Juan Enriquez: Evolving Ourselves

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  • From left, David Kirkpatrick and Juan Enriquez

  • Juan Enriquez

  • From left, David Kirkpatrick and Juan Enriquez

  • From left, David Kirkpatrick and Juan Enriquez

Speaker

Juan Enriquez
Managing Director, Excel Venture Management

Interviewer

David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy


Kirkpatrick: Juan Enriquez is a scientist, an explorer, peace negotiator, a philosopher, a serial author of books, not just this new one about evolving ourselves and how we’re really changing the nature of evolution—which is for sale out there, by the way. But, what was the one you did about nation states breaking up? What was that called?

Enriquez: “The Untied States of America”

Kirkpatrick: “Untied States of America.” Was that the one that was written in verse? Yes. He wrote it in verse and it was about basically a trend that really has proven to be quite real since he wrote it about a decade ago, which was the devolution of the world in to far more states than we had previously had. It’s just continuing to happen. So, Juan did write this book which is quite a radical set of ideas, but why do you summarize, Juan, the basic point of evolving ourselves? I mean, it’s sort of self-explanatory, but it isn’t. I mean, you take it a lot further than one would expect. Why did you write the book and what was the main point of it?

Enriquez: So over the last six years, I’ve been going crazy trying to figure out how all these pieces fit together. Just in a Facebook feed about an hour ago, I read that now bacon is considered good for you. And you look at the stuff and you read a study about how people whose mothers use washing machines have more allergies than mothers who wash dishes by hand and you read about incredible increase in the rates of autism. And your grandparents probably didn’t ask their guests whether they had allergies. You know, it just wasn’t common. When I was in college, you never went to a restaurant and they asked you about allergies.

So there’s all these little bits that are independent bits that are kind of floating out there and they come at you every day. And for the last six years I’ve been trying to figure out, okay, how in the world do you put a framework around this stuff and how do you start to make sense of this constantly shifting world? And I ended up with one very simple concept, which is life evolves. And then I challenged myself with a truth and a dare. And the truth is the following. It’s not the Christian right that’s killing Darwin, it’s scientists. And let me explain that for a minute. Life for 4 billion years evolved on this planet based on natural selection and random mutation. And natural selection means survival of the fittest and you have all these niches and things kind of coexist. And you know, think about that in today’s context.

So for half of the surface of the earth, we decide, we want a city right here. We want our gardens right here, we want our wheat right here, we want our corn right here, we want our wheat paddies right here, rice paddies, and we want our cattle over here. So for half the surface of the earth, what lives and dies isn’t natural selection and that’s unnatural selection. The other thing that’s happened over the last forty years, in part because of what’s happened in Boston and in San Francisco and San Diego and Baltimore, is we’ve taken this casino of genes, where some people end up with six toes or six fingers or whatever, and we’ve made it very deliberate. So after [INDISCERNIBLE 0:03:36.2], what we’ve done is we’ve taken genes and we’ve said, “I would like to insert a gene into bacteria to do this. I would like to insert a gene into a plant to do that, I’d like to insert a gene into an animal to do that, and I’d like to cure this human disease based on this.”

And that is not random mutation, if you wanted to pick a random phrase, that’s intelligent design. Just to pick a random phrase and be non-controversial. So what you’re doing with this stuff is you’re taking the theory of evolution and you’ve got this evolutionary system that’s worked for 4 billion years and then you’ve created a parallel evolutionary system that operates and lives and dies depending on what humans want and mutates according to what humans want. And that’s the exact opposite of Darwin’s system. And when you begin to look at systems, when you begin to figure out, okay, so why all of the sudden do we have these epidemics of autism, why do we have epidemics of obesity? Why are we living so much longer? Why are the elderly so much healthier? Why are all these changes occurring?

We’re running an absolutely gigantic experiment on life on this planet, as a whole, because of what we’re doing. Which leads to a dare. We have to dare to recognize that we are increasingly in charge of the evolution, of bacteria, of plants, of animals, and ourselves. We have to understand that we’ve created a parallel evolutionary system, and if we accept that, then we have to take responsibility for what we’re doing. And that leads to enormous changes in government, in ethics, in morals, in business, in which countries are rich, which countries are poor, and what all of you are going to work in. And I think that’s the biggest single challenge for humanity today. So that’s why I wrote the book.

Kirkpatrick: That was a good dense beginning.

[LAUGHTER]

Kirkpatrick: Incorporate into that this thing about allergies, because I think people need to understand a little bit what your thinking is there. What is your macro point about why there are so many allergies now, given what you just said about, we are more or less in control?

