the methods now being used to improve cattle breeds could not be successfully employed to accelerate a controlled development of the human.
Personally I do not like the idea of this procedure ever becoming a standard technique for even so noble a purpose, and I doubt if it will ever be adopted in a western Christian society. Yet the truth is that our society is a relatively small part of total humanity and practices that offend us may become acceptable to others. After all, we think nothing of milking cows but to members of certain Asian religions this habit is disgusting. Our own reluctance, therefore, to think in terms of controlled human evolution by means of such methods in no way implies that Communist China, for example, will have any such qualms. Sooner or later one human society or another will launch out on this adventure, whether the rest of mankind approves or not.
If this happens, and a superior race emerges with greater general intelligence and longer lives, how will these people look upon those of us who are lagging behind? One thing is certain: they, not we, will be the heirs to the future, and they will assume control. Eventually, I suppose, man as he now is will appear as subhuman as old Neanderthal man does to us now. Putting it bluntly, if man takes control of his own evolution, as I believe he is about to do, the greater his success the faster we in our present shape will become obsolete relics. This may seem a painful thought but it is little different from realizing that you as an individual are going to be a relic anyway in a short time, and from wishing your children to have richer, fuller, longer and more joyful lives than you have had yourself, -fc