Clint Witchalls. 28 Feb 2011. Biology Nobelist: Natural selection will destroy us. NewScientist.
We have evolved traits that will lead to humanity’s extinction, says Christian de Duve – so we must learn to overcome them
We are the most successful species on the planet, but you think we will ultimately pay the price for this success. Why?
The cost of our success is the exhaustion of natural resources, leading to energy crises, climate change, pollution and the destruction of our habitat. If you exhaust natural resources there will be nothing left for your children. If we continue in the same direction, humankind is headed for some frightful ordeals, if not extinction.
You think that natural selection has worked against us. How?
Because it has no foresight. Natural selection has resulted in traits such as group selfishness being coded in our genes. These were useful to our ancestors under the conditions in which they lived, but have become noxious to us today. What would help us preserve our natural resources are genetic traits that let us sacrifice the present for the sake of the future. You need wisdom to sacrifice something that is immediately useful or advantageous for the sake of something that will be important in the future. Natural selection doesn’t do that; it looks only at what is happening today. It doesn’t care about your grandchildren or grandchildren’s grandchildren.
You call this short-sightedness “original sin”. Why did you pick this terminology?
I believe that the writers of Genesis had detected the inherent selfishness in human nature that I propose is in our genes, and invented the myth of original sin to account for it. It’s an image. I am not acting as an exegete – I don’t interpret scripture.
How can humanity overcome this “original sin”?
We must act against natural selection and actively oppose some of our key genetic traits.
One solution you propose is population control, but isn’t this ethically dubious?
It is a simple matter of figures. If you want this planet to continue being habitable for everyone that lives here, you have to limit the number of inhabitants. Hunters do it by killing off the old or sick animals in a herd, but I don’t think that’s a very ethical way of limiting the population. So what remains? Birth control. We have access to practical, ethical and scientifically established methods of birth control. So I think that is the most ethical way to reduce our population.
You also advocate giving more power to women. Why?
Speaking as a biologist, I think women are less aggressive than men, and they play a larger role in the early education of the young and helping them overcome their genetic heirloom.
Are you optimistic about humankind’s future?
I’m cautiously optimistic – very cautiously. I try to be optimistic because I prefer to give a message of hope to young people, to say: you can do something about it. But in the present, there is not much evidence that this is happening.
Christian de Duve is professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium and Rockefeller University, New York. In 1974 he co-won a Nobel prize for his work on cellular structure. His latest book, Genetics of original sin, is published by Yale University Press