Tired of waking up in that hotbed of mindless drudgery and tedium you’ve affectionately come to refer to as
Convinced that everyone else has their ducks in a row,
while you lurch from disaster to disaster like some rickety tandem Victorian velocipede?
Caught in a perpetual cycle of feeling good,
then returning to feeling like crap again,
waiting for the day when you’ll actually find yourself in a good mood for more than five minutes?
Well, there is quite a good reason for some of that,
and it begins, as we all did,
Nature uses two methods of making babies on our planet:
“boink” and “no boink”.
“No boink”, or asexual reproduction, is generally used by bacteria, plants, and fungi,
and it involves an organism copying its genetic material for the next generation.
“Boink”, or sexual reproduction, usually involves a male and a female doing the nasty
and combining their DNA 50/50 to produce offspring.
And that’s the one we’ll focus on here.
Species change over time due to two main factors: selection and mutation.
Selection means the organisms better suited to their environment have more chance of surviving – and so, reproducing.
They will also often choose mating partners with what they consider attractive qualities, or “phenotypes”.
For example, often deer like big antlers,
peahens like colorful plumage,
the male bowerbird attempts to attract ladies in the form of a bachelor pad called a bower,
which takes sometimes months to decorate.
Humans would never make such silly displays for mating purposes!
The second trick is mutation.
Mutation means that sometimes there are glitches in the DNA of offspring,
and this could be due to copying errors, or even cosmic rays.
In humans, it can mean anything from red hair to genetic diseases.
Sometimes these mutations will then be passed down to the next generation of offspring,
and, if they’re beneficial for survival, will be sexually selected,
and even become a characteristic feature of the species.
Through circumstances we still don’t understand, humans have developed relatively large brains
and outsmarted, nom’d, or avoided every other species on the planet –
good old survival of the shittest.
And while we pride ourselves on being fantastically clever,
very little has actually changed in terms of hardware between prehistoric humans and modern humans,
because evolution takes ages, as we know.
Now, modern humans are sneaky, of course:
we’ve taken the old evolutionary urges and drives, and found ways to still enjoy them.
Aggressive combat into competitive martial arts, for example.
Or a constant obsession with reproduction
turned into an act you can do thousands of times across your lifespan, and never actually make offspring.
But evolution is not a smart or conscious process –
some things are NOT well-designed.
A narrow pelvis, for example, making childbirth a thoroughly enjoyable experience for women everywhere.
Or standing up, which, in return for a better line of sight and an ability to grab stuff,
also kindly gave us sciatica and hemorrhoids in return.
However, we’ve also inherited the mental traits evolution kindly gave to our ancestors,
a low anxiety threshold,
a bit of a tendency for pessimism,
and a total inability to keep right on the London Underground escalators.
The signs are fucking everywhere!!
We are a contradictory mix of animal and mad god.
But we may be, this century, on the threshold of gaining technologies to alter our evolutionary blueprint,
courtesy of genetic engineering.
Going into our genome and ripping up the floorboards.
So what shall we do then?
Make ourselves harder, better, faster, stronger;
eyes on elbows;
an ability to actually piss in a straight line first thing in the morning – all very interesting,
but there is one particular evolutionary bad boy we might rewire,
that’s so fundamental to the human condition we barely even notice it’s there.
And its name…
We are not designed for sustained happiness or optimism.
Natural selection had very little interest in our mental welfare – survival was key.
As a result, it seems most of us, regardless of geography or social standing, have a hedonic set point –
that is, something good might happen, and you’ll feel good for a while;
something bad might happen, and you’ll feel bad for a while;
but eventually you will probably return to your baseline, which appears to be set out of your control –
For some individuals, this set point is rather high;
for the rest of us, though…
NOT SO MUCH.
And that’s ignoring all the other pitfalls of brain 1.0,
including age-related dementia,
a tendency towards addiction,
a tendency towards addiction…
A TENDENCY TOWARDS ADDICTION!..
low boredom thresholds,
and everything else we didn’t ask for, genetically speaking.
These nasties have haunted us for millennia,
and they seem to form part of what we’ve lovingly come to know as the human condition,
which for many of us is just shorthand for
“stuff we can’t change, and we’re shit, and it’s natural,
and have a cup of tea and get on with it.”
But if we crack the ability to send these evolutionary dishes back to the kitchen,
to engineer ourselves happier or more content…
Shall we fucking give it a whirl, or… not?
After all, we’ve got such a great track record with limiting the few godlike powers we already have…
If we do gain mastery over our own genetics,
how far should we go with this one?
And… how the hell will we know… when to stop?
