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Where is human evolution heading?
But last December, [John Hawks, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin] reported that it has actually accelerated 100-fold in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years... Much of the increase, he says, has been fueled by the growth of the world's population, which has expanded by a factor of 1,000 over the past 10,000 years. Having more people increases the odds of mutations...
Humans will continue to change to cope with new diseases, if history is any guide. Genes that defend against infectious disease have been among the most rapidly evolving parts of the human genome. People whose ancestors lived in European cities are more likely to have some resistance to smallpox, while people in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be genetically resistant to malaria. Just weeks ago, researchers reported that one genetic variant that protects against malaria also makes people more susceptible to AIDS, a discovery that could lead to tailored treatment for AIDS in Africa...
The human brain, which has evolved into a cognitive machine unique in the world, is likely to change even more in the future... Take that souped-up brain and put it in the texting, Twittering, 24-7 world we've recently created for ourselves, and it's easy to imagine that we will become superspeedy multitaskers—or more complacent cubicle dwellers... Genetic engineering will help short term, [Nick Bostrom, a professor at the University of Oxford and cofounder of the World Transhumanist Association] says, and then nanotechnology will step in, altering the biochemistry of the human body at the flip of a switch...
Notwithstanding the obstacles, Bostrom's wish list for improved human traits includes a longer "health span," with fewer years of human life spent struggling against cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Enhanced cognitive abilities would be nice, too. "Perhaps physical attractiveness would be a popular trait," he says.
The next step: children with genes from three parents... Earlier this year, researchers at Newcastle University in England deliberately created human embryos that had DNA from one father and two mothers, in order to avoid the risk of a mitochondrial disease from the original mother.
But it's too early to lie awake worrying that genetically manipulated superkids are going to ace your grandkids out of varsity soccer, says Thomas Murray, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center. "Our capacity to do these kinds of intentional designs is vastly overrated." But, he says, it's not too early to start thinking about what's really important about being a parent. The traits that people most value, Murray says—being smart, being kind, being a successful competitor—are the ones least likely to be determined by a few tweakable genes. For that kind of control over the next generation, it still takes good old-fashioned nurturing, teaching, and love."
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