July 13, 2003
Sydney Brenner: Biological Evolution Is An Obsolete Technology

Speaking at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne Australia Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner says biological evolution is obsolete.

Another laureate, Professor Sydney Brenner, who helped crack the DNA code, told the 2750 at the conference that biological evolution was an obsolete technology. "The brain is more powerful than the genome."

By this he means random generation of mutations which then get sorted thru by natural selection and survival of the genes which optimize reproductive fitness. As far as humans are concerned he is not right quite yet. But in another 20 or 30 years he will be. Natural selection is still happening in humans right now. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by analysis of data from the Australian Twin Registry (ATR) published a couple of years ago in Evolution, the genetic variations for higher intelligence and delayed childbearing are being selected against in industrialized societies.

University-educated women have 35% lower fitness than those with less than seven years education, and Roman Catholic women have about 20% higher fitness than those of other religions.

In spite of the fact that the results are consistent with what we see happening around us in our regular lives one of the researchers who co-authored the paper professed to be surprised by the results.

“I was staggered by the results we got,” said Dr Owens. “When we decided to control for these factors, I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of it. I thought, ‘let’s just run with the analysis’. But there was a massive difference in the number of children born to families with a religious affiliation. Many of the Catholic twins we studied had an average family of five children, where other families were having only one or two children.

“We also found that mothers with more education were typically having just one child at an older age. Their reproductive fitness was much lower than their peers who left school as early as possible. Again, and again, our analyses for these two factors came back with the same results.”

The researchers who published the study did not even mention the word "intelligence" but the conclusions are pretty plain to see. I expect higher intelligence to be selected against for the foreseeable future. The first change that might begin to swing the trend back toward selection for higher intelligence may come as a result of cheap DNA sequencing. When the genetic variations for higher intelligence are identified and it becomes cheap to check a prospective mate for genetic potential for producing high intelligence offspring then some people are going to start using the results of such tests as guides when choosing mates. As I've discussed in previous posts, cheap DNA sequencing will also increase the incentive for women to use sperm bank sperm.

The next big change will probably come when it becomes possible to do germ line genetic engineering to give one's progeny genetic variations that enhance intelligence. Then the vast bulk of all genetic changes that get introduced into progeny will be placed there as a result of conscious human intent and not as a result of the occurrence of random mutations. At that point we will be able to say that biological evolution by natural selection on randomly generated mutations will be obsolete.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 July 13 02:44 PM  Biotech Society


Comments
Fly said at July 13, 2003 4:40 PM:

A few random thoughts:

Pre-birth evolutionary selection may play a critical role in keeping the germ cell line young and strong. Sperm competes to fertilize eggs. The maturation of egg cells is a competition among egg cells. The successful development of a fetus before birth is a selective process. Biological evolution is still important for humans.

The “Marching Morons”: Intelligent people have fewer children than average. That does not imply that intelligence is being “bred” out. Retarded people have almost no children. Thus the extremes have low reproduction rates. Based on IQ tests the average intelligence of the world populace has increased every decade since measurements began. (See Flynn Effect.)
I agree with the statement, "The brain is more powerful than the genome." However I don’t expect gene selection for intelligence will be a significant factor in human evolution. Gene array analysis that correlates gene activity with intelligence will lead to the discovery of critical genes. The role these genes play in intelligence will lead to developing enhancement therapies as compensation for disease and aging.

Brain “pacemakers” developed to prevent epileptic seizures, silicon retinas, and hearing aids will lead to bio-mechanical brain enhancements. Perhaps localized drug dispensing will allow us to optimize our brain function for learning, creativity, focus, etc. (The army will be an early adapter for such technology, e.g. Modafinil.)

I believe each individual will undertake a personal evolution. The starting genome won’t matter that much in the long run. The people who refuse to “upgrade” will be left far behind.


