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The genetics of innovation

The genetics of innovation
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 09 26 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 09 26 PM IST
There’s a way to do it better—find it, said Thomas Edison, the great American inventor who on 22 October 1879, found the carbon filament a better way to dispel darkness than a wax candle. About 12,000 years before Edison, as the last ice age was loosening its grip, early North Americans similarly found that the gigantic woolly mammoth could be hunted better using the atlatl, an ingenious weapon that greatly accelerated a flexible spear.
Ceaseless innovation has always been the defining characteristic of humans. It is a capability that scientists say could lie hidden somewhere in our genes, which otherwise diverge from a chimp’s by no more than 1 or 2%.
In the modern, flat world, innovation is the lifeblood of global business, perhaps even more than efficiency, in tough recessionary times. “If you’re planning to build ‘the iPod killer’ or ‘the next Pokemon’, you’re already dead,” says the book Rework by software gurus Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. “You’re allowing the competition to set the parameters. You’re not going to out-Apple Apple…you need to redefine the rules, not just build something slightly better.”
Dominion over all species great and small, and the Earth, has come to homo sapiens through a ceaseless redefining of the rules—disrupting the routine, playing with fantasy, creating new realities. Ever since the first humans swarmed out of Africa 50,000 years ago, innovation in food gathering, hunting and living allowed them to make homes in rain forests, mountains and deserts.
Innovation, it was widely thought, allowed humans to escape the shredder of natural selection, the survival-of-the-fittest theory postulated by Charles Darwin: Genes of the fittest individuals and species are passed on, the weakest die out. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. For a long time, science believed human evolution stopped about 50,000 years ago when we started using our brains, when our culture of innovation (or innovation of culture) pushed natural selection aside.
Some biologists have been at odds about the gene being the unit of selection, arguing instead that it measures evolution. The late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould said genes registered change in populations, they did not cause change. Another popular biologist and author, Richard Dawkins, insisted that genetic change caused evolution.
So, which comes first, the gene or the change? Do genetic changes spark innovation and cause evolution or does the process of innovation-evolution cause genetic change?
These are important questions in a world whose people—now nearing seven billion—have evolved in different directions but are now inexorably drawn together in a growing global village. It appears that humans are locked into an unending cycle: The faster we innovate, invent and change the world, the faster we need to innovate to cope with the changing world.
Advances in computing and genetics, over the last two years particularly, have allowed scientists to unravel human histories hidden in DNA, the invisible double-helix made of genes that serves as the blueprint of life. US geneticists Robert Myzis and Eric Wang used computational methods to scan vast human genetic banks to find evidence that 7% of human genes had evolved recently, mostly in the last 40,000 years.
To push their theory that human evolution was accelerating, Myzis and Wang ran a computer simulation that matched the rate at which humans diverged from chimps six million years ago with the rates of genetic varation they found over the last 40,000. The difference was 160 times greater than it is.
Hypotheses like these are both exciting and uncomfortable—and might just be wrong.
Uncomfortable because if scientists like Wang and Myzis are correct, racialist theories and stereotypes might grow. Exciting because just as humans became, say, blonde and fair skinned living in colder latitudes (there were no blondes 10,000 years ago), or able to live easily at higher altitudes, like Sherpas and Tibetans, we could well be undergoing genetic changes as we speak.
Technological and biological innovation can merge, as the start of farming 10,000 years ago indicates. Humans kept cows but they could not digest milk. Its main sugar, lactose, made them sick. About 2,000 years later, a genetic mutation in northern Europe began to change that. But lactose intolerance hasn’t disappeared. Farming also created settlements and disease. After dying out in millions initially, some humans now have greater immunity to diseases than others—this changes, of course, as the diseases adapt to our adaptations.
Might we, then, in time, grow bigger, stronger thumbs from texting? Perhaps, if we texted for another century; the coming of the iPad may stop this particular possibility. On the other hand, more humans in cities require spectacles than ever before. It appears we have been straining our eyes since the advent of television—or is it books, or computers, or all three? There are many answers our genes have yet to yield.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 09 26 PM IST