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Waiting for the Supermutants

Metropolis / Essay

How We Know Darwin Got It Wrong

December 14, 2003|Paul Gordon | Paul Gordon last wrote for the magazine about the crash of his 1990 Mazda Miata.

When the then-nascent Human Genome Project's Traveling Magic Show came trundling through my hometown in the early 1990s, my father, the eminent economist and contrarian H. Scott Gordon, joined the throng at the university auditorium to witness the birth of humanity's brave new world of mapped and conquered genes. He waited for the lecture and the breathless questions to subside, then he stepped to the microphone.

"It's great that you're hunting down the order of somebody's genes," he said. "What I want to know is: Whose are they?"

The question hung in the air like a time bomb. With a single thrust, the professor had struck at the best-kept secret of the Human Genome Project: Whose genes were they actually mapping? And his simple query utterly non-plused the council of elevated swamis onstage. He did not get an answer to his question (there were rumors that the "human" the project was mapping was actually a melange of genes lifted from several workers in the lab), but on that day I recall my father walked out into the sunshine with a rascally grin that stretched from ear to ear.

Carrying on a rogue's legacy, I have a little interrogatory of my own. As I understand it, Charles Darwin's theory holds that life is pushed forward by a series of advances, or mutations, so powerful that they blow the competition into the weeds. My question is: "Where are they?"

I've heard that half of the humans who ever lived are alive today. More than 6 billion copies staggering around in an environment seething with toxic waste, car exhaust and cosmic radiation. We're riddled with cancers, tumors, albino bluesmen and twins joined at the hip. But where are the beneficial mutations, the world-beating supermutants potent enough to put the lot of us common, garden-variety humans out to pasture? Six billion rolls of the dice and no one has been born with a brain the size of a basketball? No eyeballs that see in the dark? Nothing?

I know the lab drawers are brimming with bones and fossils, frozen icemen and piles of petrified droppings from cavemen. There is more physical evidence supporting Darwin's evolution than perhaps any other single scientific theory. Yet a Gallup poll taken at the turn of the millennium revealed that close to half the American public rejects evolution as a theory. I think I know why.

More than a century after its publication, Darwin's "Origin of Species" is suffering from what I call the "Weapons of Mass Destruction Problem." It's a simple matter of credibility: Show me one fuzzy photo of a bunker lined with missiles, just one underground sarin lab, or mobile anthrax trailer, or glowing chunk of enriched African uranium, and I'll start to reconsider. But until you can find one, I'll stay suspicious about the whole WMD thing.

Same with evolution. Yes, I know the process of natural selection is long and gradual and mostly invisible, and its complexities are as arcane as a PhD thesis. It has been suggested that human evolution ceased when the social graces of monogamy meant even geeks got to pass along their genes. It may be extremely rare--the fish that grew feet and walked out of the ocean, the monkey that came down from the tree, the ape that picked up the jawbone in "2001: A Space Odyssey"--but natural selection still relies on mutations so wild that they rearrange the order of everything, right? And so I say again: Where are they?

How do I know those mutations haven't happened yet? Because I watch too much television. The modern entertainment industry is highly efficient at scanning the planet for bizarre creations to flicker across the nightly television screen. So, if there's going to be a paradigm shift involving newer, faster, smarter humans, it's a sure bet that you're going to see it first on television. We've got diet gurus and 12-year-old spelling bee champions and accountants from Montana who can eat car bumpers, but where is the local weatherman with a nose so fine he can nail the forecast just by sniffing the breeze?

Consider the range of sports on television. Today's athletes define the limits of speed, endurance, agility, strength--every aspect of human physical performance. And talk about a hardball natural selection process: If you can swing a stick, throw a ball, heft a weight or outrun your neighbors, you can be sure there's a talent agent thrashing through the snows of darkest Siberia, checkbook in hand, desperate to deliver your special gift to the gnashing maw of TV sports.

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