Enriquez: So, look. I mean some of you have been lucky enough to have been in the Galapagos, and the shocking thing about the Galapagos is they’re little deserts, and all the islands are so close together. You can’t imagine how things evolve in such an austere environment. But even in this tiny little austere environment, what the Grants found is that evolution occurs in real time. So you tweak the climate a little bit, you tweak the food a little bit, you tweak the predators a little bit, you tweak the diseases a little bit. And you get different forms of finches, and you get different forms of tortoises, and you get different forms of this.

What you have to understand is we have gone from being a primarily rural species to being an urban species on a majority of the planet in less than a century. We have completely changed our diet. We have completely changed our predators. We’ve completely changed what diseases we die of. Of the top 10 in Darwin’s time, almost none of those is on the top 10 list today. So as we change these environments in such radical ways, what would be shocking is if we didn’t evolve. And in that system, allergies becomes a symptom of rapid evolution. It’s a reaction to an environment, and maybe it’s a reaction sometimes to chemicals, because we’re putting five hundred to a thousand chemicals out there a year. And the American Chemical Association can’t tell you how many chemicals are out there, because it’s hard as hell to keep track of all this innovation.

Maybe it’s a reaction to being excessively clean because humans have domesticated themselves. We’ve domesticated ourselves just as dogs and cats have. We’ve had peace, and if you take white New Englanders, 1650-1800. Your chances of being murdered as a white New Englander, not so an African American, not so a Hispanic, but as a white New Englander, you had one eighth the chances of being killed in 1800s as you did in 1650, and that trend has continued to come down. So the Boston combat zone is now the funky theater district. And 42nd Street, which was not a nice place to walk in the 1980s, is now, you know, a Disneyfied Times Square.

Kirkpatrick: Wait, now you’re losing me on the allergies.

[LAUGHTER]

Kirkpatrick: Tie that back to the allergies.

Enriquez: So allergies are your own bodies reacting and having an allergic reaction to this absolutely massive change. So if you take an enormous variety of plants, and you cut them down into a few plants that have a lot of pollen, then you can have a pollen reaction. If you take environments where we grew up in incredible amounts of dirt and you make them absolutely pristine, your immune system can come after yourself. If you put chemicals into the environment that we haven’t been exposed to, you can have an allergic reaction.

So there isn’t a cause of an allergy, there isn’t one thing that’s driving allergies, there are just these myriad of inputs that are driving a common reaction in your body that manifests as an allergic reaction. And in a weird way, obesity is also a flip side of allergies. Let me explain that. So part of obesity is absolutely caused by too many Twinkies and too little exercise. But why are twelve different species of animals getting obese.

Kirkpatrick: That’s a fact?

Enriquez: That’s a fact.

Kirkpatrick: What are some of those species?

Enriquez: So the weird thing is, you’d understand why the highest rate of reimbursement on pet insurance is a consequence of pet obesity. Because we feed them our scraps and we don’t exercise enough. Okay I’ve got it. Why are lab rats getting obese?

Kirkpatrick: That’s a trend?

Enriquez: That’s a trend. And so are lab monkeys. So as a scientist, the last thing you want to do is to change the parameters on which you’re experimenting. Why would you let lab rats get obese? Why are birds getting obese? Why are wild, grass fed horses getting obese?

Kirkpatrick: Okay, what’s the answer?

[LAUGHTER]

Enriquez: So, again like allergies, there isn’t one answer. There are so many changing parameters that are leading to an evolution, and let me give me give you a couple of those parameters. One of the reason why we use 80% of the antibiotics today not to cure human disease but on things like chickens and farm animals is because if you feed them in sub therapeutic doses, the weight goes up. So you’re not trying to cure anything, what you’re trying to do is, you’re trying to kill enough of the gut microbiota, and by the way, you’ve got 100 times more non-human cells in your body than you have human cells. And when you kill some of those things, they don’t eat the nutrients, your body absorbs it, and you gain weight. With the quantities of antibiotics that we’re putting out in to the environment, one of the side effects of these run offs is you would begin to see large scale weight gain in animals sub therapeutically exposed to antibiotics.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, one of the things about your book that I found especially amazing and somewhat daunting is the variety of different phenomena you’re simultaneously identifying and you briefly mentioned the pace of evolution in the Galapagos being faster than maybe even Darwin realized, right? And you actually document in the book that epigenetics and other things are showing us that inheritance can really change rapidly over the course of just a few generations. And then you also talk about the multiple genomes that we have, the vibrant—and the interesting thing you were just mentioning about bacteria. I mean, we know we have a lot of bacteria, but we don’t realize we have even more viruses inside our gut and other parts of our bodies. Which are all evolving along with us, and so you were talking about the four genomes, the core DNA, the viral, the microbial, and I forget the fourth one.

