Juan Enriquez: Are We Evolving Into A Different Species?

Oct 24, 2014
Originally published on April 14, 2017 4:34 pm

Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode How It All Began.

About Juan Enriquez

Juan Enriquez argues that human evolution is far from over — Homo sapiens are becoming a new species right before our eyes.

About Juan Enriquez's TED Talk

Juan Enriquez was the founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project. He was a member of a marine-based team to collect genetic data from the world's oceans. He is a managing director at Excel Medical Ventures, a life sciences venture capital firm, and the chair and CEO of Biotechonomy, a research and investment firm helping to fund new genomics firms. His forthcoming book, Evolving Ourselves, is co-written with Steve Gullans.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So there's two versions of that. You know, after a 14 billion year trek, that's all she wrote. And the second version is we're going to become yet another hominid or set of hominids, and we're going to evolve into something different. And I think that's the right answer.

RAZ: This is Juan Enriquez, and he wrote a book called "Homo Evolutis," which is all about how we are currently evolving, transitioning into a whole new species, from Homo sapiens to Homo Evolutis. Here's Juan on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ENRIQUEZ: The first place where you would expect to see enormous evolutionary pressure today, both because of the inputs, which are becoming massive, and because of the plasticity of the organ - is the brain. Do we have any evidence that that is happening? Well, let's take a look at something like autism incidence per thousand. Potentially, the brain is reacting - a hyper reactive, a hyper plastic way - and this is only one of the conditions that's out there. You've also got people who are extraordinarily smart, people who can remember everything they've seen in their lives, people who've got synesthesia, people who've got schizophrenia - got all kinds of stuff going on out there, and we still understand how and why this is happening. But one question you might want to ask is are we seeing a rapid evolution of the brain and of how we process data? Because when you think of how much data's coming into our brains - we're trying to take in as much data in a day as people used to take in in a lifetime. Here's the bottom line - what I think we are doing is were transitioning as a species, and I think were transitioning into a Homo Evolutis that - for better or for worse - is not just a hominid that's conscious of his or her environment - it's a hominid that's beginning to directly and deliberately control the evolution of its own species, of bacteria, of plants, of animals. And I think that's such an order of magnitude change that your grandkids or your great grandkids may be a species very different from you.

RAZ: But you're not just saying that this is going to happen to our grandchildren. You're actually saying this is happening now. Like we are evolving into a new species as we speak.

ENRIQUEZ: Well, think about why things evolve. So, you know, minuet changes lead to different kinds of tortoises in the Galapagos or lead to different kinds of finches. And there's changes in what they eat, there's changes in predators, there's changes in the environment, there's changes in the living conditions, there's changes in the housing - so you move from a cactus to a cave or whatever. And as you do that, the species has to rapidly evolve. Now, think about human beings and what's happened over the last century, century and a half. We've gone from primarily being a rural species to being an urban species in the majority. We've supersized our diets. All of a sudden the average human being has gotten a lot taller, and you notice that we've gotten old. And if you changed every single conditional on an animal, you would expect to see rapid evolution. And that's actually what you're observing humans today.

RAZ: I mean, I wonder what are we going to look like in - I don't know like 500 years from now.

ENRIQUEZ: So for the first time in, I think, the history of this planet, you have a species that is answering the question you're asking which is what will we look like in 500 years - not because of random mutations, not because of what's sitting out in the environment - pressuring us or selecting us - but basically because of our own design. So we're saying well, I would like humans to have blonder hair. I'd like humans to have more blue eyes or I'd like humans to be taller. I'd like humans to be stronger. We're beginning to be able to address those questions and give people choices. And I think what will happen in 500 years is we will likely have bigger heads. We will likely be taller. We will likely live a whole lot longer, and there will be likely a whole lot more variety.

RAZ: A part of me is like OK, I - this is amazing. We can save lives. We can prolong life. We can eradicate disease. We can make ourselves smarter. But a part of me is like this is crazy. We can potentially do all kinds of things to manipulate the kinds of offspring that we want to have, and that's nuts.

ENRIQUEZ: Well, it's a degree of power and responsibility that really forces humanity to think hard about what it's doing. When you concentrate this kind of power in humanity's hands, you become a steward for the environment. This stuff has actually been really good for us, because if you look at humanity, we're eating better. We're living longer. We have a better quality of life and infant mortality is going through the floor. So I tend to be an optimist on the stuff. But, you know, sometimes late at night I think, wow, we have a whole lot of power over what lives and dies on this planet. And we have to think very carefully about what that means and how we're using it.

RAZ: But I mean, what makes you so sure that the end result won't be worse?

ENRIQUEZ: Evolution is a - it's not a tree. It's a great, big, round, promiscuous bush that is constantly exchanging genes. So a virus will take a gene from here to here. A bacterium will take a gene from here to here. And now, we're beginning to tinkering - inserting genes from here to here. And what that leads to is not a version of a human. It is multiple versions of human beings, and we will make some mistakes. And we'll build stuff we don't like. And I think what will happen is we'll also find stuff that were very happy with. You know, writing these books of life and rewriting them and learning how to alter them, and where we came from and where we're going - there's no bigger story. And there's nothing more important going on on this planet.

RAZ: Juan Enriquez wrote about this in his book called "Homo Evolutis." You can check out all of his talks at TED.com.

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

DRAKE: Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now the whole team here. Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now my whole team here. Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now the whole team here.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week, "How It All Began." If you missed any of it or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out TED.NPR.org. You can also find many, many more TED talks at TED.com. You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. If you like the show or hate it or hate us or maybe even love us, please let us know. Go to TED.NPR.org, click on contact. Our Twitter handle is @TEDRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to "Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.