<html><head /> <body> <META http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-16"><title>The Future of Biology</title><meta name="keywords" content="biology,science,ageing,aging,clone,cloning,crops,diagnosis,"><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; " align="center" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td style="background-color:silver; border-color:white; border-left-style:none; border-style:none; " width="730"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; ">The Future of Biology</span></td> </tr> <tr> </tr> </tbody></table><br><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:medium; " align="center" bgcolor="white" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td height="131" width="669"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small;"><strong>Editors Introduction</strong></span> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "></a><img src="auth_maynard.gif" align="right" vspace="10">John Maynard Smith (right) is often considered to be one of Darwin's living representatives on earth. In this anecdotal lecture he talks about the influence of science fiction on predicting the future of biology.</span> <p> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">He suggests that the Human Genome Project may be able to reduce genetic illnesses but environment and upbringing will remain important. He also develops the idea of "negative eugenics," where humans take measures to prevent the birth of children with serious illnesses, but rejects the idea of "positive eugenics," where humans manipulate genes to create designer babies.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Normally when I lecture, I have some knowledge of the topic upon which I'm talking. I haven't really any proper qualification for talking about the future of biology.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I'm going to be talking mainly about genetics, but I'm not a molecular geneticist and I am certainly not a genetic engineer. I have virtually no knowledge of medicine. In fact, I have none of the necessary background knowledge to give this lecture. In any case, you should not have asked a scientist to talk about the future of science! The people who do occasionally write well about the future of science, and the future in general, are writers of science fiction.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A book which probably had a bigger influence on me than anything I've ever read was written in 1933 by a man called Olaf Stapledon and called <i>Last and First Men</I>. It's quite an extraordinary book. I read it when I was 15, a year or two after it came out.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">It's a history of the next hundred million years or so, but Stapledon deals with the immediate future in more detail. He discusses atomic war and the collapse of civilisation due to an oil crisis. He discusses the building of giant brains; not out of silicon, which he couldn't really guess, so they're made of neurons. But his major thesis is that if human beings are ever to build a stable and happy society, they will first have to change themselves.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">No, I'm not sure whether I think he was right or not, but looking around the world there are times when you think that if we don't change our nature, we really don't have much of a chance. Let's face it, if we're to have a chance at all, we'll have to do it with the nature we've got. We don't have either the skills or the time to change it as Stapledon imagined.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">This book completely blew my mind when I read it at the age of 15 or so. It made me fascinated in genetics, fascinated in evolution, and I suppose it's as much as anything else responsible for where I am standing today.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I can't resist telling an anecdote about it. I wasn't the only person upon whom this book had that effect. Quite recently, 10 years ago or so now, I was reading a book of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. He gives a short biography in an introduction and he describes how he read <I>Last and First Men</I> when he was a boy and it made him into the writer of science fiction. Now that's not surprising, it's a very remarkable book. He tells us that he took it out of the local public library in a little town on the edge of Exmoor called Minehead. So did I. It was the same physical copy of the book, and I found that rather moving. I mean, I don't know who the librarian was that put the book on the shelves. Today, is he up there, or down there, or in limbo? But I think both Clarke and I have a lot to thank him for.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">However, it is the future of genetics and the application of genetics that I have to talk about now. A hundred years ago, the beginning of the last century, with the exception of a few farsighted people, biologists didn't even really think that there were atoms of heredity. Mendel's laws had been forgotten and they were just about to be rediscovered. We didn't even know there were genes. By halfway through the century, we knew not only that there were genes, how they behaved, but we also knew their chemical constitution. And by the end of the century, we had enormous power of moving these genes around, of sequencing them, understanding their role in development, in behaviour and so on.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I'm not going to try to predict what future discoveries of comparable scope will occur in the next century. For the young people, I don't think if I was young I'd go for genetics these days. I think we've had our big breakthroughs in genetics. What would I do? I think I'd be in neurobiology. It seems so confusing and muddled right now that they sure as hell need a few breakthroughs--so that's where I'd go if I was young.