Outsourcing Humanity

A cooking pot is an outsourced stomach. It shifts much of the burden of digesting food from inside to outside your body. Because of this, your real stomach doesn’t have to work so hard. This was a big deal for early humans, allowing them to make more effective use of available food.

Consider the shift that followed. Over millions of years, animals slowly evolved stomachs that could digest their preferred diet. This internal stomach is encoded in DNA, in the genome. Then, one fine day, fire-savvy, cook-capable humans came along. The job of the stomach could now be shared between the pot and the belly, which means that the combined “big stomach” is now a joint venture encoded by both genetic and cultural DNA. Across many generations, the biological stomach can now “relax”. Not only does it do less work, it can even give up some its ability to do the hard work of digesting raw food. Why bother, as long as you have a microwave handy? In this sense, you become a hybrid biological-cultural construct, as dependent on the cultural knowledge of cooking and pot-making as on your own self-constructing DNA. How long would you survive naked in the wilderness?

What’s true for cooking is true for many things. Knives outsource teeth. Clothes outsource skin. Glasses outsource vision. We make our tools and our tools make us. It’s an obvious statement and a profound one, particularly when you consider medicine.

Across the millennia, pathogens have sculpted our genome. Traits that have helped previous generations survive the ravages of malaria, plague, and tuberculosis get built into our genes. We have the tracks of thousands of pandemics etched into our genetic memory. But now, just as with our stomachs and our teeth, we are outsourcing, externalizing our immune system. This modern plague is reshaping not so much our genetics as our global cultural medical apparatus. Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca can do in one year what a deadly plague might have needed a hundred years and fifty million lives to impart to our genes. Our genes don’t need to improve so long as our medical care does. Put another way, our biological immune system is now free to get weaker, so long as biotechnology can carry its load. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see us, across several hundred years, fading into our sustaining machinery. With it, we are gods. Without it, we are shrieking infants.

But the coming world will also give us the ability to upgrade not only our machines, but also our genes. Here’s one simple example of what that might look like.

As noted, traits that are not needed for survival tend to fade. This is why you can’t smell as well as a dog. You share with dogs a lot of the same DNA for sensing specific odors, but in humans, much of this DNA has been damaged and rendered inert. If a few bulbs burn out in your smell-o-nator, who cares? You can still have healthy kids. Over time, humans have lost the cunning of the canine nose. But that doesn’t have to be true forever. We can not only build outsourced spectrometers and mechanical noses, we will also be able to retrofit our DNA. This will be a dangerous and subtle skill to learn, but be certain it will come. In the future, wealthy parents will be able to endow their offspring with, among other things, the smelling capabilities of dog. I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but I’m telling you, it’s coming.

Would you pay to give your children a superhuman sense of smell? Or the ability to see colors no human ever saw?