Enriquez: The epigenome.

Kirkpatrick: Epigenome, right. That’s what—but part of what’s happening is evolution is speeding up, period, but we’re also taking control of that. Is that the two parallel key things that we should be thinking about?

Enriquez: Yeah, I mean, the most pliable organ in the human body is your brain, right? That’s where you get the greatest plasticity in the shortest period of time. Don’t expect your muscles to rewire at the same speed that your brain rewires—and you’ve written about this. So when you put as much information into a human brain in one day as used to come in during a lifetime—just think of coming out of a cave and seeing the same thing, and looking out for the lion and seeing if there’s something to eat over there and seeing if there’s another tribe, and doing that for a lifetime, versus walking through Times Square, with all of your pocket devices and all the people hassling you and all the people wanting to take a photograph and all the theater things and all of the stock things and all of the music. I mean, it’s just overwhelming amounts of information and data coming in and feeds.

And what’s so interesting about what all of you here are doing is you’re all plugging into this rapid change, but at different levels of this thing, right? We used to think evolution is take the linear gene code, sequence the genome, and then you’ve got evolution. No, not true. There’s a whole lot of places where you can play a four-dimensional or five-dimensional chess with the evolution of your bodies. So what you’ve seen this morning somebody pitching, “Do exercise and it will change this. It will change your brain cognition, it will change your life, it will change this”—well, yes it does. Right? And some other people are saying, “Take probiotics and that will change it.” And other people are saying, “Live a healthier lifestyle and that epigenome will change it.” And some other people are saying, “Well, just go in for gene therapy.”

And basically what all the stories that you heard here this morning are is there are ways of altering your body so that you live longer, live healthier, can do X, can do Y—and you’re just inserting those things at different levels, right? And in a sense you’re evolving yourselves, because when you take a yogurt, when you take a probiotic, when you do meditation, when you do gene therapy, you can begin to stack these interventions to the point—and what’s fascinating about epigenomics, which was a dirty word at the National Academy a decade ago, you couldn’t utter that word, is that it begins to tell you, you can alter, through today’s experiences, the evolution of your kids and their grandkids.

Kirkpatrick: Really quickly, just define epigenetics for people here who don’t know what it is.

Enriquez: So we have a core gene code and what we couldn’t understand is if the difference between ourselves and monkeys is 1.3% of gene code, why are we so different from monkeys? And if there’s no difference in our gene code between ourselves and politicians, why are we such different species?

[LAUGHTER]

Enriquez: And so, as you’re thinking about that, it turns out that it’s not just the linear gene code; it’s like the annotations in a book. So as you read a book, if it’s got annotations in the side, it will completely change the meaning of that book, depending on whether you believe, agree, or disagree.

Kirkpatrick: But you had a great example of the Kids Exchange. What—

Enriquez: Right. Kids Exchange can become Kid Sex Change.

Kirkpatrick: If you have the capital E, it’s Kids Exchange. But if you have a lower case ‘e’ and have a little space in there, it’s Kid sex change, right. So your point is, little changes in what seems to be a standard set of data might actually change everything.

Enriquez: And you can see that, you know, with a common document like the Torah, right? There are so many interpretations of the Torah, and depending on who’s interpreting it, and what the previous annotations are, you’ll end up debating for the next 5,000 years, and the interpretation will continue to change. You’ve done that with Testaments, you’ve done it with all kinds of things.

And the same thing happens to our bodies. So what epigenomics does is, it flips the switches of the DNA—and we discovered this after the Nazis tried to starve out the Dutch, as they were losing the war. And what ended up happening is the babies of these mothers ended up with mental conditions and body conditions because they’d been born during those months—not the ones previous, not the ones after—and the weird thing was, they passed that on to their kids and their grandkids. So these switches flipped that said, “It’s really horrible out here, and prepare yourself.” So exactly the same linear gene code was executed in a different way.

And you see this also with people who emigrate from countries and end up in other countries—even if you emigrate into a country that has a tremendous safety net, like the Nordic countries. Immigrants tend to have much higher rates of schizophrenia, and tend to have a whole series of other conditions that then they pass on to their kids and their grandkids—and what that means is, evolution can happen in real time. And what’s fascinating is now you can take that linear gene code and you can change it. So this year you will have the first human being born to three genetic parents. Okay, that’s a big deal.

