The Revolution of Evolution

June 29, 2015

In January of 1968, the expected holiday truce between North and South Vietnam was shattered when the North Vietnamese caught the U.S. and South Vietnamese allies off guard in the Tet Offensive, beginning what would prove to be the most expensive and deadliest year of the Vietnam War.

Later that same year, The Beatles released what some believe to be one of their most poignant songs ever, “Revolution,” in which they contrasted the distinction between “evolution” and the destructive forces of “revolution,” providing an iconic reflection on some of America’s darkest days.

Fast forwarding to today, technology “revolutions” are poised to put what we have classically called “evolution” on the shelf for good. Our models of evolution are largely built by fossil records and inspired by the seminal work of Darwin. Over the last fifty years, paleontologists have sparred between Phyletic Gradualism and Punctate Equilibrium – pitting a theory which suggests things slowly and continuously change against a theory that supports rapid and abrupt shifts from one state to another.

Neither of these theories, however, will explain the unprecedented fossil record of our time, which will illustrate a reduction in biodiversity of unprecedented scale coupled with the explosion of agriculture and mono-speciation: corn, wheat, and rice, just to name a few.

Ours has also been the era of material sciences, chemistry and bending nature to our suggested need. We are the makers (and collectors) of things. Things made possible by our ability to convert earthly raw materials into inanimate objects of unimaginable variety. An era of the manufactured and an era now racing toward a next chapter in which information and knowledge shifts from the physical into the digital and hyper-available, another transition that will yet again leave a new type of fossil record (or none).

Despite the breathtaking speed at which we have rewritten the rules of evolution, these recent achievements pale in comparison to what could be next – an era in which we move beyond curbing and deleting nature to editing ourselves. Up until now, our “editing” has been crude and largely mechanical, for example, swapping out organs, new lenses, mechanical joints, or prosthetics. In the age of pharmaceuticals we’re bringing both chemistry and biology into our toolkit, and both are shaping who we are and what we can survive. In some of these instances we shifted our epigenomes, altering the expression or function of genes from which we sought to benefit, and have only recently discovered that some of these changes are transmissible. By vaccination and antibiotic treatments, we have shaped the microbiome on which we both depend and fear.

But the instrument of evolution is germline – the genetic code that is durably passed between generations. It is our newly-discovered ability to edit germline with technologies like CRISPR that stands now squarely in front of us, a “bright line in the sand” between evolution and revolution. Labs across the world have crossed this line in the context of other species, and as a result, a rapidly advancing world of “new” experimental or commercial organisms now exists. From these efforts, we clearly see that our editing fidelity is crude, yet from this work impressive new capabilities to study diverse diseases, bio-manufacture new things and understand complex biological mechanisms are rapidly advancing. We moved from punctate evolution to exponential evolution, and for the moment the odd man out, is us.

As the new editors of life we must take the product of our endeavors extremely seriously. Recently, Eric Lander nicely recapped our conundrum in the New England Journal of Medicine with a thoughtful framework for evaluating the use of such tools of manipulation. We have rapidly moved from “if we could,” to a new waypoint of “if we should,” and sometime soon it is likely to be a question of “when we will.” Juan Enriquez has recently reflected on this moment, as well.

Not so much for us, but for those that will inherit the inadequacies in our thinking, John Lennon’s lyrics from 1968 prove instructive:

“You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan…”