Asleep At The Wheel

By Charles Mueller

We are blindly directing the evolution of this planet. Last week I came across an article discussing the discovery of a new bacterium that digests PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics. The authors of the article discovered the microbes by examining the trash we are continually filling up the world with. These microbes evolved on their own to digest plastic because we created an environment where the only thing they had to eat was PET plastic.

This is blindly directing evolution. We are responsible for this, yet at no point in time was this ever our intent. It is just a side effect of the choices we’ve blindly made as we continue to take more and more control over how the world evolves. At least with things like GMOs we are consciously making these choices on how certain organisms “evolve”. While in many ways this was a really cool discovery that could help us deal with things like trash pollution, it just makes me wonder what other kinds of ways life on this planet are evolving due to our visionless choices. It is likely that for every cool accident we create like this there is an equally bad one right around the corner.

There is a more intelligent way to do this that can help us create the good and prevent the bad. Technologies like CRISPR are enabling a future where we can open our eyes and begin to put more thought into how our choices will go on to impact the evolution of life on this planet. The discovery of this new bacterium reminds us that we are driving the car of evolution blindfolded with no steering wheel or brakes. While we debate whether or not we should use technologies like CRISPR to engineer ourselves for fear we might direct our evolution in damaging way, let’s remember we are already doing this with little to no control or knowledge of how it is currently playing out.

I get that directing evolution with intent sounds crazy, but the reality is it is crazier to do it blindly. The future of humanity, of life, is a future of design. Let’s make sure we acknowledge this and do our best to ensure that intelligent rather than blind choices are directing the future of evolution.

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