MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Believe it or not, there may already be a new breed of human living among us.
(Soundbite of movie "Robocop")
Unidentified Man #1: This guy's really good.
Unidentified Woman: He's not a guy. He's a machine.
(Soundbite of movie "The Terminator")
(Soundbite of fighting, screaming)
Mr. MICHAEL BIEHN: (As Kyle Reese) He's not a man. He's a machine. Underneath, it's a hyper-alloy combat chest. But outside, it's living human tissue.
Unidentified Announcer: Inhuman, relentless.
Mr. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As The Terminator) I'll be back.
Ms. LINDA HAMILTON: (As Sarah Connor) Are you saying it's from the future?
BRAND: The future is now, or at least it was in those clips from "Robocop" and "The Terminator." I am talking about this new term. It's called homo evolutis. This new version of human is emerging thanks to advances in genetics and robotics. Well, for now, at least, homo evolutis may just be the figment of one man's imagination. That man is Juan Enriquez. He's managing director at Excel Medical Ventures, a life-science investment firm in Boston. And he presented his ideas about homo evolutis at last week's TED Conference, the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference. And he's here now on the line, and welcome to the program. What is homo evolutis?
Mr. JUAN ENRIQUEZ (Managing Director, Excel Medical Ventures): Well, I consider it a hominid, a proto-human, that's beginning to take direct and deliberate control over the evolution of his species and others. You know, Darwin kept looking at how different species, including humans, adopt and adapt to the environment. Now, for the first time, we're creating a species that not only influences the environment on a massive scale, but also begins to directly guide the evolution of species by engineering bacteria, by engineering tissues, and by thinking about giving us abilities that we don't traditionally have.
BRAND: Now, I just want to make it clear to our listeners you're not a scientist; you are a venture capitalist.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Among other things, yes.
BRAND: Among other things...
(Soundbite of love)
BRAND: Among a lot of other things.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: I've been accused of worse.
BRAND: But what you're talking about is a scientific phenomenon. You're talking about us actually changing our DNA?
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: The argument that I've been making is the ability to code life in the four letters of DNA - adenine, theanine, guanine, cytosine - allows us to begin to change what living forms do, and we're doing that with bacteria that make vaccines or that make chemicals or that make energy. And now, we're progressing down a path where we can re-grow, say - or at Wake Forest, Tony Atala's working on re-growing ears for injured soldiers. He's working on re-growing bladders for people who've lost them to cancer. We're beginning to re-grow our own skin in sheets, and that is going to be an absolutely immense driver of the global economy going forward.
BRAND: And how would that, though, replicate itself in future generations? I understand how we're changing our bodies now, the bodies that exist. But how do you pass on that information to your descendants?
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Well, the argument that I made at TED is that those of us who are, you know, in our 40s or 50s are going to begin to get glimpses of this new species. But I think our grandchildren are going to begin to see, in much clearer terms, how we're heading towards this. And what you're talking about is germinal evolution as opposed to personal evolution, where we're beginning to engineer our own bodies, but we're not at the stage where we're beginning to engineer going forward, in big terms yet. As we begin to engineer more and more things, our grandkids are going to begin to get glimpses of choices that you and I can't even begin to imagine.
BRAND: I'm still hung up on the DNA, changing the DNA, the building blocks of life, and how long that takes, because really, it's been, what, 200,000 years since the first homo sapiens evolved? And you're talking about 100 years that things might change?
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: I'm not arguing everything will change in 100 years. I'm arguing we'll get glimpses of what's coming. Our grandchildren will start to see it much more clearly: stronger tendons, different types of eyes, re-grown skin, re-grown bladders. It's these three big trends coming together. It's the ability to engineer genes; it's the ability to engineer on a cellular level, on a microscopic level, the ability to engineer tissues and robotics that coming together allow us to adopt and adapt to an environment in a very different way. All of these tiny little changes just remind me of those wonderful sketches in Darwin's Galapagos books of the finches and how the different beaks adapt to different climates and different circumstances to eat different types of seeds, but the great big difference with what Darwin was observing and what we're observing is he was watching nature force this adoption and adaptation and we are beginning to deliberately engineer it in very interesting ways. And I think that leads us from being a homo sapiens into a homo evolutis that begins to take charge of these little tiny knits of evolution in where his and her species is going.
BRAND: So, you don't think that it's "unnatural" - I mean to put that word in quotes - to change and adapt in human beings and choose certain characteristics that are more beneficial than others?
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: You know, I think we've been doing that for a long, long time, and that's how we went from being Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals into being what we are today. And if we don't keep evolving, I think that would, actually, be very sad. I mean, if this is the entire purpose of the universe and this is pinnacle, well, you'd almost become a French existentialist at that point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: It seems like they're pretty much extinct at this point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: All right. Juan Enriquez, thank you very much for a thought-provoking conversation.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Thank you.
BRAND: That's Juan Enriquez. He's the managing director at Excel Medical Ventures. It's a life-science investment firm based in Boston. He has a new human being he has dubbed homo evolutis.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: Stay with us. The show continues to evolve in a moment.