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Now, some of the things I'm going to say may seem somewhat alarming, so I want just to point to one piece of good news for the future of our species. There's lots of bad news out there. The one piece of good news I think is that it does appear that the exponential increase in human numbers has ceased. It's not that our numbers are no longer increasing, but we've passed the sort of blip in the S curve. It looks as if human numbers are going to flatten out. What is also rather encouraging is that the cause of this appears not to have been the Malthusian prediction of starvation and disease and so on, because the change has occurred first in the wealthiest countries and in the wealthiest groups within those countries. It seems really that the crucial change has been the possibility open to us, and to women in particular, of limiting fertility and the advantages of doing so. You see, I do regard a flattening out of human numbers as a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition, but at least it's a necessary condition if we're to solve any of our other problems without total disaster. I think we owe it essentially to the empowerment of women as far as their own reproduction in the future is concerned.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">However, back to genetics. I originally, when I started thinking about this lecture, thought I was going to have to talk about genetically modified food. I'm not going to have time, which is my excuse for not doing it. Actually, I find the topic rather boring, so I'm rather relieved that I'm not going to have to.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I guess because of the date and what's happening, in some sense perhaps I ought to start with the Human Genome Project and the fact that very soon now a complete human genome sequence is likely to be published. This has been sold as the blueprint of life.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">To be honest, I'm not sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the publication of the human genome. It's actually going to tell us almost nothing. As an outsider, it seems to me more an unseemly race to see who gets to patent things that shouldn't be patentable in the first place. The human genome by itself, and I emphasise "by itself," will not tell you anything very much. It's rather as if you wanted to learn Hungarian and somebody gave you a list of all the Hungarian words, but not any of them defined, so you had no idea what any of them mean.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">The Human Genome Project will be useful as a kind of map to discover specific things. For example, if, as a result of study into families or of populations, a gene is suspected to exist, responsible for early-onset Alzheimer's or something of that kind, and you know roughly where it is, then the existence of the human genome will be a useful tool in pinning it down. So, sure, it was worth having the genome, but the idea that it's going to be interesting when published is barmy. It's going to be deeply boring.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">So, first of all, what can we actually learn about human beings that is likely to be interesting by genetic means? Well, clearly, if it were the case that all men are created equal and women as well, then the short answer to that would be nothing. "Genetics," as my old teacher, J.B.S. Holdane, used to start his undergraduate lectures by telling us, "is the study of the innate differences between fairly similar organisms." In this case, between human beings. Genetics tell you why X is different from Y. It is not very good at explaining the things they have in common. Evolutionary theory may help you to understand why they have certain things in common, but the human genome isn't going to help you very much.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Now, what kind of genetic differences are interesting to us, interesting in the sense that they might actually be useful to know? Well, there's a widespread class of characteristics which we would all agree, I think, if given a choice, we would not wish a child we bore to have. I have in mind things like cystic fibrosis or something of that kind. We all know that that is not a condition that we would wish a child of ours to have, and if we could prevent it from having it, we would wish to do so. These are conditions caused by single mutant genes, and there are many such conditions. Many of them have been there for a long time. That's the first and simplest category, a category of conditions such that if you have a particular single locus genetic constitution, you are going to suffer from a very serious and unpleasant condition. That's straightforward, but it's not the only kind of genetic constitution which we might be interested in.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">There's actually a much commoner and, in sum total of human unhappiness, probably more important range of conditions, varying from the tolerable and just annoying to the really serious. These are not necessarily caused by a single mutant gene being present, but nevertheless there is some, as yet often not well understood, genetic predisposition. One has in mind things like dyslexia, to take an example which is a great nuisance but nothing to kill yourself about. You can live with it; it's just a bore. There are many such conditions of varying degrees of seriousness which we would prefer not to suffer from.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I'll talk a little bit about schizophrenia. It is certainly not the case that if you have a given genetic constitution you will be a schizophrenic, and that if you do not you won't. The causation is a complex interaction between genetic predisposition and environment, upbringing and the way you've been treated. There is more than one kind of genetic constitution, or so it seems likely, which can predispose you to schizophrenia. Nevertheless, there's clear evidence there is a genetic predisposition, it's not just how you were brought up by your parents. That's relevant, but it's not the whole story. For example, how do we know that? If you compare twins, the correlation for the presence of schizophrenia in genetically identical twins is 0.7. Between fraternal twins, that is, twins which are no more similar than a brother and sister genetically, it's 0.3, and the same story emerges from adoption studies, studies of relatives and so on. There's no question that there is a genetic predisposition there. So that's the second category of genetic difference. Unlike something like Huntington's--it's not a single gene and it's not all genetic, but it certainly isn't all environmental, either.