To be human is to adapt

The pace of innovation may be accelerating, but our ability to adapt to the latest technologies remains undeterred, according to guest columnist Steve Gullans, managing director of Excel Venture Management.

Technology is not an obstacle to humanity. Humans evolve — behaviourally, physically, morally, biologically.

Over many millennia, humans migrated around the globe adapting to changing climates, predators, foods, pathogens, rival tribes and countless obstacles and opportunities. To be human is to adapt.

Life today bears little resemblance to that of just a couple of centuries ago when life was short, often violent, harsh during long winters, treacherous for pregnant mothers, often light on calories, subject to unexpected plagues, filled with little leisure activity, and miserable in so many ways that most people today do not envy those times.

Thankfully, technology evolves, too. Innovative technologies, created by humans to benefit themselves, are among the principal drivers of changes in the human condition. The Darwinian drive to survive and reproduce has expressed itself in unexpected ways through the human mind, which is always seeking to create, invent, develop, improve and advance. We all know the story: stone tools led to writing, aqueducts, printing, farm implements, heating, electricity, medicines, computers, satellites, gene therapy and more. Today, surviving to adulthood and reproducing occurs with greater certainty than ever, thanks to manmade technologies — antibiotics, nutritious and abundant foods, fertility treatments, C-sections. Manmade technologies have changed our lives, generally for the better.

Consider biotechnology, a young discipline that is beginning to transform disease treatments. When Richard Nixon declared the War on Cancer in 1971, little did we realize that it would require the invention of whole new fields before the prospect of long-term cures could seem within reach. With the development of genetic engineering, molecular imaging, genomics, biomarkers, bio-manufacturing and myriad other technologies, we are now seeing major advances. Cancer therapies are now more targeted, less toxic, and able to prolong life. In the case of rare inborn genetic mutations, personalized gene therapy is now curing children in the EU and China. After a 30-year plateau in US Food and Drug Administration drug approvals, 2014 witnessed a jump in new drugs.

The human mind is finally able to grasp the complexities of our own biology and design solutions. Optimism reigns for treating human diseases.

Lest we get over exuberant, recall that humans have a penchant for pushing innovations another step further – often seeking enhancements to performance or beauty — once something is relatively safe and affordable. Human growth hormone and EPO (which can be used to enhanced sporting performance), Botox, and Lasik corrective eye surgery were all borne from medical applications.

Fortunately, while excesses and mistakes can and do occur, humans historically find a way to co-evolve with new technologies — though it can take time, new legal and moral codes and even contentious debates and struggles. Remember, Socrates rued the rise of writing, as he believed that the art of memory would be lost to future generations. Some towns initially refused electric lighting; 19th century Luddites destroyed early textile machinery; and today many educated people consider Golden Rice (which is a bio-fortified rice that includes beta-carotene) to be evil, though it can prevent blindness in children.

The debates we see today about how modern technology harms our children, ourselves, society and our environment are not new. Somehow humans have found ways to adjust and adapt.

So today, what – if anything – is different? Pace and scale. The pace of innovation is accelerating, as the author and futurist Ray Kurzweil and others note. Technologies arrive at an exponential rate because they build cumulatively upon each other, across disciplines. Moreover, with 7 billion people on earth, new technologies can affect nearly everyone in some way, not to mention the entire planet — global warming, constant electronic engagement, living “too long.”

I believe the human spirit and mind can handle the coming waves of technology. The greatest challenges will require multi-generational, multi-cultural solutions. However, what is most uncomfortable for us today is that humans will need to change — our minds, our bodies, our behaviours, our priorities, our wishes for ourselves and our children.

As in the past, thanks to human imagination and perseverance, we will adopt new ways of modifying ourselves and our world for the better. And since being human means being able to adapt, change course and evolve, we will learn to embrace the change we create – in large part because we will ethically and logically steer the course of our own evolution in ways that are fundamentally human.

About Steve Gullans

Steve Gullans, PhD, is a scientist, author, entrepreneur and investor. The former Harvard professor is co-author of Evolving Ourselves, a witty perspective on human evolution today.

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