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The future of our species


The human species as a watershed
Christian de Duve Scientist
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Nevertheless, the advent of the human species is a watershed in this... in this slow evolution, because for the first time in the history of life on earth, beings have appeared that are able to understand nature, understand the nature of life, the nature of the universe – maybe not completely, but at least to understand it well enough to be able to manipulate it. And not just to manipulate it instinctively or unconsciously the way even prehistoric man has done when they started breeding animals and cultivating plants – they didn't... they knew what they were doing, but they didn't really know what could be the consequences of what they were doing – whereas we now... we can manipulate life, and the... the... our planet, the nature of our planet, the properties of our planet, we can manipulate them knowing what we are doing, or at least suspecting what the possible consequences may be, and knowing what the possible consequences may be of what we don't do or what we won't do, and so suddenly life has given rise to people that have reached not only understanding, but responsibility. A responsibility that did not exist before. Lucy could not be responsible for what she did. We are responsible. And so in a way the future of life and the future of our planet is in our own hands, and our hands are governed by our own brains, and so it will depend on... very much on what we and our children, our grandchildren, and future generations are going to do with the power that our generation... my generation has given the power to manipulate life. It didn't exist when I was a student and suddenly it exists. So what will they do with this power is a... is a major problem and, as I said before, there is the danger that natural selection may have in fact privileged intelligence when it... it favoured the advent of human beings with their bigger and bigger brains; privileged intelligence to understand and manipulate, but not because it wasn't needed at that time. Not the wisdom necessary to manage the fruits, the products of the intelligence. That kind of wisdom was probably not needed by prehistoric man or by Lucy or by those intermediate forms. All... all that was useful for them and what was retained by natural selection was to be intelligent, to be bright, to be crafty.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: human species, evolution, intelligence, brain, natural selection, responsibility

Duration: 3 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008