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">There's a third category of differences which we may be interested in, but which are not actually associated necessarily with traits that we would really want either to have or not to have. For example, athletic ability. Or, to mention one that I conspicuously lack, musical ability. I wasn't quite as bad as Haldane. With Haldane we had to tell him when they were playing "God Save the King," so that he could remain seated. Now, I can recognise "God Save the King," but I'm pushed. I mean--and I don't believe that this is my upbringing. My mother was very keen on music. She tried to get me to listen to music and play music and so on, but I just got all the wrong genes. I doubt very much whether it's one gene, I would think it's much more likely to be a quantitative thing. With things like athletic ability, or intelligence, or a whole series of other traits, we are going to be able in the coming 20 years or so to identify many of the genetic differences between somebody who finds mathematics easy and somebody who finds it very difficult. It's unlikely to be a single gene and, of course, ability to do mathematics depends upon your education as well as upon your genetic constitution. But we are going to be able to identify what are now pompously called "quantitative trait loci" in humans, just as we can identify these other things. So we're going to know these kinds of things. The question is, what good is it going to do? But before I discuss that, I want to digress for a moment.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I'm now going back 15 years or so, when I still taught undergraduates. Occasionally I would ask them in a tutorial not "Do you think it likely that schizophrenia or depression or what you will is genetically caused?" but "Would you be pleased if it turned out that there was an important component of genetic causation?" In those days, and I'm going back 15 or 20 years, the general answer was one of great shock that anyone would suggest even that it could be genetically caused and a feeling that it would be a terrible thing if it turned out to be true. At that time, the evidence one way or the other was very poor. We didn't really know. Today it's a good deal stronger.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">However, I don't know that I succeeded in persuading many students. I'm not even sure that it's my business to persuade students of this sort of thing, but to me at least it would have to be good news if it turned out to have a strong genetic component. Why? Because these are conditions we would rather be without. There is at least some real chance of curing a condition if it turns out to have an important genetic component. If it's simply that your parents were beastly to you, your chances of doing much about it are zero and your chances of altering parental behaviour on a wide enough scale to reduce the incidence of the disease is pretty small, too. On the whole, the first point I want to make is that if something has a genetic component, it's probably good news.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I think a possible reason why people are disturbed about the idea that we might discover that some difference was genetic is a fear of eugenics and a justified fear to some extent of eugenics. Today eugenics is a dirty word, there's no two ways about it. I mean you have to dress it up if you want to put to somebody that there might be a case for eugenics. It wasn't always so. If you go back to the days I was talking about, in the 1930s, when <i>Last and First Men</i> was written, far from being unpopular in the early '30s and certainly in the 1910-1920 sort of period, it was almost a religion of the intellectual middle classes. It wasn't in any way associated with being politically right wing or anything of that kind. The Webbs were in favour of it, George Bernard Shaw was in favour of it, Marie Stopes, whom I would think of as somebody who was a kind of fighter for women's rights, was a rabid eugenicist and even disinherited her son because he married a girl with myopia. Let's face it, that puts me in my place. I mean, eugenic views were really widespread in those days. Scientists and geneticists were as involved in this kind of thing as was anybody else. We knew very little human genetics, or very little human genetics was known, so you could believe what you liked.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I have dug out one quotation for you, which I kind of like. This is from a man called Davenport, an American geneticist--who actually was the man who established the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which most biologists will have heard of--writing in 1911. He says, "Immigration would rapidly make the American population darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex immorality." Now, that's good strong stuff. His evidence for that view is tenuous, but views of that kind were not all that unusual in those days.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I think the thing that changed that, the event that changed that more than anything else was the coming to power in Germany of Hitler and the Nazis. They applied eugenic measures, initially just sterilisation of people they didn't like, on an enormous scale. You must understand that such measures had been applied elsewhere. The sterilisation of criminals was accepted as state law in a number of states of the United States and, in fact, continued to be practised in Scandinavia right up to the 1970s. So such measures were not all that unknown. They were carried out on a scale and a motivation quite abnormal in comparison with anything that had gone before in Nazi Germany and ultimately, of course, finished in the gas chambers. So I think it was in realisation of the sins that can be committed in the name of eugenics that people who previously had been at least interested or vaguely sympathetic with the notion became deeply hostile to it.