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Genetics of Original Sin

Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Genetics of Original Sin
    Book Description:

    Increasingly absorbed in recent years by advances in our understanding of the origin of life, evolutionary history, and the advent of humankind, eminent biologist Christian de Duve of late has also pondered deeply the future of life on this planet. He speaks to readers with or without a scientific background, offering new perspectives on the threat posed by humanity's immense biological success and on the resources human beings have for altering their current destructive path.

    Focusing on the process of natural selection, de Duve explores the inordinate and now dangerous rise of humankind. His explanation for this self-defeating success lies in the process of natural selection, which favors traits that are immediately useful, regardless of later consequences. Thus, the human genome determines such properties as tribal and group cohesion and collaboration and often fierce and irrational competition with and hostility toward other groups' attributes that were once useful but now often ruinously dysfunctional.

    Christian de Duve suggests that these traits, imprinted into human nature by natural selection, may have been recognized by the writers of Genesis, thus inspiring the myth of original sin. Is there redemption for genetic original sin? In a brilliant and original conclusion, the author argues that, unique in the living world, humankind is endowed with the ability to deliberately oppose natural selection. Human beings have the capacity to devise measures that, while contrary to local or personal interests, can bring forth a safer world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16871-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    Edward O. Wilson

    Christian de Duve has delivered a clear statement of why ours is the Century of Biology. If there is anything that science has taught us, it is that humanity is a biological species in a biological world. We originated here, grew up here, and are thoroughly adapted to this world in every fiber of our bodies and every neuronal circuit that thrums through our brain. In the fundamentals of structure and development, we are not different from other organisms. And in the fine details of anatomy, we are close to our phylogenetic cousins, the great apes.

    With the smooth mastery...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)

    The sacred writers who invented the famous myth, immortalized by numerous artists and writers across the centuries, of Original Sin that allegedly cost the first parents of humanity to be expelled from the Earthly Paradise, have not just displayed lively poetic imagination. They have, in addition, shown remarkable perspicacity—apart from their choice, which was far from innocent, of a woman as culprit. They have perceived the presence in human nature of a fatal flaw, which, as they saw it, only divine intervention could possibly repair. Hence the hope for an envoy from God, a Messiah, Savior, or Redeemer, whom...

  7. Part I. The History of Life on Earth

    • 1 The Unity of Life
      (pp. 3-13)

      All known living organisms are descendants from acommon ancestral form of life, often represented by the acronym LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor). Put forward as an affirmation, not just a theory or hypothesis, this statement may strike many readers unacquainted with modern biology as almost incredible, if not objectionable or even contrary to their most sacred beliefs. An explanation is in order.

      For most of their history, humans have seen Earth as the center of the universe, their privileged abode. In the second century, the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy integrated this “geocentric” view into a coherent theory that...

    • 2 The Origin of Life
      (pp. 14-22)

      The beginnings of life on Earth are shrouded in the darkness of a very distant past, going back at least 3.55 billion years—more than three and a half million millennia!—according to microscopic traces believed to be of fossilized bacteria, detected in rocks of that age. It is interesting to place this event within the framework of the history of our planet and of the history of the universe.

      The Big Bang, the primeval explosion taken by most cosmologists to have sparked our universe into being, took place 13.7 billion years ago according to the most recent estimate. The...

    • 3 The Evolution of Life
      (pp. 23-38)

      Born more than three and a half billion years ago, life remained unicellular during more than two and a half billion years, more than two-thirds of its existence on Earth. During all that time, microbes, organisms visible only with a microscope, were the only ones present on our planet. They are still abundant, occupying a wide variety of sites and revealing their presence by many effects, such as producing diverse chemical substances, causing many infectious diseases, and putrefying dead organisms (a function they share with certain molds).

      Very few fossil remains landmark the history of microbes on Earth, but many...

  8. Part II. The Mechanisms of Life

    • 4 Metabolism
      (pp. 41-51)

      TheNew International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionarydefines “metabolism” as “the aggregate of all physical and chemical processes constantly taking place in living organisms.” The key words are “physical” and, especially, “chemical.” There is no escape. If one wishes to understand life, one has to go through some chemistry. In a book like this, we can’t examine all the details that fill biochemistry textbooks with formulas of daunting complexity. Fortunately, it is possible to give an idea of how metabolism works without calling on a single formula. This is what I try to do.

      Have you ever visited a chemical factory?...

    • 5 Reproduction
      (pp. 52-69)

      Reproduction is a fundamental property of life, the driving force of life’s continuity, generation after generation, from the time of its first appearance up to present-day living beings.

