One of world’s most celebrated scientists (by the establishment) suggested that genetic engineering is likely to create a new species of virus or superhuman creature that could destroy the rest of humanity.
Hawking left a collection of articles and essays on what he called “the big questions”. In Brief Answers to the Big Questions he suggests that wealthy people will soon be able to choose to edit their own and their children’s DNA to create superhumans with enhanced memory, disease resistance, intelligence and longevity. – The Times
Speaking to the Radio Times ahead of the BBC Reith Lecture in 2016, Hawking said most of the threats humans now face come from advances in science and technology, such as nuclear weapons and genetically engineered viruses.
“We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognise the dangers and control them,” he added.
Speaking through his speech synthesizer at the Ri, he answered a question on whether the electronic voice had shaped his personality, perhaps allowing the introvert to become an extrovert. Replying that he had never been called an introvert before, Hawking added: “Just because I spend a lot of time thinking doesn’t mean I don’t like parties and getting into trouble.” – The Guardian
The Daily Galaxy has chosen Stephen Hawking’s contention that the human species has entered a new stage of evolution as the top story of 2009. It was included in his Life in the Universe lecture, along with many other thought provoking observations about the human condition.
Stephen Hawking – Life in the Universe
A living being usually has two elements: a set of instructions that tell the system how to sustain and reproduce itself, and a mechanism to carry out the instructions. In biology, these two parts are called genes and metabolism. But it is worth emphasising that there need be nothing biological about them. For example, a computer virus is a program that will make copies of itself in the memory of a computer, and will transfer itself to other computers. Thus it fits the definition of a living system, that I have given. Like a biological virus, it is a rather degenerate form, because it contains only instructions or genes, and doesn’t have any metabolism of its own. Instead, it reprograms the metabolism of the host computer, or cell. Some people have questioned whether viruses should count as life, because they are parasites, and can not exist independently of their hosts. But then most forms of life, ourselves included, are parasites, in that they feed off and depend for their survival on other forms of life. I think computer viruses should count as life. Maybe it says something about human nature, that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. Talk about creating life in our own image. I shall return to electronic forms of life later on.
We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, over the last three hundred. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race.
The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, is the time scale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this time scale has shrunk to about 50 years, or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written.
This has meant that no one person can be the master of more than a small corner of human knowledge. People have to specialise, in narrower and narrower fields. This is likely to be a major limitation in the future. We certainly cannot continue, for long, with the exponential rate of growth of knowledge that we have had in the last three hundred years. An even greater limitation and danger for future generations, is that we still have the instincts, and in particular, the aggressive impulses, that we had in cave man days. Aggression, in the form of subjugating or killing other men, and taking their women and food, has had definite survival advantage, up to the present time. But now it could destroy the entire human race, and much of the rest of life on Earth. A nuclear war is still the most immediate danger, but there are others, such as the release of a genetically engineered virus. Or the green house effect becoming unstable.
There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. There is a project now on, to map the entire sequence of human DNA. It will cost a few billion dollars, but that is chicken feed, for a project of this importance. Once we have read the book of life, we will start writing in corrections. At first, these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.
Laws will be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation, to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease, and length of life. Once such super humans appear, there are going to be major political problems, with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings, who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.
If this race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, it will probably spread out, and colonise other planets and stars. However, long distance space travel, will be difficult for chemically based life forms, like DNA. The natural lifetime for such beings is short, compared to the travel time.
It might be possible to use genetic engineering, to make DNA based life survive indefinitely, or at least for a hundred thousand years. But an easier way, which is almost within our capabilities already, would be to send machines. These could be designed to last long enough for interstellar travel. When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet, and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars. These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules. They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.
DNA and understanding – BBC 2009
Professor Hawking, of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, gave a typically wide-ranging talk.
The professor said he did not advocate the genetic redesign of human beings, but saw it as inevitable as scientists gained a more complete understanding of DNA.
“Many people will say that genetic engineering on humans should be banned, but I rather doubt if they will be able to prevent it,” he said.
“Genetic engineering on plants and animals will be allowed for economic reasons and someone is bound to try it on humans.”
He said that it was unlikely to occur in the next 100 years, but GM humans would arrive sometime in the next millennium and they would bear little resemblance to the people of today.
Professor Hawking added that the only way he could see such a situation being prevented was in the event of a “totalitarian world order”.
Stephen Hawking feared gene-edited superhumans would kill us all
By Nick Whigham
The late Stephen Hawking believed advances in genetic science would lead to a future generation of superhumans who could ultimately destroy the rest of humanity.
In newly published writings, Hawking suggested an elite class of physically and intellectually powerful humans could arise from rich people choosing to edit their DNA and manipulating their children’s genetic makeup.
“I am sure that during this century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts such as aggression,” he wrote.
“Laws will probably be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation to improve human characteristics, such as memory, resistance to disease and length of life.”
The renowned theoretical physicist, who died in March, made the grim prediction in a collection of essays and articles recently published by the UK’s Sunday Times, prior to the release of a book containing a collection of writings by Hawking.
Those without the means to genetically modify themselves will become relegated to a sub-class of “unimproved humans,” he suggests in “Brief Answers To The Big Questions” due out on Tuesday. The wealthy who have power and access could tweak their genome to boost strength, memory and disease resistance.
This two-tier system of humans, Hawking predicted, could have grave social consequences.
“Once such superhumans appear, there will be significant political problems with unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete,” he wrote. “Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving at an ever-increasing rate.”
“If the human race manages to redesign itself, it will probably spread out and colonize other planets and stars.”
While the rise of superhumans won’t happen in our lifetime, new gene-editing technology has already led to concerns about the potential of designer babies.
Most notably, CRISPR-Cas 9 is a recently emerged technology that can be thought of as acting like a tiny pair of molecular scissors that can cut and alter nucleotides that make up DNA, enabling scientists to find and modify, or replace, genetic defects. – NY Post
To be continued?
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