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I'm going to be talking about measures which may in a sense been seen as eugenic, so I want to make it quite clear that I think there are two principles that we should aim to follow in any genetic interference in our own species that we may make. The first is that the decision in any particular case what to do should not be a decision for government, should not be a decision for the doctor or doctors, or for a scientist or scientists. It's a decision, since one's normally taking decisions, about maybe an as yet unborn child. It should be the decision for the parents of that child, and primarily, since it's still true that the mother takes a primary responsibility for raising a child, for the mother of that child. So decisions have to be individual. They should not be government or state or professional. The other is that before we do take eugenic measures of any kind, we should be clear what our objectives are. Those objectives should be the avoidance of conditions which we are absolutely clear in our minds we want to avoid. I would hope that people would not regard myopia as so serious as to be grounds for early termination.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">So, given that decisions of what to do should be ultimately in the parent's control and not in the control of any lawgiver, what can be done? Essentially there are three kinds of levels at which we might try to use genetic knowledge. Crudely these are, just to give you a list of them, there is gene therapy, there is diagnosis of genetic conditions of embryos, together with selection of embryos, and there is genetic transformation. Those are three quite different procedures, and it's important to be clear what they are.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">In gene therapy, there's no question of trying to alter anybody's genetic constitution. The notion is that you find out what gene it is they're missing, let us say the cystic fibrosis gene, and you try to deliver copies of that gene to the place in their body while they're developing and growing. You try to switch it on in that place, so that the genetic deficiency that they suffer from is in a sense cleared, though the gene is not altered. My impression of such therapy is that it has not really fulfilled its promise if it ever had it. It's not easy to get the genes into the right place. It's easy enough to make large numbers of the genes, actually. That's not the problem. The problem is to get them where you want them and to switch them on there and not somewhere else. I did tell you at the beginning that I'm not medically qualified and I could just be wrong about this, but my general impression looking at it on the outside is that this is not actually a particularly promising line of approach.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A better approach is already practical in some single gene conditions, where one knows specifically the gene one wants to avoid. It will become possible in the second category that I discussed, conditions like schizophrenia and depression and so on, where it's not one gene you'd like to alter, but several. Now, until relatively recently the method that they adopted was amniocentesis. After the embryo is implanted and attached to the placenta in the mother's womb, placental cells from the amnion that belong to the embryo and not to the mother are taken, genetically diagnosed and, if the child has a condition that the parents consider sufficiently serious, an abortion is performed. I think it's fair to say that is no longer really a necessary procedure. There is a better way of doing it which I hope increasingly will be adopted--at least it seems to me better; it may not to you.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">This is to collect embryos when they're just a small ball of cells, perhaps from 16- to 64-cell stage, before they're implanted in the mother's womb. One cell from such a ball of cells is all you need nowadays for genetic diagnosis, and if it is carrying the gene or genetic constitution that you do not want, discard that embryo. Now, if you're at all sensitive, you'll notice that I used the word "discard" that embryo and not "kill" it, but, of course, they mean the same thing. I fully understand anyone who has a deep moral objection to killing any embryo. It's certainly not a decision I would want to take, but I do want to emphasise it is not a scientific issue. It's a decision to be made, in my view, by parents, essentially, and not by doctors or scientists or governments, as to whether that is the right action or not.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Thinking about it, I'm fairly clear that had it been possible when we were having our children to identify at the 16-cell stage, to discover whether an embryo was carrying some specific condition or not, then I think I would have wanted to do it and to discard the embryo if it was carrying that. Especially if there had been good grounds for fearing, for family reasons, or other genetic tests which can increasingly be made, that such a condition might be present. You can always collect a dozen embryos and keep the one that's all right, but I do want to emphasise I don't regard this as something that is free of quite hard moral problems that need thinking about. And it's certainly not up to me to tell you what you ought or ought not to do. As I say, I think that method is already possible and will become increasingly possible for both single gene conditions and for conditions in which there's a genetic component in causation which is relatively simple. Not hundreds of genes, but just a few genes.