Kirkpatrick: It’s legal in the UK, yes.

Enriquez: It’s legal in the UK, and it’s a change that—we’re all kind of going ho-hum, because we’re all sitting here and all this technology is kind of cool—

Kirkpatrick: That was because of one disease—I forget which one. What is it?

Enriquez: It’s a mitochondrial disease, and what happens is that the mitochondria is like the battery that powers the cells, and if you don’t have the right battery, your cells just do horrible things, like—it’s like when you run out of juice on your iPhone, except it kills you.

And so as you’re thinking about this stuff, there’s a very good reason to do that. But once you have that technology—and by the way, the other thing that happened this year is you had the first full uterus transplant leading to a birth. That’s a big deal because it begins to change—I mean, it’s very hard to understand how much sex has changed from our grandparents’ time. Our grandparents did not control when they had babies. Our grandparents did not have surrogate parents. Our grandparents did not freeze eggs, they did not freeze sperm, they did not pick stuff, they did not alter stuff, and they did not have other wombs you could put the stuff into. And we kind of like discuss this stuff over a Starbucks. Should I do IVF? Okay, IVF is a really strange technology.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, I want to intervene, because we have not as much time as I would like. And one of the things we talked about on the phone, was that we had—as you put it—that we’re having a 150-year-old debate about whether evolution is real, instead of the debate we ought to be having, given the facts that you’ve been outlining here.

What is the debate we ought to be having and what is it that we should take away from all these startling things you’ve brought together in this book? In other words, what is the impact that you want to have on the thinking of all of us as a result of assembling this set of ideas?

Enriquez: So we don’t have a good moral, ethical, business, government framework to begin to discuss what it means to take control over life code. And what all of us are doing, in little bits and pieces—it’s not this kind of master Dr. No thinking, what am I going to do with life—it’s all of you. And it’s all of you in different little bits and pieces, so I’m going grow a bone, and I’m going to build a probiotic, and I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that—but all those little bits together allow us to increasingly control the evolution of a bacteria, of a plant, of an animal, of a virus.

I want to cure HIV, so I’m going to create a retrovirus that will insert into your brain and do the following—or insert into your body. Okay, there’s a very good reason to do that. But all these little bits coming together begin to make us the people who drive the evolution of things, to select, this lives and this dies. I like these flowers, I don’t like these flowers. I’m going to protect this creature, I’m not going to protect this creature. I’m going to intervene in human beings.

And probably a fifth of the people who live on this planet today—or maybe more—would not be alive under natural selection system. So the unnatural has been really good to us, okay? People say unnatural, horrible—no. Okay, there is a good reason to put preservatives in foods, because foods used to kill you—and if you don’t believe that, go eat in a Tijuana taco stand, right? And it’s all natural, I guarantee. And it’s not a good idea sometimes.

So there’s a balance in these decisions and there has to be a nuance in the debate, and it’s not that you’re on one side of the debate or other, or you’re for or you’re against—it’s far more complicated than that. And first we have to take responsibility for this. First we have to acknowledge that we are doing this. It doesn’t happen to us.

So just to be non-controversial, on measles. If you choose to vaccinate, you are making a deliberate decision that you, not nature, will decide if your child is naturally selected. If you choose not to vaccinate, you are making a deliberate decision that you’re going to allow the evolution or potential evolution of that virus inside your child or yourself. But that is a deliberate decision with consequences, and you’re not going to blame it on the errors, and you’re not going to blame it on bad luck, and you’re not going to blame it on nature. It’s your choice and choices have consequences—but that’s a very small part of the debate.

Right, we’re talking about what crops, what animals live and die on this planet, how long human beings live, what they can do.

Kirkpatrick: I guess the question that I come back to a lot, though, is—do we have the knowledge to exercise the power that you are very thoroughly documenting that we not only have, but are exercising? I mean, do we—how are we going to know what to do as we move forward and as these capabilities that we’ve been hearing about all day today continue to become much more dramatically transformative? What do you think is going to happen?

Enriquez: So let me get a little bit more far out, as opposed to the stuff we’ve been talking about. We’re betting the entire human species on one planet. Okay, we know there have been five major extinctions on this planet, and I don’t know if it’s super volcanoes, I don’t know if it’s global warming, I don’t know if it’s global cooling, I don’t know if it’s asteroids—I don’t know what it is, but we know that there are periodic extinctions, and we know if we do not get off this planet, we are likely to go extinct, as almost every other species has.

