Published 9 July 2011 by Beatrice Lugger
Christian René de Duve – Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2011
The Future of Life
Ever since its first appearance, more than 3.5 billion years ago, life has evolved without guiding plan, propelled by: 1) its own intrinsic properties, which, with the help of outside energy, provided the necessary driving force; 2) accidental genetic modifications, which created variation; 3) natural selection, which favored the variant forms best fit to survive and reproduce; and 4) environmental conditions, which set the selection criteria.
An occurrence of crucial importance in this long history has been the genesis of nerve cells, or neurons, in the animal line. This event initiated the progressive development of the brain, culminating, some 200,000 years ago, into the most powerful product of biological evolution: the human brain. This acquisition proved to be a fantastic asset for the species concerned — our species — allowing it to expand its population about one-million-fold since its forebears first arose in the heart of Africa and separated from their Neanderthal relatives, to occupy almost every habitable site of our planet, and to exploit a major part of natural resources for its sole benefit.
This phenomenal evolutionary success, driven by the blind force of natural selection, regardless of late consequences, has generated grave menaces that increasingly endanger the future of life, including human life, on Earth. If natural selection is allowed to remain in charge unchecked, the outcome can only be a severe impoverishment of the living world, leading to growing deprivations, sufferings and conflicts within the human species and ending in its final extinction under conditions that can only be pictured as apocalyptic.
This frightening outcome is not inevitable. Thanks to this very brain that has allowed our success, we can do what no other living species is able to do: look beyond the immediate present, evaluate the effects of future actions, make appropriate decisions, and act accordingly, against natural selection if need be. For this to happen, humanity needs wisdom, a quality that is not included in its genetic endowment and must be acquired epigenetically by education. It is to be hoped that the required guides will come forth – and, especially, be followed, considering that some, like Jesus, Buddha or Confucius, have already existed – before it is too late.
C. de Duve. La Génétique du Péché Originel (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2009). Genetics of Original Sin (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2010). Die Genetik der Ursünde (Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2011).