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">The third possible method is that of genetic transformation. In effect, you try to identify the gene that you wish to change, and if it is wrong you actually transform it. Now, in a nutshell that is what is being done in the origin of genetically modified crops, or animals. It's not at the moment a technically practical proposition as far as human beings are concerned and, as far as I can see, is not likely to become so. At least not in the foreseeable future. What will be possible in 50 years' time one would be mad to predict. The point being that it's no good changing one gene; you've got to change lots of them. You've got to change them in a very specific and particular way. In producing a new breed of animal or plant, you're not actually changing a gene, you're introducing a new gene into the genome. You don't mind if you have lots of failures, so long as you bring it off once, but that's not really quite the kind of thing that you would want to do or feel justified in doing in the human context. So I don't at the moment see genetic transformation as being a useful or likely to be useful technique in human genetics.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I must say just a word about cloning, because cloning is so much in the news nowadays. Of course, some of us have been cloning for years. I'm a keen gardener; I take lots of cuttings. I'm cloning, cloning a plant, not a human being, and you can't grow another human being from a cutting, or so it seems. It's also true, of course, that there are clones out there already. A pair of identical twins are two members of a clone. It's not a very big clone, but it's a clone. What is now technically possible and has been achieved in animals; but not in humans as far as I know, has been to take an egg, remove from it its nucleus and replace that nucleus with a nucleus from one cell of an adult organism. Then you put it back into the mother, hope that it will implant, hope that it will come to term and hope that it will produce you a viable organism. This also is at the moment a quite impractical technique for human reproduction, essentially because of the success rate. The success rate of the eggs you re-implant, the proportion that come through to live birth is probably less than one in 100. You're lumbered with a large number of abnormalities and diseased organisms and so on. Now, that clearly is not something which we are prepared to tolerate in reproducing our own species, or at least I hope it isn't, but techniques advance. It may not be true, even in 20 years' time, that that kind of mortality is still with us.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">OK, so why would you want to do it? I have to say I can't think of any good reasons for wanting to produce a cloned human being. Some of you will have read <i>The Boys From Brazil</i>, which is a kind of good novel. It describes the cloning of Hitler. If you haven't actually read it--and it is a good story, no question--but I can't see a lot of justification for any human being thinking another copy of me is what the world needs. I really can't. If you read what is being proposed by the people who are actually working on cloning with the possibility that it might be applied in human biology, what they are proposing is not the production of new human beings, like ones that already exist. They're proposing cloning for therapeutic purposes. For instance, I, fearing that I may get burnt in an accident or something, arrange for a clone of myself to be differentiated as skin cells all ready to slap on when I have this accident. It's easy to produce some skin cells; it's much harder to produce a new heart and keep it in the fridge until I need it. I must say I'm a little puzzled as to the practicality of this particular proceeding, but it is for that reason that cloning is being proposed.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">So far, mainly, except when I got onto cloning, I have been talking about what I call "negative eugenics," of taking measures to prevent the birth of children with particularly serious and distressing conditions. What about positive eugenics? What about trying to produce so-called "designer babies"? I must say when I came across the phrase I had to go and ask somebody, "What is a designer baby?" because I've never worn a designer shirt, or designer trainers or something in my life. I didn't know what the phrase meant, but it was explained to me. They took me away in a corner and told me what designer meant.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Let me give you some free unsolicited advice. If you want to have a child who is extraordinarily athletic, or extraordinarily clever, or extraordinarily musical, I can offer you two pieces of advice you might follow. One would be to provide it with an upbringing which will encourage whatever particular quality it is that you want. My own total failure to remember or recognise tunes shows that you cannot guarantee that this measure will succeed, so the second measure, which my mother failed to take that would have been effective if she had, is to choose your sexual partner more carefully. My father couldn't sing in tune either. If you want to produce children of a given kind, the best thing you can do is to give it the right kind of upbringing and choose your partners carefully. I don't say that's what you have to do, but if what you want is a child of a particular kind that's what you have to do.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I don't see a lot of future right now for the production of designer babies, but I do want to digress for a moment, having talked about sort of designer babies cloning and so on. I wouldn't encourage anybody to engage in such an activity, either as a doctor or as an individual wishing to be cloned or to have a child of a particular kind. Do we want to pass laws making it illegal? I think that's much harder, because those laws seem to me to be extraordinarily hard to enforce. It's easy enough to pass a law saying, "Thou shalt not do something," but if its only effect is to ensure that in some other place, not under the direct control of your own government, a thriving medical profession is making its millions doing it for people rich enough to go there and have it done, it doesn't seem to me that you've done much by passing the law. So I think one has to think rather carefully about whether passing laws against things in this field is a very good idea.