It seems inescapable to me that sometime soon – probably during my lifetime or soon after it – human beings will enter a great evolutionary bottleneck that will take one of two forms. Either scientists will discover new sources of energy powerful enough to considerably forestall the imminent threat of resource depletion, and the economic model the world has adopted to fuel the development of technology (a model which posits economic growth on one side and on the other, deflation and collapse) will persevere long enough for scientists to understand genetics sufficiently to begin the continual process of engineering human beings into their historical moment’s image of perfection. That will happen, or such discoveries won’t come to light, and the drying up of fossil fuels will coincide with a very different evolutionary bottleneck – a massive die-off of human beings that will nonetheless likely usher in a new age of cultural diversity.
There is a third scenario I’ve not much entertained which could indeed happen – that somewhere down the line new machines for harnessing energy are not only invented (if they haven’t been already and subsequently disappeared by current energy producers), but also constructed in a decentralized, open source fashion. But let’s assume these machines could be fully replicable, from their nuts and bolts on up to their integrated form, by small, decentralized communities. This would free such communities from the fate and exploitation of the larger techno-industrial system to some extent (still, there will always be the army), but would this make such machines some kind of technological panacea? To this latter question, I suspect the answer is ‘no.’ – The spreading technology of little, decentralized, perpetual power plants would lead to overpopulation and the scarcity of land and food as fast if not faster than the present system which manufactures artificial scarcity to ensure and increase profits.
The first and third of these scenarios would both likely result in an ever-expanding population which would lead to its own, unending chain of resource problems after (if not before) the hurdle of waning fossil fuels has been cleared. Both a centralized and decentralized system where electrical power is, say, infinitely abundant will still come to bump its head upon different kinds of resource ceilings eventually, and indeed, the more abundant electricity is, the more quickly humanity will come up against these other ceilings. That being said, a centralized techno-industrial system keeps in its repository of prospects the central one: the refashioning of human beings in the historical moment’s image of perfection. And wouldn’t that be wonderful? … That’s a rhetorical question. You’re not meant to answer it for yourself.
Leaving aside for now the question of whether our mastery in this genetic stage of Manifest Destiny would be a good thing or not, let’s consider what I meant the topic of this post to be – whether such mastery is even possible. It was certainly the faith of most medical scientists until recently that genetic diseases, and even deformities, environmental intolerances, etc., would soon be a thing of the past. Then it happened though: A field of science began to emerge at the turn of this century which in its own way could be just as significant as the dissemination of petroleum technology at the beginning of the last. Perhaps I’m overstating things, but properly understood, this new field of genetics is something that must help to shape our public discourse and behavior in this century if we’re to remain the vibrant, miraculous beings we’ve become over the countless generations of our species.
It was thought until somewhat recently that the parts of our DNA not directly involved in making proteins were junk – unusable residue from earlier stages of our evolution. This could indeed be plausible, except that over 98% of our DNA is this “junk,” and that seemed to geneticists altogether wasteful and unnecessarily complicated for evolution, a process which is not usually kind to wastefulness and unnecessarily complicated physiology. Then, as I said, at around the turn of the century scientists discovered that these junk genes were not junk at all (go figure), but executive genes which, in a mind-bogglingly complex symphony of turning on and off, orchestrate the production of proteins that make up our bodies. But why is this discovery so important for everything from what you do in your free time, to the kind of society you live in, to geopolitics in general? Here’s why:
Prior to the discovery of this new field of genetics, now called epigenetics, your genetic material was thought to be a relatively immutable blueprint for the construction of your body as it is and as it works. But now, in light of discoveries of epigenetics, it’s understood that the switching on and off of protein building genes – this executive gene symphony that’s responsible for orchestrating you in the womb and initiating the incredibly complex system of physiological processes that keep you alive and well, is much more responsive to your environment than your “hardwired” code of genetic material is (This code only changes through genetic mutation which is relatively rare, and recombination in an egg’s fertilization). And it is not the case that this switching on and off of genes, which often occurs in response to environmental factors, can only affect you. Many epigenetic changes, running the gamut from neuropathology, increased or decreased anxiety, asthmatic response, semi or total loss of eyesight (and even loss of eyeballs!), and many more, have been shown to become manifest not in the phenotype (that just means body) of the person or animal subjected to the epigenetic alteration, but in the phenotype of its offspring or even it’s offspring’s offspring! What’s more, epigenetic changes have often been shown to respond to environmental advents cumulatively, generation after generation.
