george_church's picture
Professor, Harvard University; Director, Personal Genome Project; Co-author (with Ed Regis), Regenesis
Non-Inherent Inheritance

The names Lysenko and Lamarck are nearly synonymous with bad science — worse than merely mediocre science because of the huge political and economical consequences.

From 1927 to 1964 Lysenkov managed to keep the "theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics" dogmatically directing Soviet agriculture and science. Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet physicists finally provoked the fall of this cabal in the 1960s, blaming it for the "shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular … defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists".

At the opposite (yet equally discredited) end of the genetic theory spectrum was the Galtonian eugenic movement, which from 1883 onward grew in popularity in many countries until the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ("the most translated document in the world") stated that "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family." Nevertheless, forced sterilizations persisted into the 1970s. The "shorthand abstraction" is that Lysenkoism overestimated the impact of environment and eugenics overestimated the role of genetics.

One form of scientific blindness occurs, as above, when a theory displays exceptional political or religious appeal. But another source of blindness arises when we rebound from catastrophic failures of pseudoscience (or science).

We might conclude from the two aforementioned genetic disasters that we only need to police abuses of our human germ-line inheritance. Combining the above with the ever-simmering debate on Darwin, we might develop a bias that human evolution has stopped or that "design" has no role.

But we are well into an unprecedented new phase of evolution in which we must generalize beyond our DNA-centric world-view. We now inherit acquired characteristics. We always have, but now this feature is dominant and exponential. We apply eugenics at the individual family level (where it is a right) not the governmental level (where it is a wrong). Moreover, we might aim for the same misguided targets that eugenics chose (i.e. uniformity around "ideal" traits), via training and medications.

Evolution has accelerated from geologic speed to internet speed — still employing random mutation and selection, but also using non-random intelligent design — which makes it even faster. We are losing species — not just by extinction, but by merger. There are no longer species barriers between humans, bacteria and plants — or even between humans and machines.

Short-hand abstractions are only one device that we employ to construct the "Flynn Effect". How many of us noticed the minor milestone when the SAT tests first permitted calculators? How many of us have participated in conversations semi-discreetly augmented by Google or text messaging? Even without invoking artificial intelligence, how far are we from commonplace augmentation of our decision-making the way we have augmented our math, memory, and muscles?