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">One example of positive eugenics which I do want to discuss a little bit more is the question of producing human beings, or indeed treating existing human beings, so that they live for very much longer. For instance they might live for 200 years instead of 100 years. For me it's a slight relief talking about this, because it's actually a topic about which I know something, unlike everything else I've been talking about! I worked on aging a lot back in the '50s and '60s and I've watched the subject ever since. One can say with some confidence at any moment there will be a group of people out there with a theory--well, several different theories, different individuals in the group having different theories--about the cause of aging. "I've got a cause," and usually, "I've got a cure for it".</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">When I was young they thought it was the cross-linking of collagen in your connective tissue, autoimmune disease, somatic mutation. These were the three commonest and most popular theories when I was working in the field of aging. Nowadays, the latest fashion has been something called telomeres. The idea is that when a chromosome replicates, it has a problem. It has a problem about replicating the end, the telomere, which is the end bit. The consequence is that every time a chromosome replicates, the telomere just gets shorter and shorter. The theory is that when the telomere sort of disappears altogether, the chromosome can no longer divide. The cell can't divide and you're dead. So all you need to do is to prevent telomere shortening, and you'll live forever.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Well, I hope that a moment's thought will tell you that has to be nonsense. I mean, first of all, is it going to stop your teeth falling out? Well, of course it isn't going to stop your teeth falling out. What about your germ line? It's clear that there can't be telomere shortening going on there, or your children would be born old. Right? So, is there a simple way of preventing telomere shortening during cell division? There clearly is; it's working in your germ line. Then all you need to do is to be an evolutionary biologist. If a simple change transferred to your somatic cells would make you live a lot longer and live healthily a lot longer, then natural selection would have done it millions of years ago. If there is a simple cure for aging, we'd all live a lot longer because natural selection would favour it. Any individual who lived twice as long would obviously have twice as many kids, unless, of course, they were so decrepit they had to be carried around all the time. When I say lived longer, I mean lived healthily longer. A moment's thought about evolutionary biology will tell you there is not a single, simple cure for aging which does not have unpleasant side consequences.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Now a digression, but why not digress? A graduate student of mine under some stimulus from me once demonstrated that if you want to make a female fruit fly live longer, you can do so by giving her 5,000 rads of X-rays. Not a treatment that you would expect to be terribly good for an animal, but what it does is to kill all the dividing cells in her body. The only dividing cells in her body happen to be in her ovary. She doesn't bother with the rest of her cells, she lives with what she's got and anything you do to a female fruit fly to stop her laying eggs makes her live longer. So it's a cure for aging in fruit flies, but it's not universal because it certainly wouldn't work on you and me. So I don't, in fact, expect to see a cure, genetic or whatever, for aging. But, of course, there are things you can do to make life for older people better, to make them stay healthy longer. There are many things like hip replacements, operations for cataracts and so on, which do make life better for old people, and I have personal reasons for being in favour of such interventions. So certainly there are things we can do for old people and there will be more, but the idea that we will find a cure for aging is rubbish.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I want to go back to science fiction for a moment. Another author I read when I was young is H.G. Wells. I think the most disturbing picture of the future in science fiction known to me is in <i>The Time Machine</i>. Our hero goes into the future and he finds a group of people very beautiful, apparently happy, dancing, playing games all day, a bit feckless, not very serious, not doing any work, not concerned about the deep matters of philosophy and religion and so on, but having on the whole a fairly good time. Except he notices they're a bit scared in the evening when the lights go out. Then he notices in the morning sometimes one or two of them aren't there anymore. Then later, through other adventures, he discovers that living underground there is a second race of human beings, the Morlocks. The guys at the surface are called Eloi.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">The guys underneath are running machinery. They're efficient, hardworking, fierce, cruel and, among other things, they're farming the Eloi because they're good to eat. They come up at night and take one or two when they would need one. It's a pretty horrid picture, but Wells makes it clear that this is his image of the future of the class system in the society he lives in. If the upper classes are going to do nothing useful, then natural selection won't preserve their competence and ability to work and to cope. They'll finish up like the Eloi--beautiful but feckless. Whereas the workers who do have to work for their living and so on will finish up like the Morlocks. He finishes up, in other words, describing a class system based on a genetic difference between the classes.