      A fundamental property of molecular replication is that it does not rely on direct copying, as in an office copier, but oncomplementarity,as in photography, with a negative serving to assemble a positive, and vice versa. This key mechanism, which was most likely inaugurated by RNA in the origin of life, was discovered first for RNA’s better known sister molecule, DNA, by the American James D. Watson and Englishman, the late...

    • 6 Development
      (pp. 70-76)

      How, in a matter of nine months, does a fertilized egg become the miracle that is a newborn baby? This question has been asked by generations of biologists ever since William Harvey (1578–1657), the English physician who discovered blood circulation, exclaimed, after dissecting a pregnant doe felled in hunting by his patron, King Charles I: “Omnia ex ovo,” all (living beings) arise from an egg!

      The embryologists who tackled this problem found that the fertilized egg first divides into a small number of almost identical cells, which form a cluster called themorula,the diminutive ofmorum,the Latin...

    • 7 Natural Selection
      (pp. 77-90)

      Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who is often credited for having discovered evolution, was not even born when the transformist hypothesis was first formulated by his grandfather and by Lamarck. What Erasmus Darwin’s grandson will forever be remembered for is his proposal that natural selection of hereditary variants is the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Natural selection, contrary to evolution, which is an undisputable fact, may still be viewed as a theory, at least to the extent that it may not be the only mechanism involved in evolution, as we shall see in the next chapter. The actual occurrence and overwhelming...

    • 8 Other Evolutionary Mechanisms
      (pp. 91-102)

      Darwinian selection constitutes the main mechanism of biological evolution. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the evidence supporting this statement is overwhelming. But natural selection is not solely in charge. Several other mechanisms have been proposed that, while not replacing natural selection, may play a significant additional role.

      The first evolutionary theory to be conceived antedates natural selection by half a century. It was elaborated, together with evolution itself, by the Frenchman Lamarck, in his 1809 opusPhilosophie zoologique.This theory postulated that useful traits acquired during life could be transmitted to progeny. A favorite example cited by Lamarck...

  9. Part III. The Human Adventure

    • 9 The Emergence of Humans
      (pp. 105-119)

      Let us go back about three and a half million years. On the human scale, this is an immense time span: thirty-five hundred millennia, five hundred times the duration of the whole of recorded human history. But, in the framework of the history of life (more than three and a half million millennia), or even of animal life (six hundred thousand millennia), it is little more than a brief coda.

      The site of our flashback is in Africa, in the arid Laetoli region in northern Tanzania. The focus of our attention is a small band of strange creatures of mixed...

    • 10 Making the Human Brain
      (pp. 120-132)

      Of all the wonders of life on Earth, the human brain is no doubt the most wondrous. Forming this wonder, there is a special kind of cell, the neuron. Like all other cells of the organism, neurons have a body, with a nucleus and all the characteristic structures and organelles of animal cells. But, in addition, they are specialized in the reception, processing, and emission of signals. They do this by means of two kinds of extensions, the longer axons, doing signal emission, and the shorter arborescent dendrites, doing signal reception.

      In their most primitive form, neurons probably connected a...

    • 11 Shaping Our Genes
      (pp. 133-139)

      We are, like the rest of the living world, largely products of natural selection. Our genes are there because, at some stage in evolution, they happened to be useful to the survival and reproduction of their owners or, at least, were not sufficiently harmful for their owners to be eliminated. Some 98.5 percent of those genes existed in the last ancestor we have in common with chimpanzees and were gained at some stage in the long pathway that led from the first forms of life present on Earth more than three and a half billion years ago to the last...

    • 12 The Cost of Success
      (pp. 140-145)

      They numbered a mere three thousand about half a million years ago, in the heart of Africa, when the Neanderthals left them to go their own way. There were little more than ten thousand of them, some three hundred thousand years later, when mitochondrial Eve, Y Adam, and their congeners set off on their final stretch towardsHomo sapiens sapiens;an estimated five to ten million, thinly scattered over a good part of the world, when the first durable human settlements were created ten thousand years ago. Since then, they climbed to about half a billion in 1600, one billion...

    • 13 Original Sin
      (pp. 146-150)

      Viewing the somber image just depicted with the eyes of a biologist, I find a single culprit:natural selection. I use the word “culprit” metaphorically, of course—no guilt is involved—but the term is not entirely inappropriate. Natural selection, this all-powerful driving force of biological evolution, has privileged in our genes traits that wereimmediatelyfavorable to the survival and proliferation of our ancestors, under the conditions that prevailed there and then, with no regard for later consequences. This is intrinsic to the process of natural selection, which sees only the immediate present and does not foresee the future....