Randall Parker said at July 13, 2003 5:31 PM:

Fly, meiosis makes the cells young again. Then most serious defects cause spontaneous abortion.

Flynn Effect: It is not measuring a real increase in intelligence. If it was we'd be living in a great Renaissance age as Flynn himself has pointed out. I think Richard Lynne (Lynn?) attributes the effect in Japan back in the 1950s to increased nutrition. But most of the recent stuff is probably due to environmental influences on specific mental skills that do not translate into making more geniuses.

The retarded who do not reproduce: But they are a small percentage of those who are below average in IQ. It is not just a problem with extremes not reproducing. The curve shows a gradual decline in reproduction as a function of educational attainment.

Yes, drugs and other devices will help eventually. But right now real meaningful IQ is declining.

Fly said at July 14, 2003 8:52 AM:

Meiosis resets the epigenetic factors and then new tissue formed through mitosis eliminates aging factors such as molecular cross-linkage and accumulated cellular junk. However neither process would fix the accumulated DNA damage in the nucleus and mitochondria of the germ line cells. (Germ cells have extra DNA repair mechanisms but some damage still occurs.) As a gamete, sperm have only a single copy of each gene. Hence most of those genes have to function properly for the sperm to be viable. Sperm genes are exposed to the selection pressure during the fertilization process. A similar (though much less intense) selection process occurs in egg cell maturation. Properly functioning mitochondria are critical to gamete success so mitochondria DNA also undergo evolutionary selection. Thus the subset of the human genome required for cell function may be kept free of many harmful mutations by competition among gametes to form a fertilized egg.

While genes that play no role before birth may be under little selective pressure in modern society, biological selection may still be important in maintaining human genome quality.

If the above pre-birth selection process does play a major role, how might that affect cloning or stem cell therapy? Perhaps the success rate for cloning is inherently limited. Perhaps copies are degraded. (Especially if a non-germ adult cell is the DNA source.)

Stem cell therapy using old stem cells might not rejuvenate old tissue. Rejuvenation might require embryonic stem cells. (Telomere length also plays a role in stem cells.)


I thought we were living in a ”great Renaissance age”. :) Kidding aside, I agree the intelligence distribution is changing. Perhaps environmental factors are compensating for negative genetic factors on the low end of the curve so average IQ could increase at the same time that the top percentile decreased.

The distribution of human intelligence might not be a dominant factor in a Renaissance effect. Perhaps more important has been the development of “intelligence” augmenting tools such as computers, the Internet, and search engines. Also the worldwide transition from “manual labor” society to “information labor” society has vastly expanded the pool of scientists and engineers. (Consider the foreign names on US research papers. The US is attracting talent from all over the world.)


Randall Parker said at July 14, 2003 3:37 PM:

Fly, as for how efficiently meiosis and the formation of an egg and sperm cause damaged DNA to be weeded out: depends on each gene. Obviously, a gene that doesn't get expressed until some months into a pregnancy is less likely to be found to be defective before serious problems develop. Also, some defects will not prevent an embryo from developing but will cause problems even years down the line. Having a sperm swim to reach an egg and compete with other sperm will not catch those defects.

Just what is the mutation rate in stem cells that create sperm? We now know that with the rising age of a male the odds of having a defective baby rises. But the rise is not extreme. Why is that? We don't know.

Degraded clones: Well, if DNA sequencing becomes really really cheap then one thing that will be done when taking cells from a person to make artificial organs is that several cell lines from several separately isolated starting cells will be grown up and DNA sequenced. It will be possible to choose a cell line that has no defects that will affect what it will be used for. It will eventually even be possible to do gene therapy on the cell line to fix defects that the person was even born with.

Old stem cells: Telomere length will be able to be restored. Some defects will be fixable. Though big deletions will be a reason not to use a particular cell. Keep in mind that we have millions or billions of stem cells each. Some are in good shape. It is just a matter of finding ones that are in relatively better shape, doing some repairs on their DNA, and then using them to grow up large numbers of replacements.