Now, luckily, genetic engineering is really simple, and there are no risks,
and genetic engineering is really simple
You see, there’s a single gene for everything:
a cleverness gene, a tallness gene, a really good-looking gene,
and they can just be turned on and off without affecting anything else, and there being no bad consequences,
and genetic engineering is really simple –
there’s definitely no risk of making horrific alterations to the human genome that only become apparent generations later,
there’s no risk of nasty folks creating engineered drug resistant pandemics that are virtually impossible to eradicate,
there’s certainly no risk of a group of us getting hold of the technology and creating an entirely separate genus of humans
we can’t possibly compete with in any aspect whatsoever.
Genetic engineering is unbelievably complicated, and it’s not hard to see why people are extremely cautious.
We are currently children who have just about learned the genetic alphabet, but we can’t read yet.
So what can the new genetic technologies actually do?
Well, in each of our cells is DNA.
DNA is packed within chromosomes.
Chromosomes are extremely long strings of DNA composed of four bases:
A, T, C, and G.
Lengths of these are called “genes”, and proteins are built inside your body as a result of genes.
If you like, genes are genetic verbs telling proteins what to do.
We’ve been genetic engineers for four centuries now,
breeding species for the sake of characteristics we want – in doggies, for example:
small ones, big ones, the bestest ones…
…fucking love Springer Spaniels…
But even that goes wrong sometimes.
Many species of doggies are adorable,
but possess nasty inherited traits like hip dysplasia and epilepsy – thanks to us.
And this is just simple genetic engineering we haven’t managed to get right yet.
So far, we’ve been using hammer methods, but now we may be holding a scalpel method called CRISPR,
and it works – roughly, briefly – like so:
Some bacteria can store an intruder’s DNA in their own DNA in the genetic library called CRISPR,
or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,
and using that as a template, using an enzyme called Cas9 it can kick ass if the intruder comes around again.
Researchers have hijacked this trick, and have begun to use it to snip out targeted sections of DNA in other organisms.
Considering there are thousands of diseases caused by a mistake of just one letter,
not too much alteration might be needed to fix all sorts of nasties latent in human DNA.
This isn’t a question of IF we start radically altering human biology – it’s WHEN,
because even if most of us condemn the technology, it’s not as if other researchers won’t pursue it –
they’ve started already.
Obviously, hopefully, we’ll begin with eliminating genetic disorders,
but surely there will come a point, perhaps this century, when we get a little bit more experimental.
And the question is, what happens then?
Well, we might be children at the moment,
but we know enough to notice that certain genes, when they’re present, accompany specific traits.
DEC2, for example, is a genetic mutation allowing some of the humans who have it to survive on around 6 hours sleep a night.
But genetics is rarely “one gene equals one trait”.
There isn’t one intelligence gene,
and there probably isn’t going to be a single “depression” or “makes hummus delicious” gene, either.
What we know from twin studies, though, is that somehow very specific traits CAN be inherited.
There may not be a single “good at violin” gene,
but there might be a bunch of genes that go INTO being good at the violin
that one might inherit from their parents, like decent hand-eye coordination and pitch sensitivity.
But in any case genetics is not a switchboard –
happy on, sad off, bada-bing, let’s go for a pint –
it is an interconnected tapestry in which some traits are caused by loads of genes, potentially thousands,
and small alterations could have horrific consequences.
There’s nothing prudish about being cautious when it comes to a cheeky bit of the old “playing God”.
Let’s plant a flag there for a moment,
because if we do one day learn to speak fluent Genetics, alongside changing ourselves physically,
(and potentially shepherding in the FUCKING APOCALYPSE!)
We could scout out the roots of the more unpleasant aspects of the human condition –
of low mood,
of the hedonic curse –
of the genetic foundations of misery itself.
And if for some reason this all goes well – which there’s no reason to suggest that it has to –
then you and I might be living in the last century
in which anyone was ever involuntarily suffering, mentally speaking.
Mental well-being is, I would argue, the most important factor in being alive,
because it’s the first thing that makes being alive WORTH being alive.
Like, if you weren’t conscious, nothing else would matter.
And even if you lived in a solid-gold mansion, and slept on a bed made of Fabergé eggs, and brushed your teeth with dolla dolla bills –
if you’re miserable, you’re still miserable.
Gucci gang, Gucci gang.
If there’s a possibility of one day altering the human condition,
perhaps the goal should be to preserve our humanity, but attempt to overthrow our evolutionary curses.
For example, using these new technologies to raise an individual’s baseline happiness default
without compromising the individual’s personality.
Much like the difference between you with a hangover and you after a workout, and-
Oh! Is that Aldous Huxley at the door with some reasonable criticisms?