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Now, I don't say we face that necessarily. I certainly hope we do not. But what we do face is a world in which it may become simply too expensive for any society to provide the best possible medical treatment to everybody. We may see a world in which the class division is based not so much on what a nice house you live in, or how much you have to eat, but on your access to the best in the way of medical services. When I wrote the notes for this lecture, the first example I wrote down was the fact that the most effective drugs for the treatment of HIV are so expensive that they are simply not available to people in Africa, where HIV is an extremely serious and widespread disease. A mild bit of good news: I'm delighted to hear that the companies that have been maintaining that high price have, during the last week, announced they have cut the price by a factor of nearly 10. This is down to the actual cost of production, and that has to be good news, but it is an example of the fact that a health treatment urgently needed may be too expensive for the people who urgently need it. That by itself would be bad enough.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Imagine another example with aging. If we lived in a world in which if you were rich you lived for 200 years but if you were poor or came from a poor country you'd be lucky to make 80--I don't think such a society would be a very good one to live in. I mean, that fact would carry with it so much else in the way of special police forces to maintain the class division. It is not a happy vision. If part of the genetic application was not merely curing individuals but altering the genetic constitution of populations, Wells's dream is perhaps not quite so impossible as you might have imagined. It's not a dream that any of us can welcome, but I do think it means that very serious thought has to be given to the control of future medical services, the access of people to those medical services. I will reveal my own political opinion if I say that I don't find it a very happy situation, where the control of the drugs and so on are going to be in the hands not even of governments but of big companies, who will always tell you that their moral duty is to serve their shareholders. Of course, helping their shareholders is not precisely helping people. So I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I do think that they're questions that my grandchildren are going to have to worry about, even if I'm too old to have to worry.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">You will notice what I have not talked about seriously is what future discoveries are likely to be made, except that I think I did hint at the beginning that if I were 25 instead of 80 I would be going into neurobiology rather than genetics. You may say, "Look, you're such an incompetent experimentalist. The idea that you could ever become a neurobiologist is bizarre." That, of course, is actually true, but I have a suspicion that some study of computers, artificial intelligence and so on might possibly play some useful role in that field, and that I think I probably could do.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">That brings me to the last thing I want to just say. My friend Eors Szathmar and I recently wrote a book called <i>The Origins of Life</i>, which, if you haven't bought it (don't read it, that doesn't help me at all), do buy it, that's my royalties. We wrote a book called <i>The Origins of Life</i>, in which we picture evolution as involving a series of what we call major transitions in the way in which information is stored and transmitted between generations. The origin of the genetic code, the origin of chromosomes, the origin of cells, the origin of multicellular organisms, of animal communities, of sex and finally of language. We argue that each of these major transitions was a necessary stage in making possible the further evolution of complex life. In the last paragraph, we point out that we are now living through yet another of these major transitions, and we cop out from discussing it. That, of course, is the transition involved by the invention of computers.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Today, for the first time in the whole of evolution, the history of the earth, there exist two separate methods of storing and transmitting information. The genetic method, dependent upon DNA, RNA, proteins and so on, and the electronic method, dependent at the moment upon silicon. It may well be that the actual units used for storing and transmitting information on computers will become more and more biological. Actually, as the years go by, we have computers and human beings living side by side in a strange symbiosis. It's a totally novel situation. Its consequences will be as dramatic, I'm sure, as the other major transitions that Eors and I discuss. What they will be I don't know. The worst scenario from our point of view is that these computers may simply replace us, they may do very well without us. At the moment, you may say, "Well, I can always pull the plug, switch them off." Well, I'm not sure you can switch them off all that easily. I mean, if you do, you're going to bring industry to a stuttering halt. Well, maybe that's the price you're willing to pay. We're already very dependent upon these pieces of machinery. We shall undoubtedly become more dependent upon them. Maybe they will get more independent of us?</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A more likely possibility is that we will form some kind of increasingly complex symbiosis with these organisms. I say organisms because they have many of the properties of organisms, and the future of that symbiosis I simply do not know. I shall not participate in it. I aim to be the last human being not on e-mail--not owning a mobile telephone, not surfing the Internet. I'm a real Luddite in this business, but I realise that that's a pose I can afford because I'm 80 years old. I couldn't afford to do it if I was young. The next major transition through which life is at the moment living is the revolution introduced by the existence of computers, and you really ought to be having one of these Futures lectures telling you what it's going to be like, because I don't think I can.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; font-style:italic; ">This story is adapted from a lecture given at the London School of Economics and Political Science on May 16, 2000, organised by the Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.</span></td> </tr> </tbody></table> </body></html>