Intelligence augmentation: Certainly computers that increase the productivity of the best minds are speeding up the rate of progress. But that doesn't change popular culture. It doesn't decrease the amount of social pathology.

One thing to keep in mind about the Renaissance is who was footing the bill: the upper classes were the dominant source of funds for artists and musicians. Today the masses are.

Fly said at July 14, 2003 10:38 PM:

“Well, if DNA sequencing becomes really really cheap then one thing that will be done when taking cells from a person to make artificial organs is that several cell lines from several separately isolated starting cells will be grown up and DNA sequenced. It will be possible to choose a cell line that has no defects that will affect what it will be used for. It will eventually even be possible to do gene therapy on the cell line to fix defects that the person was even born with.“

I believe this individualized approach will be very expensive for the next several decades. I’m hopeful that a cruder approach will suffice for the near term. By analogy to the sperm competition for fertilizing an egg, perhaps stem cells could be filtered through competition to select the least damaged. Would such a stem cell in some sense be younger than the average stem cell?

Another approach would be universal stem cell lines whose quality would be carefully maintained. Perhaps engineered for specific enhancements and extra DNA repair enzymes. The cells might be engineered to avoid presenting surface features stimulating rejection. Or a person’s immune system might be retrained to accept the cells. (Over time, cell by cell, one might become a different person.) I believe such stem cell therapy will be available as treatment for various diseases within a decade. Within two decades it should be common and cheap.

Age-Related Stem Cell Loss Prevents Artery Repair And Leads To Atherosclerosis
http://dukemednews.org/news/article.php?id=6765

“It doesn't decrease the amount of social pathology.”
Better understanding of the human brain should lead to better diagnosis of mental illness and much more effective treatment. Chronic depression or insanity should become rare.

I am not suggesting the future will be a utopia. I expect many of the disasters we predict today will never come to pass but will be replaced by more frightening worries. The future should be very strange. Embrace change and be glad that tomorrow’s “happiness” pill will work great. :)

Randall Parker said at July 15, 2003 5:45 PM:

Fly, Expensive individualized approach: No, it will be cheap. DNA sequencing will drop by successive orders of magnitude once it gets done using microfluidics and nanopore technology. Ditto for sorting thru cells and isolating good ones.

Stem cell competition: won't work for testing genes that are not expressed in stem cells. Since a large number of genes are not expressed until cells differentiate one really does need to use some sort of DNA sequencing or assaying technology to check for errors. But it will be cheap. So that is not a problem.

nectarflowed said at September 18, 2004 4:09 PM:

Regarding the flynn effect, although it might "not translate into making more geniuses" that directly contribute to the evolution of science and technology, it does seem that it could translate into making the entire economy more productive through the general population doing their jobs and managing their lives with slightly increased efficiency and productivity. And "deep capital markets better enable financial resources to flow toward promising but unproven technologies (www.progress.org)."

nectarflowed said at September 18, 2004 4:53 PM:

Now that I think about it, my above post was actually referencing your guys' discussion on one of the longevity articles on economies acting at least partially as "multi-sum" games, in which everyone benefits when one person increases their productivity, as opposed to acting simply as a "zero-sum" game.

Todd said at June 12, 2005 1:03 AM:

The researchers who published the study did not even mention the word "intelligence" but the conclusions are pretty plain to see. I expect higher intelligence to be selected against for the foreseeable future. The first change that might begin to swing the trend back toward selection for higher intelligence may come as a result of cheap DNA sequencing. When the genetic variations for higher intelligence are identified and it becomes cheap to check a prospective mate for genetic potential for producing high intelligence offspring then some people are going to start using the results of such tests as guides when choosing mates. As I've discussed in previous posts, cheap DNA sequencing will also increase the incentive for women to use sperm bank sperm.

