National Geographic : 2017 Apr
62 national geograpHic • april 2017 did with IVF. Church thinks this still misses the point: The floodgates are already open to genetic reengineering—CRISPR’s but one more drop in the river. He notes that there are already 2,300 gene therapy trials under way. Last year the CEO of a company called BioViva claimed to have successfully reversed some of the effects of aging in her own body with injections from a gene therapy her company devised. “Certainly,” Church notes, “aging rever- sal is just as augmentative as anything else we were talking about.” Several gene therapy trials for Alzheimer’s are also in progress. These won’t likely produce any objections, because they are to treat a devastating medical condition, but as Church points out, “whatever drugs work to prevent Alz- heimer’s will probably also work for cognitive enhancement, and they will work in adults almost by definition.” In February 2016 the boundary crum- bled a bit more when the United Kingdom’s independent fertility regulator gave a research team permission to use CRISPR to explore the mechanisms of miscarriage with human embryos (all embryos used in the experiments will ultimately be destroyed—no pregnancies will result). Church can’t wait for the next chapter. “DNA was left in the dust by cul- tural evolution,” he says, “but now it’s catching up.” our Bodies, our Brains, and tHe macHines around us may all one day merge, as Kurzweil predicts, into a single massive communal intel- ligence. But if there’s one thing natural evolution has shown, it’s that there are many paths to the same goal. We are the animal that tinkers ceaselessly with our own limitations. The evolution of evolution travels multiple par- allel roads. Whatever marvelous skills CRISPR might provide us 10 years from now many people want or need now. They follow Neil Harbisson’s example. Instead of going out and conquering technology, they bring it within themselves. Medicine is always the leading edge in these applications, because using technology to make someone well simplifies complicated moral questions. A hundred thousand Parkinson’s disease sufferers worldwide have implants—so -called brain pacemakers—to control symptoms of their malady. Artificial retinas for some types of blindness and cochlear implants for hearing loss are common. Defense Department money, through the military’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), funds much of this development. Using such funding, a lab at the University of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering is testing chip implants in the brain to recover lost memories. The protocol might one day be applied to Alzheimer’s patients and those who have suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Last year, at the University of Pittsburgh, a sub- ject was able to transmit electrical impulses from his brain, via a computer, to control a robotic arm and even sense what its fingers were touching. That connecting the human brain to a machine would produce a matchless fight- er has not been lost on DARPA. “Everything there is dual purpose,” says Annie Jacobsen, whose book The Pentagon’s Brain chronicles such efforts. “ You have to remember DARPA’s job isn’t to help people. It’s to create ‘vast weapon systems of the future.’ ” Urban resistance As humans settled in more densely packed communities, they evolved a stronger natural resistance to infectious diseases. Writing What started as a system for trade and accounting grew into full expressions of complex language as our cities and cultures expanded. Lactose tolerators Early groups that domesticated animals, like herders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, evolved the ability to digest milk beyond infancy.