Genetics, particularly gene therapy is the one area of science that could offer a species altering breakthrough. Flying electric cars would be a great, but they are a long way from reality. In fact, they may never be reality due to issues like battery technology. Most of what science is going to bring mankind over the next couple of generations is better, faster cheaper versions of the stuff we already have now. Think air travel over the last fifty years. The planes are better and faster, but otherwise the same as they were in the 50’s.
That’s not the case with genetic engineering. Here we could very well see some species altering technology. Imagine medicine being able to “fix” certain common genetic defects, thus eliminating the defect from future generations. Imagine the impact of gene therapy that causes the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells. Cancer kills a lot of people long before old age so “curing” cancer would be an enormous change for humanity. There’s also the application in the area of mental health. Imagine curing forms of mental illness like schizophrenia.
Right now, medicine is the most likely to benefit from genetic technology, but that’s not the end of it. Isolating genes for certain traits like height and eye color is well within reach and well within the realm of things that could be altered in embryos. Designer babies sounds horrible, but imagine your doctor telling you that for a reasonable fee, he can make sure your kid is above average in height. It’s not hard to see how people would do it and science would offer it. No one wants their kid to be a stumpy troll, even if the parents are stumpy trolls.
Once you start tinkering or even think about tinkering, the idea of decanting super-human babies joins the conversation. If you can make sure your kid is six foot or taller, why not go for seven or eight feet? That way, junior can look forward to a career as a basketball player. While you’re at it, give him sprinter’s speed and the eyesight of an eagle. The leap from a small change that eradicates a known defect to changes that create super-babies is not a big one, at least from an ethical point of view.
The problem is we quickly run into another barrier and that’s the complexity. Humans are very complicated machines. In fact, we are so complicated that we really don’t know how much of the human body works. Just look at diet and exercise. We sort of think that diet and exercise habits have an impact on overall health and longevity, but we don’t know. That’s why there are a bazillion opinions on the subject. It’s why every study you can find on the topic of diet, for example, has a contradictory study.
This story the other day about the challenges of virtual reality is a great reminder that we know very little about how the human mind works in even the most basic sense. Humans have been screwing around with virtual reality gadgets for a long time, mostly for gaming and simulations. The theory sounds good. Replicate the inputs of reality and the brain gets tricked into thinking it is in the imaginary world. The trouble is, it really does not get tricked. In fact, the better the simulation the worse the results.
The reason is the brain is a wildly complex and supple bit of biology that processes massive amounts of information in more than three dimensions, faster than anything we can create in the lab. The human mind appears to develop or come equipped with a model of the world, right down to little things like how fast an odor should travel from the source to your nose. It’s how those clever optical illusions you see on-line work. They rely on the brain anticipating, based on known patterns. As inputs come in the brain is a click ahead, anticipating what should be coming next. We think.
Then there is the concept of consciousness, which remains a baffling thing for science. Watch a puppy bark at a mirror and you know that self-awareness is a real thing that not all creatures possess equally, but how that works is unknown. Throw in something like self-deception that theoretically should not exist, but clearly does exist, and we are far away from the shore and into uncharted ocean. Tweaking a gene to make for a taller person could result in madness as the brain is still wired for a short person, thus busting up the person mental model of the world that includes them as a short person.
Even so, CRISPR technology could be the great breakthrough that alters the human species, but it will be a long slog between making better corn and making super babies. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that the complexity barrier between the most rudimentary tinkering and engineered babies is so thick there’s no way for science to breech it. There’s also a cost-benefit component. Selecting for green eyes has a market, but selecting for super-intelligent giants that are prone to madness probably has no market.
All in all, if you are inclined to think about how humanity destroys itself, the place to start is genetics. If you are a wild-eyed futurist anxious to live forever or meld with robots, that’s never going to happen, but you can dream about it within the realm of genetics. More likely, the result is healthier, more robust people in the not so distant future. Imagine old age without debilitating disease and degenerating tissue. You still age and die, but it is much more pleasant physiologically. That alone would alter how we think of ourselves as a species.