The next big change will probably come when it becomes possible to do germ line genetic engineering to give one's progeny genetic variations that enhance intelligence. Then the vast bulk of all genetic changes that get introduced into progeny will be placed there as a result of conscious human intent and not as a result of the occurrence of random mutations. At that point we will be able to say that biological evolution by natural selection on randomly generated mutations will be obsolete.

Man, nothing is being selected for or against. Nothing that you quoted suggests that there is selection. Sydney Brenner is correct still in his statement that natural selection has ceased to be a factor really in human dealings. I don't know of any biologists who would say that intelligence can be selected for or against in this day and age. (partly because "intelligence" as a word means nothing to a biologist because you have to be able to quantify it and there are countless ways to quantify intelligence...none of which are "right".) Plus the logistics of what you propose will be a nightmare both economically and technically. anyway there are major flaws up there...

don't know why i'm commenting now...perhaps it's because someone linked your article and it got me thinking.

Juan M. del Solar said at September 9, 2005 7:24 PM:

More than a comment this is an straight forward question that seeks an straight forward and relevant answer: Is it possible in the actual state of Science and Bio-technology, to permanently turn the average intelligence brain of an existing adult into a super intelliget one, by using embrionic stem cell therapy, genetic engineering and/or nano biotechnology only and one without resorting to any artificial intelligence electronic enhancement aditament or devise? I would appreciate your answer as I would like to increase my intelligence, memory and speed of my brain as much as possible. (Just in case you are not able to access the given personal information I repeat it, my E-mail address is: marcentaurus1@hotmail.com) Anticipated thanks and regards.
Sincerely, Juan M. del Solar

Randall Parker said at September 9, 2005 8:10 PM:

Juan M. del Solar,

It is not yet possible right now to use stem cells to boost intelligence. But genetically modified stem cells probably will eventually be able to enhance intelligence.

Also, I expect gene therapy and therapies based on nanotechnologies to also eventually provide ways to raise intelligence.

Dey said at April 15, 2007 8:45 PM:

How quickly you guys leapt to the cost factor in Brenner's suggestion that "cheap DNA sequencing will also increase the incentive for women to use sperm bank sperm." It sounded for a moment like 'C'mon Wal-Mart Shoppers! Invest now! High-Minded Sperm Half Price Today!'

Under Natural Selection, males got to make the choice by winning an Easter-egg contest.

Under UnNatural Selection, under civilization invented largely by men, females still didn't get to make a unilateral choice except in attaining an embryo veto. Under UnNatural Selection females remain only the quantifying sex, determining sheer numbers of offspring; it is still males who are the qualifying sex, largely determining adaptive fitness.

Now, just because genetic analysis of spermatazoa will be 2-for-1 cheap and available at the mall, females will assume total, unilateral control of reproduction and gain a monopoly on the gene pool? Isn't scrapping Natural Selection utterly taking UnNatural Selection a bit less seriously than its history of civilization suggests?

I should think that men concerned with fitness, if they are not brain dead and without any fight-or-flight response left, that men hopeful of maintaining ownership of the civilization which they invented, that men with any intelligence left at all, would be alarmed at the idea of turning over exclusive reproductive choice to wannabe moms and the sales-promotion staff at Wal-Mart. This is the sex that spends more sexual fitness planning its weddings than on its marriages.

Just what great 'survival advantage' will be had if marketing mums decide to eliminate the inconvenient male sex altogether in favor of sperm tombs under perpetual care? Half the human population will disappear. That won't be survival of the fittest; that will be suicide of the self-congratulatory.

Nasal Polyps Removal Treatment said at February 11, 2015 7:25 AM:

Where are so called evolutionists? I just wanted to say that the so called evolution theory is completely foolish one... The truth is "The brain is more powerful than the genome.". Visit my website nasal polyps treatment miracle.

Thomas Lam said at April 9, 2015 6:50 AM:

Maybe it's the end goal of evolution. A being made up of energy that we can't understand yet.

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