No, he can sod off, thank you – this is wild speculation.
Then again, some pain makes sense.
If one is sat around eating crisps and gaming all day,
it might be entirely appropriate to have that nagging feeling that time is being wasted –
a form of deep evolutionary signaling to go out and actually engage with the human tribe.
Or if you’ve lost someone close to you, you know that grieving is horrible,
but it gives you time to try and make sense of who you’ve lost,
and in the end you can hopefully come to terms with it in a psychologically healthy way.
There are plenty of sensible warning messages written into the human psyche,
But others are overcompensations, or just bad genetic luck.
What the hell is the beneficial aspect of lifelong depression, for example?
Oh, it’s time for a disclaimer!
There’s a trend in media that I, and perhaps you, find a bit irritating,
which is when someone will be pretending to be objective,
but really just trying to beat some kind of pet theory of theirs into your head,
labeling it “philosophy”, or “common sense”, or something, and using fancy big words.
What comes next is purely my, and a few other people’s, crackpot theory and speculation,
and that’s… it.
And real researchers, with actual qualifications in the field of genetics who don’t have enough time to make Youtube videos
’cause they’re actually busy doing something beneficial for humanity,
are rightly careful about speculation, because the real world is really complicated,
and they’re frankly probably rightly fed up with champagne futurist types like myself
making wild speculations about the future while facing no consequences for being wrong.
There is no reason to think genetic engineering will be chocolate and cat cuddles.
It could go badly in a million ways for a million reasons,
and if you’re using this channel for educational purposes in the first place,
you have to be totally bonkers, because it’s just me,
some cuddles with the cat,
shit I like yelling into a microphone about,
no qualifications whatsoever in genetics,
and a big ol’ box of fucking Tofifee.
Purely. Speculation. Ahead.
That being said, though…
In the event that we do develop competency with these new genetic tools,
the future of biology is going to be stranger than we’re even capable of imagining.
If genetic engineering becomes accessible to citizens – to us –
what the hell happens then?
Perhaps there’ll come a whole new generation of artists
who use technology as a brush, and the human mind as their canvas,
in which entirely novel degrees of bliss and well-being will be possible –
and, of course, new degrees of suffering and horror.
We might isolate the molecular structure of bliss and proliferate it,
we might isolate the molecular structure of misery… and kill it.
We may become capable of experiencing emotions we don’t even have words for yet.
Degrees of euphoria light-years beyond anything drugs can provide today.
We know from psychedelics and sleep that the human mind is capable of entering alien dream-time spaces –
spaces unconstrained by our usual evolutionary baseline architecture.
Tomorrow’s genetic explorers may go in search of these spaces,
rewiring the perceptual and reward centers of their brains.
If that happens, it will seem bizarre to them
that for the whole of our history we occupied only the ground floor of human experience,
and except for the occasional hallucinogenic dabbling,
never took the elevator up or down to those other strange floors –
to boundless optimism,
to entire lifetimes free of self-loathing or anxiety,
ignorant of the molecular and genetic foundations of misery,
much in the fashion that disease was once thought caused by bad smells;
back when we lived in an era in which we had more control over the atom
than we had over our own internal circuitry;
that somehow we survived the psychochemical Dark Ages.
Will we lose ourselves to radical transformation?
Will we venture too far into the experimental forest –
a world in which we fracture into so many variations of humanity
we can no longer communicate with each other,
a world in which one can make a living scouting out these new strange humans,
much as an anthropologist seeks our new cultures today?
We have no idea.
We are a limited species who may be about to gain unlimited power.
And what happens then?
What becomes of the human condition when the genetic shackles have been taken off?
There will be plenty of moral problems of technology for our children’s children to face,
but one of them is bound to be the issue of human modification,
and, by extension, modification of the human condition.
We currently have no compass to show us the way,
as we set out on this new, very possibly perilous expedition
into our own source code.
As John says in Brave New World:
“But I don’t want comfort.
I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger,
I want freedom, I want goodness.
I want sin.”
And why should we edit out the strange edges of the human condition?
We are a uniquely batshit species, and that is lovely.
But there is a difference between eccentricity
and suffering at the hands of a mental legacy we inherited from nature.
We still bear the evolutionary scars of our rise through the ranks of the animals,
of our helpless infancy in the ocean,
and then of our traumatic childhood on the savannah plains of Africa.
and as a result of those millions of years of ruthless evolutionary pressure,
we have matured into a very peculiar mix of aggression and diplomacy,
willful ignorance and curiosity,
chaos and smarts.
We have enough problems today as it is.
Just considering disease and mortality, gastroenteritis alone kills about 1.8 million kids a year,
and that’s to say nothing of cancer, malaria, and tuberculosis.