There are of course many kinds of environmental factors which can bring about epigenetic changes, but of course, chief among them is the food we eat (or don’t eat). Perhaps the best illustration of this point was achieved by Francis Pottenger, MD in a series of experiments he carried out long before the discovery of DNA and seventy years before the rise of the field of epigenetics. I won’t go into the details of his studies, but if you haven’t already acquainted yourself with them I urge you to take a few minutes to do so. And the greatest ever scientific study of nutrition ever composed, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, written by Weston A. Price over seventy years ago, is also indispensable in this context.
The reality is we are physically (and this also means mentally) degenerating from the poor quality of foods we eat, and that we have been for a long time. The first widespread assault on our epigenome, well documented in the fossil remains of our ancestors, actually occurred over ten thousand years ago as we began cultivating cereal grains for consumption and progressively moved away from our former fare of wild plants and animals. But in my eyes, that watershed change in diet is not nearly as ominous as those that have taken place since the industrial revolution. For it’s not only that more people are now more exclusively dependent on the insufficient (and often toxic) nutrition of cereal grains. It’s not only the extension of shelf life necessitated by longer supply chains which leave the micronutrients of meats and vegetables largely eroded by the time they reach our mouths. And it’s not only the hundreds of new foods and chemicals we’ve introduced to our diets in the past two centuries, some of them, like sugar and vegetable oils in staggering quantities. More troubling for me than all these realities is the fact that the sheer number of us and the mercilessly profit-driven practices of industrial agriculture which feed us are sucking the nutrients out of our soil at an alarming rate. These nutrients are vital for maintaining our epigenetic health, and the image of humanity vastly degenerated in its epigenetic health is quite frankly appalling to me: more stupid, anxious, prone to personality disturbances, sickly, ugly, and pained – and all these from causes that are only reversible through sustained dietary improvements over multiple generations! I read things about the urgent need for action on peak oil, peak coal, global warming, etc., and none of them seem as profound as the downward slope we’re already on, and have been on, with respect to nutrition.
Unlike these other global crises we face, whose consequences still lie largely in the future, we’re already in the grips of this nutritional crisis. We just don’t recognize it’s magnitude in the U.S. because we can palliate disease with a thousand and one pharmaceuticals. Autoimmune disease is overwhelmingly caused by poor and/or toxic nutrition, as is heart disease, metabolic syndrome, endocrine dysfunction, and many cancers, I’m sure. And there are other, subtler forms of degeneration which are almost universally rendered upon us by our deficient diets – so much so we accept them as normal, but they aren’t normal outside the context of the “diet of civilization” (see the prophetic work that is Nutrition and Physical Degeneration).
In light of all this, should one of the ultimate ends of our modern technological project still be to engineer a better genetic code? I don’t know what else our ultimate end in this project could be. Are we even in control of it anymore, at all? Let’s assume we are, and we do get to the point where we can deftly modify our genetic makeup. Even at that point, such know-how alone is not enough to engineer better human beings, because however good we hardwire ourselves, that hardwiring will quickly begin epigenetically expressing itself in unpredictable and corrupt ways given a deficient or toxic environment. Therefore, given that a society technologically advanced enough to intricately understand the human genome will almost certainly be heir to an overpopulated and toxic environment, should we at that point take it upon ourselves to start engineering from elemental materials all the vitamins and minerals necessary for activating our bodies’ thousands of physiological processes? Are we anywhere near being able to achieve that kind of chemical engineering on a massive scale? … Or might we engineer ourselves genetically to need less of these micronutrients to carry out our physiological reactions? …
I invite you to look at the information about our nutritional trajectory that’s already out there (about the total disappearance of certain micronutrients from certain animals and vegetables in the industrial food supply, or about how approximately one-third the world’s population is nutritionally dependent on the haber process (of converting nitrogen to ammonia for fertilizer using heat generated from fossil fuels) because by the time the depth of this crisis becomes obvious to everybody who hasn’t engaged in any self-education, the window for radical, communal change may have closed. And at that point, I don’t think the genetics industry will be able to offer an escape hatch. And the medical industry will certainly be on hand, but with what? – oxycodone, perhaps?