Now, what’s the issue with that? There is no way under a natural evolutionary system that we would ever adapt naturally to another planet, because we’d never have the time to, and we’d never have the evolutionary pressure to. So if you believe in humans, if you believe we should survive, we need to start thinking about much longer life spans, we need to think how to adapt to different gravity—even just to have babies, because the whole thing of this cell begets this cell and that whole chain, if you change the gravity 10% and go live on a place like Mars, maybe that doesn’t work to have children. Maybe you have to have a different radiation environment, maybe you should be studying Deinococcus radiodurans to understand how to restitch if you’re going to be exposed to a whole lot more radiation.

So the survival of humans depends on this bit about being able to evolve ourselves. Getting off this planet depends on—and I’m not talking next generation, grandkids, but, you know, 300 generations out. We can use this power to destroy a lot of things, we can also use it to build a lot of things, and that’s a huge responsibility, and that’s the single biggest responsibility humans have today.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, that was good. I want to take at least one or two questions. You asked a few, so let me give somebody else a chance. Who hasn’t—have you both never asked a question up to now? Okay, he hasn’t asked one, so give the mike to him, and then if we have time, we’ll go to this other guy. Identify yourself.

Audience1: Hi, I’m Andreas [INDISCERNIBLE—0:24:07.5], BioCloud. When I think about what you said in a historical point of view—sometimes we say, for example, right now we have a lot of cancer disease right now, but maybe we never had the data before, you know, like 100 years ago, we talk about a lot of people that died and we talk, all right, he was [INDISCERNIBLE—0:24:24.6], he died, but we don’t have the data, for some assumption that we sometimes do, maybe with the, even with the—what you were talking about, the use of this—so what do you think about that perspective of lack of data?

Enriquez: So, do we have enough data to make an intelligent decision question?

Kirkpatrick: Very related.

Enriquez: You know, the only reasonable answer to that is Yogi Berra, right? If there’s a fork in the road, take it. We’re at the fork in the road, right? You’re not going to turn around at—there was a letter to “Nature” last week that said, “Stop Crisper,” and Crisper’s a really powerful technology, right? You want to alter genes, you can do it, huge basis. So they sent in a letter to “Nature” last week and say, “Stop it.”

Okay, except that for $150 bucks, you can go into a lab at a high school level or a college level and play with Crisper, so how in the hell are you going to stop these technologies? This horse is out of the barn, okay? We know what to do with gene code, we know how to do it on a large scale—Steve Jurvetson can build these things in his garage for $150 bucks.

Kirkpatrick: Oh, high school students—we heard this earlier today, yeah.

Enriquez: Yeah, so as you’re looking at the stuff, what government is going to be able to stop this? Maybe you can stop it over here, maybe you can stop it over here—a more intelligent question is, if you’re faced with these choices, what are you going to do with this enormous power? Because this really is power.

Kirkpatrick: Including the fact that that power is in the hands of virtually every citizen, at least in theory, right? So that’s—that requires a whole new set of, basically a mindset shift, is what you’re saying. Because it’s not a horse that can be brought back in the barn, is your basic point here, right?

Enriquez: But you do have to restructure your government systems. You do have restructure your ethical systems, you know? Your business systems. This is the biggest single change that humans have ever had.

Kirkpatrick: So that’s really why you wrote the book, to just try to get that debate going about the massive change, systemically, that’s going to have to happen in human society, because of all of these changes, as we take control of our own evolution, in effect?

Enriquez: And to give people a framework that they can plug all these disparate stories into, so next time that you read this and you read this and you read this, it’s part of the same process. It’s part of controlling life code.

Kirkpatrick: I will say, reading the book—it’s a lot of short chapters, and every chapter is like, oh my God, I had no idea. And many of you probably—the more biologically knowledgeable—we unfortunately have no time for another question, I apologize—the biologically knowledgeable will find it probably a little less shocking, but there’s—he really brings a lot of stuff together. As a long-time protégé of Craig Venter, which probably helps to explain a little bit of where he got some of these ideas—we didn’t even mention that—he was on, you were on the boat, Venter’s boat going all over pulling the algae out of the ocean, weren’t you?

Enriquez: It was awful. We had to go to the Galapagos, we had to go to Fiji, Tahiti.

Kirkpatrick: So, Juan, thank you so much, really good.

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