18 November 2011

Genes Coming out of Nowhwere? Our Changing Brains

A few years ago scientists found that....once in awhile in the cells of all living things bits of once-quiet stretches of DNA sometimes spontaneously assemble themselves into genes. Such "de novo" genes may go on to play significant roles in the evolution of individual organisms—even humans.

...When an international team of researchers scanned the human genome for de novo genes, however, they putatively uncovered 60, three times more than once estimated. More surprising, many of these genes are active in the cerebral cortex, suggesting that de novo genes might have played a key role in the evolution of the human mind. _SciAm

We are learning more and more ways that our genes can change and vary -- changing who we are, and making us different from our ancestors and our fellow travelers. Evolution did not stop with the coming of civilisation -- it may have just gotten started.

Neurological variants such as autism and synaesthesia may be tentative "attempts" by evolution to create new species of human.
"If you think of ideas as being enshrined in neural populations in the brain, if you get greater cross-connectivity [in synaesthesia] you're going to create a propensity towards metaphorical thinking," he [Vilayanur Ramachandran] said. He suggested that this ability to link dissimilar concepts is what created a "huge explosion of abilities that characterise the human brain". _NewScientist
All it might take would be a basic change in the way the brain prunes its neurons in early development and in adolescence, to create a breed of human that thinks in significantly different ways. These changes might come about from the emergence of de novo genes, or via the modification or silencing of older, more ancient genes. But the end result might well be something quite remarkable.

Scientists are learning how to look at a genetic sequence and predict what the individual will be like, based upon those genes. Yes, we know that such a thing is actually far beyond the state of modern genetics and epigenetics, but suppose they can partially succeed at that goal. That would mean that an embryo's genes could be sampled in utero, and we would know if the coming child is likely to diverge from the "standard human genome." What would you do?

Imagine a new species of humans growing up at our feet -- all with at least the genius of a Mozart or an Einstein -- with the potential to revolutionise our world. For a short time they would be vulnerable to our wishes. But soon, they would be well beyond our reach.

It sounds like science fiction, but in many ways it is a far more likely scenario than the ideas of a superhuman machine intelligence that spawns "the singularity."

If modern humans were more homogeneous than they are, the possiblity of such an emerging, advanced, new human species would be low. But given the rather large differences that exist between different populations of modern humans already, it is almost easy to accept the idea of evolutionary divergence of human populations.

As humans gain a firmer grasp of the tools of genetics and epigenetics -- as well as environmental manipulations -- the possibility of an emerging altered subspecies of humans with particular niche advantages, grows stronger.

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Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

This can lead to some nightmarish scenarios as well as ethical problems. It could lead to conflicts between those who are enhanced and those who are not.

Friday, 18 November, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I am obviously not enhanced myself, I am definitely fighting on behalf of those who are.

It might be possible to have a eugenics program that was invisible by working at a population level. One would get a few fertility clinics and covertly alter a small number of genes in order to affect the their numerical and geological spread. Making small changes would probably not result in the parents, child or society being aware since all but the most thorough of DNA tests would show the expected parentage. Even just selecting maternal or paternal genes might allow huge control over a child's genome while looking like any old reassortment. It would certainly be slower than keeping a herd of captive humans for breeding but less likely to get you noticed by opponents. I am not suggesting this but just speculating on what might be possible.

Hey, if you could play with people's minds enough to be able to abduct them, steal sperm and egg & convince them they were contacted by aliens you could avoid limiting yourself to the genes of people who seek fertility treatment. Anonymous donors may be nonconsensual.

Enhanced humans would seem to be emerging from random breeding but the gene frequencies which lead to them were artificially changed.

Friday, 18 November, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant "geographical" not "geological" though tampering with sperm and egg are likely to cause an eruption of controversy, among other things.

Friday, 18 November, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Baron: An interesting scenario. You may wish to write it up in novel form. Humans typically think in narrative form, so are more receptive to stories.

WW22: That is an interesting point. I cannot say that such ideas have not occurred to me.

And yet, what is the greater risk? To pursue the present path which leads to an Idiocracy -- in which case the Earth is completely helpless the next time a large comet or asteroid comes to call?

Or to boost ourselves to the point that those flying rocks of death will fear to approach the planet of "the scary ones?" ;-)

As lovely as the Earth and its living things may be, it is not alone in the universe. And we have not begun to understand even a little of what there is to fear out there.

We had better tone up -- body and mind -- and prepare for the next phase. Because if we are not prepared, there likely will not be one.

The Earth has been a fine cradle. But no one wants to live their whole life in a cradle.

Friday, 18 November, 2011  
Blogger Sojka's Call said...

I am with the Baron and would cast my lot with the enhanced humans when/if they show up in my lifetime. The odds are that they would have an enhanced humanity as well and would understand how to easily operate in the world without creating any conflict. Who knows? They could already be here and operating very quietly so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Friday, 18 November, 2011  
Blogger neil craig said...

Autism quite often produces people capable of being outstanding in their field. It also produces people who, in a preindustrial society, would not survive childhood. They have thus found the first environmental niche where they can fit which is exactly where evolution works. Adam Smith wrote, using the example of the pin, of how manufacturing specialisation was more effective. The same specialisation advantage applies to thinking.

Saturday, 19 November, 2011  

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