Juan Enriquez: Are We Evolving Into Various Species? Gene editing now allows us to edit our DNA faster and more precisely. So what does it mean for humans? Futurist Juan Enriquez says the reality of evolving into various species is becoming more likely.
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Juan Enriquez: Are We Evolving Into Various Species?

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Juan Enriquez: Are We Evolving Into Various Species?

Juan Enriquez: Are We Evolving Into Various Species?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, so up until this point, we've been talking about where we've come from. But what about where we're going and what we're evolving into? So, Juan, the last time we spoke, you said that we are going to become yet another hominid or set of hominids. We're going to evolve into something different. Do you still think that? Is that still your view?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: I think it's becoming increasingly likely that we'll become various species.

RAZ: This is futurist Juan Enriquez.

ENRIQUEZ: And what is making it increasingly likely these days is two things. One is new genetic technologies that allow you to alter gene code in a basic way. And the second is space travel, which will create a need for various kinds of bodies that haven't evolved to survive radiation or different gravity or different structures.

RAZ: Juan was on the show back in 2014, and since then, a lot has changed with gene-editing technology and what Juan calls the life code revolution.

ENRIQUEZ: It's moving so quickly. So within the last 60 days, one of the things that we've seen is new research coming out that allows you to change not just blocks of genes but individual letters in the gene code. And so the pinpoint accuracy of being able to do that means that the likelihood of side effects are much lower, and the effectiveness is much higher. Now, why would you want to do this? Well, one of the things about traveling in space is because you don't have the atmosphere, you're far more exposed to radiation.

RAZ: Right.

ENRIQUEZ: And we know there's some bugs, some plants, some animals that are far more sensitive to radiation than others are. And in the measure that you understand why some creatures are more or less vulnerable to radiation, it may be possible to engineer a human genome, almost like you do with a vaccine, in such a way that we become far more radiation-resistant.

RAZ: Which would allow us to live on Mars.

ENRIQUEZ: Which would allow us to live in a very different atmosphere, which would allow us to travel much longer distances across space without coming down with terrible cancers, which may make it possible even to get to another solar system.

RAZ: I mean, when that happens - right? - what will we even look like? Like, if we go back 300,000 years - right? - humans looked more or less the same, right? Like, we would recognize them today. But in this future that you're describing, if we're still around, what would we look like? Like, what parts of us would we potentially not need?

ENRIQUEZ: So if you lose an arm or if you lose a leg, you're still you. If you have a kidney transplant, you're still you. If you lose your brain, then you're not you. Then, you know, your fundamental humanity has left.

RAZ: Right.

ENRIQUEZ: And so I think people tend to focus a lot on what the body would look like. And that's an interesting question. But that's not the core question. The core question is, how are our brains going to evolve? Our brains are 2 percent of our body weight and about 20 percent of our energy consumption. And I suspect what's going to happen is, as we're faced with more and more challenges and questions, one, our brains are likely to get larger. They will consume more energy, which will probably start melding, communicating, coprocessing with other brains and probably creating a symbiotic relationship with machines.

RAZ: Wow. But what about, like, the rest of us? What about the rest of our bodies?

ENRIQUEZ: What's probably going to happen is we're going to start remaking each of our body parts as they wear out. And the limiting factor, then, to how long people live is not going to be your body parts because it's going to be, like, your old house. You know, you redo the kitchen. You redo the bathroom. You swap out the oven. You put in a new fridge. Well, that's what's going to happen to our bodies with our body parts. And then the limiting factor's the brain because we're a long way from understanding the brain. We're a long way from being able to map the brain. We're a long way from being able to reproduce the brain. And we're a long way from being able to download memories from one brain to another. But if you do that, then all bets are off as to how long a human being could live.

RAZ: Wow. You know, one of the questions that I've asked futurists a lot over the years and something that I think about in this episode is whether we will be around in a thousand years or even 500 years. And if you want to know my answer, I think there will be humans on the planet in 500 years but far fewer. And I think it sounds dark and pessimistic. But I can't imagine a world in 500 years where humans are thriving and growing. What do you think? I mean, do you think that we will be thriving in 500 years on planet Earth?

ENRIQUEZ: You know, I tend to agree with you on most things. This one, I don't agree with you on. I...

RAZ: Great. That's good. I don't want you to...

ENRIQUEZ: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...Cause I don't want that future.

ENRIQUEZ: No, I mean, look. One of the things I love to ask audiences is if, you know, we had a way of safely putting you into a deep sleep for 300 years and you got a chance to wake up and see what's happened in 300 years, would you do it? And I would love to see what's here in 300 years. I think there's never been a better time to be alive than today. There's a whole lot of problems in the world today, and we have to recognize those. But boy, compared to a hundred years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, things have gotten mostly better in most places. And 300 years from now, I think our great-great-grandkids are going to be doing stuff that's unimaginable in terms of how they've dealt with violence, how they have created a more peaceful, prosperous world, in terms of how they've gotten out into space. I would love to see what happens in 300 years.

RAZ: That's Juan Enriquez. He's a futurist and co-author of the book "Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection And Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life On Earth." You can see all of his talks at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM")

DRAKE: (Singing) Started from the bottom. Now we here. Started from the bottom. Now the whole team here. Started from the bottom. Now we here. Started from the bottom. Now my whole team here. Started from the bottom. Now we here.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week, How It All Began. Our production staff at NPR include Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Megan Cain, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Brigid McCarthy, with help from Daniel Shukin, Eric Newsom (ph) and Portia Robertson Migas. Our intern is Amanda Honigfort. Our partners at TED include Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM")

DRAKE: (Singing) Started from the bottom. Now we here. Started from the bottom. Now my whole team here.

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