  10. Part IV. The Challenges of the Future

    • 14 Option 1: Do Nothing
      (pp. 153-158)

      Our first option is to do nothing and let nature take its course. In that case, there can be little doubt about the outcome.

      The signs are unmistakable. Humans have unwillingly and, even, unwittingly, by unbridled pursuit of immediate benefits, endangered their own survival to such an extent that, for all we know, the point of no return may already have passed. Under the mercilessly indifferent law of natural selection, this blind, suicidal course can only continue until it is brought to a halt by its own consequences. Natural selection has no foresight.

      If humankind were to become extinct, we...

    • 15 Option 2: Improve Our Genes
      (pp. 159-168)

      If there is a flaw in our genetic makeup, the most straight forward way to address the problem is to correct the flaw. This project is not new. Measures aiming at improving the hereditary endowment of humanity were proposed in the nineteenth century under the name of “eugenics,” literally the pursuit of good genes.

      This term was conceived, with the project it implies, by a cousin of Darwin, Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), who initiated intelligence testing and defended the view that psychological characteristics are hereditary and that society should defend itself against undesirable traits by selective breeding, if not...

    • 16 Option 3: Rewire the Brain
      (pp. 169-172)

      Correcting the flaw is not the only solution to our genetic predicament. Genes can be overruled by education. This message comes to us from neurobiology, which tells us that some among our most decisive traits areepigenetic. I use this adjective in the original meaning given to it in the 1930s by the British evolutionist Conrad Waddington (1905–1975) to qualify traits that are not genetically transmitted and are acquired later in life, under genetic control but in response to outside factors. In recent literature, as we have seen in chapter 8, the noun “epigenetics” designates a new kind of...

    • 17 Option 4: Call on Religions
      (pp. 173-186)

      Churches have been the foremost dispensers of education to the young during much of history and they still play a major role in this crucial process in many parts of the world. Even in the United States, where public schools are run by local lay authorities, Churches still exert important influence, by way of school boards and other supervising bodies. Their involvement is weaker in Europe, where religious neutrality of the public school system is strictly enforced and respected; but religious influence remains significant, through private and, sometimes, even state-supported schools.

      Churches are also much involved in adult education, through...

    • 18 Option 5: Protect the Environment
      (pp. 187-199)

      Religions are not the only organizations capable of influencing human behavior on a worldwide range. Environmentalism has become a major power in this respect. This is a very recent phenomenon.

      From the time they first appeared up to the near-present, humans have exploited and polluted the world without scruple, in pursuit of immediate benefits. Not that they are to be blamed. They were not aware of the harm they were causing. The explorers and conquerors who laid the basis of the colonial empires and first settled the American continent treated the world as a source of unlimited bounty, with no...

    • 19 Option 6: Give Women a Chance
      (pp. 200-203)

      Before we close this excursion into the future, a question that has attracted increasing interest in recent years must be addressed: the role of women in the running of human affairs. To keep within the limits of our subject matter, does science have anything to say concerning this key societal problem? Apparently yes, as the evidence suggests that several unfavorable human traits singled out by natural selection are largely associated with maleness.

      Most of the time, wars have been waged by men. Almost invariably, the dominators and conquerors, the soldiers and other fighters, have been men. Women have followed, to...

    • 20 Option 7: Control Population
      (pp. 204-209)

      In the last analysis, it all boils down to apopulationproblem. Most of the ills covered in chapter 12 flow, directly or indirectly, from the fact that there are too many of us now on Earth, and soon there may be way too many. The unbridled multiplication of human beings allows our genetic heritage increasingly to produce its most damaging effects. Initiated many millennia ago, this trend has burgeoned with time, but without reaching tragic proportions as long as there remained on our planet virgin territories to occupy and fresh resources to exploit. The exponential pace of demographic expansion,...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 210-212)

    Two almost contradictory messages emerge from my analysis of the human circumstance. One says that our downfall, our eventual extinction and that of much of the living world, is inscribed in our genes. The other tells us that we possess the unique power to use reason to escape this fate. Whether “original sin” or “redemption” gains the upper hand is impossible to predict. But, at first glance, the prospects are not encouraging.

    There is a major difficulty: we must deal with two sharply different time scales. As human beings, we live within the limits imposed by our own lifespan and...

  12. Index
    (pp. 213-223)