Superpowered people. There’s a collective human fascination about the possibility, from the scores of sci-fi-driven movies hitting screens worldwide to the more rigorous scientific inquiry that aims to extend lifespans, cure diseases and enhance basic biological functions. When it comes to modern human evolution, have we reached the end of the line? Or could superpowered humans be our next iteration?
The Science of Modern Human Evolution
Humans with extraordinary powers already exist — depending on how you define “extraordinary” and how willing you are to suspend some disbelief. Some stories, like that of “Lightning Man” Roy Sullivan, don’t require a great stretch of the imagination: Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times and survived. While it’s not exactly riding the storm, it’s certainly out of the ordinary. Or consider the tale of Vladimir Durov, an animal trainer who claimed a telepathic connection with his companions. According to ThoughtCo., Durov’s “powers” were tested in several experiments and appeared to work as described.
Beyond the occurrence of natural “mutants,” Futurism suggests the possibility that technology-driven transhumanism could be the next step in modern human evolution. There’s some support for this idea; as noted by Science Focus, the Human Genome Project has identified all human genes, while the CRISPR/Cas system has the ability to slice existing DNA and insert new, modified strands. The missing ingredient? A mutant gene — one that could enable the more exciting powers of flight, telekinesis or lightning strikes. Still, we’ve laid the foundation, and the possibility of gene-based evolution now exists.
Because modern human evolution has no set form, multiple pathways offer their own unique benefits. Consider the work being done at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Researcher Peng Yin and his team have developed a method that allows prebuilt DNA sequences to grow and join autonomously. The potential result is programmable molecular devices that could be used in a variety of synthetic biology applications. Meanwhile, New Atlas notes that there’s also research being conducted on synthetic insulin-secreting cells that could help solve the problem of diabetes. It’s not hard to imagine this technology enhancing basic human functions such as response and recovery time even as it reduces the impact of a disease
Speaking of enhanced human functioning, there’s also a case to be made for technology-based solutions like the Guardian XO, a human exoskeleton in development by tech firm Sarcos, which could be used to give workers and military personnel a kind of “super strength.”
Pros and Khans
So what happens if we take control of human evolution through advanced biology, technology or a combination of both? The capability comes with significant benefits, including the elimination of widespread disease, increased longevity, enhanced performance and — potentially — the addition of more-than-human capabilities produced by specially crafted genes.
The downside? Watch the old “Star Trek1” episode “Space Seed” or “The Wrath of Khan” featuring Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced “superman” who — along with his empowered brethren — rules as a tyrant over ordinary human beings. There’s also the risk that a better ability to manipulate human biology could provide opportunities to develop dangerous or deadly pathogens, prompting the need for improved biodefense solutions to help identify biological threats before they decimate entire populations.
For the first time in history, the direction of human evolution can be guided instead of merely accepted. While you won’t run into Green Lantern2 at the gas station or see Batman2 at the coffee shop anytime soon, modern human evolution comes with wide-open potential: Technologically driven, biologically inspired advancements could pave the way for an entirely new iteration of “average” human beings.
- Star Trek is a registered trademark of CBS Studios, Inc.
- The Green Lantern and Batman are registered trademarks of DC Comics.