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Carl Zimmer Carl Zimmer is the author of several popular science books and writes frequently for the New York Times, as well as for magazines including The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Science, Newsweek, Popular Science, and Discover, where he is a contributing editor. Carl's books include Soul Made Flesh,, Parasite Rex and Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea. His latest book is Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Please send newsworthy items or feedback to blog-at-carlzimmer.com.
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Recent Newspaper & Magazine Articles
."Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don' t "
The New York Times, December 13, 2005

."A Pair of Wings Took Evolving Insects on a Nonstop Flight to Domination "

The New York Times, November 29, 2005

."From the Mouths of Lizards Spew Clues to the Origin of Snake Venom "
The New York Times, November 22, 2005

."In Give and Take of Evolution, a Surprising Contribution From Islands"
The New York Times, November 22, 2005

."Down For the Count "
The New York Times, November 8, 2005

."The Neurobiology of the Self "
Scientific American, November 2005

."Can Chimps Talk? "
Forbes.com, October 24, 2005

."DNA Studies Suggest Emperor Is Most Ancient of Penguins "
The New York Times, October 11, 2005

."The History of Chromosomes May Shape the Future of Diseases "
The New York Times, August 30, 2005

."Building a Virtual Microbe, Gene by Gene by Gene "
The New York Times, August 16, 2005


Soul Made Flesh
A 2004 New York Times Notable Book of the Year

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"...among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters, heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad."
--Moby Dick


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Florida, Where The Living Is Contradictory

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The Loom
October 06, 2003
Dreams of a Eugenicist Planet?Email This EntryPrint This Entry
Posted by Carl Zimmer

Ask and ye shall receive. In a recent post on eugenics, I claimed that the connection between early 20th century genetics and early 21st century genetic engineering was weak. I asked if anyone thought I was wrong, and in no time I got a comment from Razib at Gene Expression.

He suggests that I'm limited by conventional preconceptions, taking issue on both my points--first about the prospects of engineering intelligence and second about the prospects of a new species of engineered humans. I think he's got a stronger argument on the first point than the second.

On the first point, Razib argues that it wouldn't be as hard as I think to engineer more intelligence. I said maybe thousands of genes would have to be tinkered with, and he pointed out that if individual genes typically accounting for around 1% of variation, then it shouldn't take thousands of genes to engineer significantly brighter people. OK--I'll give in on the thousands, although nobody can really say what the exact number is. But even with hundreds (or even dozens) of genes, you're still dealing with a level of complexity that dwarfs anything I've seen reported in this area, even in mice. And if I'm blindered by conventional preconceptions, then at least I'm in good company. Here's an essay Steven Pinker wrote last summer that lofts the same bucket of cold water.

On the second point--making a new species--Razib thinks that you could get enough barriers up around the new population of engineered humans to get speciation. He writes:

"...those barriers can be social, if some religious nutsos decided to create biphallic sons, there would be issues with these sons being able to get mates from the mono-phallic majority. Additionally, GE [genetic engineering] would by its very nature alter the ground rules for speciation as mutation in the context of genetic drift and natural selection plus physical barriers thrown up by geography, etc. might not be the only sources of reassortment & segregation of genes within a population...."

It's true that barriers can be social--songbirds develop new tunes that make them sexy only to certain females, for example. But you still need some serious isolation to get them singing a new song before you bring the new population back in touch with the old one. (Like putting them on another island for a while.) Otherwise, the differences just wash out. I suppose you can try to imagine some Dr. Moreau engineering men with twin-penises (along with bivaginal women, I guess?), but it just shows how far you have to go into X-Files territory to make an argument for speciation. Genetic engineering is certainly a form of mutation that the world has never really seen before. But that doesn't mean that it cancels all the rules about how new species form.

Category: Evolution


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