But slowly, thanks to the conscientious among us, they are on the run.
And it is conceivable that one day humans will live on a planet free of disease
and free of premature death at the hands of nature.
And as we relegate these demons to history,
we will surely pause to cast an eye on those involuntary mental maladies as well –
the specters of despair, of depression, of anxiety –
and wonder if we might banish those, too.
“Was” must be the most lovely word in the English language.
It tells you everything you need to know about our ingenuity and compassion as a species.
If you look up smallpox today, often the first two words of the definition will read “smallpox was”.
We collectively gave it a fucking roundhouse kick and yelled: “stay down, you c**t!”
And it stayed down.
If everything goes well as we mature as a species,
the word “was” will propagate steadily throughout our encyclopedias.
And perhaps centuries from today, some future child will stumble on some future incarnation of Wikipedia
and come upon obscure and forgotten diseases and afflictions of the human being –
couched again and again, relentlessly,
in the wonderful past tense:
“Cancer was a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. These contrasted with benign tumors, which…”
“Malaria was a mosquito-borne infectious disease affecting humans and other animals, caused by single-celled microorganisms belonging to…”
“Alzheimer’s disease was a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually started slowly and gradually worsened…”
“Measles was a highly contagious infectious disease caused by the…”
“Huntington’s disease was an inherited disorder that resulted in the deaths of…”
“Tuberculosis was an infectious disease usually caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria…”
“Misery was an involuntary state of mental distress common to humans of all eras and circumstances.
Its eradication marked the beginning of the banishment of the existential horrors from the human condition.”
What up, thanks for sitting through my bullshit this month.
So, last year I put out an e-book called “The Fifth Science”.
It’s not for me to say if it was a good book, but it was the one I most enjoyed writing,
and I’m very excited to say it’s now available as a paperback, with a new cover and a new introduction.
If you are interested, there is a link below.
It’s a load of short stories about waking the universe up,
and more than that I can’t say; I just really, really hope you like it.
As a little celebration, with some help, I have hidden copies of the book in the UK, Germany, and Bulgaria.
If you can find them, they’re yours – links in the description for how to do that.
I’ve disabled comments on the clue videos so you can’t help each other, you little scamps. Good luck…
Thank you to everyone who’s bothered with the book already –
I read all of your emails, and they are much appreciated;
and thank you to those of you on Patreon, obviously, because this book definitely wouldn’t exist without you.
If you want to try a story from the book first, there is a link below to me reading one,
and if not – fair enough, it might be shit. You don’t know.
I hope you’re doing well in any case, and all the very, very best wishes from myself and the feline –
well, not from her, she’s a fucking sociopath, but from me! From me.
The Fifth Science Paperback ► https://tinyurl.com/y5zj33s5 (you may need to change your region accordingly: .co.uk, etc)Sample story from the book (The Lantern) ► https://youtu.be/um6cGuJ4mNEThe Fifth Science Treasure Hunt:Edit: NOT 12 HOURS IN and I believe they’ve all been found – though I haven’t seen proof for the German one as yet. In any case, PLEASE don’t waste your time searching for the English and Bulgarian packages. /Edit.Minimal clues will be provided in the videos below. If you happen to live in one of these countries, then all the very best of luck finding the books. They’re not hidden elaborately, just out of sight of passers-by. If you need to do any heavy lifting, trespassing, or scale walls, you’re definitely in the wrong place. Hint: strange fonts and geography.England ► https://youtu.be/HQDeKPNUF4U
Germany ► https://youtu.be/qfKd134AETo
Bulgaria ► https://youtu.be/XLLaa7G97B8
I also make horrendous music ► https://soundcloud.com/exurbia-1
For sending personalised insults ► https://www.facebook.com/exurb1a/
Help me to do this full-time, if you’re deranged enough ► https://www.patreon.com/exurb1r?ty=h
The rest of my books ► https://tinyurl.com/ycnl5bo3
So, one of the many issues I didn’t get around to yelling at you about was the line between ‘genetic disorder’ and an individual’s unique features. I’ve mentioned before I’m more or less blind in one eye and this is almost definitely a result of a mutation in my family line. And you know, given the option, I’m not sure if I’d have it removed. Or, I’d need to give it a very, very long think.
There are plenty of lovely and bizarre anomalies specific to individuals, and it’s not for me to say – or even speculate really – where the line should be drawn when it comes to one day potentially making alterations to our descendants. I’m not a public educator, philosopher, scientist, or policy maker. Just an idiot with a USB microphone. I’m not the person to talk about this stuff. So I hope you’ll forgive my glossing over of it.