Evolution is hard to control — but what if you had a magic wand?
Evolution has given the human bodysome remarkable features and abilities — a powerful brain, a pair of eyes for binocular vision, the ability to heal wounds, and so on. But wouldn't it be nice to have an extra set of arms? Or body parts that could regenerate? Maybe a blowhole so we could swim with our faces down — or gills so we could breathe underwater?
Or maybe you'd like a USB port on your neck so you could connect your brain to digital devices.
If you could wave a wand to change the human body in one specific way — to have a new anatomical feature or physiological or intellectual ability — what would you conjure up? I posed that question to 10 top minds in science and technology. Here, lightly edited, are their fascinating answers.
Bill Nye: Snore-free sleep
Bill Nye, the engineer-turned-science-educator, hosts the Netflix series "Bill Nye Saves the World" and serves as CEO of The Planetary Society. His most recent book is "Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem."
If I could change one thing, one reasonable thing, about us humans, I'd make it a world without snoring. I say reasonable because we'd all like to be able to fly like a superhero: just run a couple steps, and you're airborne. But given our mass and strength, flying seems out of the question. Snoring, on the other hand, seems within reach. With just a subtle anatomical change or two, we could have a snoreless world.
Since we're a product of evolution, I can't help but suspect there's a good reason to snore. Did snoring develop as a means to signal others in our tribe or family group that we're out cold — other tribe members listen for it, and then go to sleep themselves? Or is snoring another one of those evolutionary accidents that hasn't met with enough pressure to be eliminated.
You've almost certainly heard the expression "survival of the fittest." It doesn't refer to organisms that can do the equivalent of the most abdominal crunches or pushups. It means survival of the ones that fit in the best. As a result, there's no pressure in nature to eliminate something that doesn't either kill you outright or prevent you from reproducing. If snoring is a result of an airway that evolved from other airways in other animals produced earlier on the tree of life, but it doesn't kill us, there's no strong reason that natural processes will get rid of it. Snoring might be a leftover thing that is a result of being good enough. I could do without it.
Well, I could do without snoring by anyone else.
Elaine Fuchs: No more mean genes
Dr. Elaine Fuchs is the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at Rockefeller University. She's won multiple awards and is renowned for her research on skin biology and skin disorders.
As a child, I always wanted to fly. The beauty of a butterfly's wings and an eagle soaring in the sky will always be more aesthetically pleasing to my whims than the flying I do now. Alas, airplanes and the wonderfully international community of scientists that causes me to use them frequently have prompted me to shift my thoughts and dreams of growing wings elsewhere.
In 2018, as a molecular geneticist, I'm now more interested to see my magic wand silence the genes controlling three evolutionarily honed, destructive features of human behavior: greed, hate, and aggression. Conversely, the genes controlling creativity, inquisitiveness, and reflection could use a little enhancing, along with the genes controlling compassion.
Emily Cooper: Wi-fi for the brain
Dr. Emily Cooper is on the faculty at Dartmouth College, where she studies human vision and technology.
What if your brain could directly receive visual information from a computer, eliminating the need for physical displays? A wireless system merged into the primary visual cortex would receive and translate images and video sent from any computer or camera. Personal and mobile devices could function without screens — all your visual displays would appear or disappear instantaneously in the mind's eye.
Margaret Geller: Super immune system
Dr. Margaret J. Geller is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a pioneer in the mapping of the universe. She is a MacArthur Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
My dream is a super immune system (SIS) that complements our existing system to prevent and treat heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. These diseases are leading killers in the U.S. and in many other nations. The SIS would detect nascent signs of heart trouble, evidence of an impending stroke, and/or initial wayward cells that could become a serious cancer. It would then produce drugs to treat and cure the problem. These drugs would have no negative side effects.
The SIS would reduce human suffering and would be a step toward universal health insurance for some of the most devastating diseases we face.
Micho Kaku: Bring on the 'brain-net'
Dr. Michio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York and the author of 12 books. His latest is "The Future of Humanity."
By digitally and genetically connecting the brain to computers, the internet will be replaced by the "brain-net," which will transmit our thoughts, emotions, and memories will be sent over the internet.
This would revolutionize society. Movies and TV would become obsolete since the brain net would allow us to feel what the actors feel. Just by thinking, we would be able to surf the web, upload and download memories, learn calculus, and write emails. We would become telepathic and empathic, since we would be able to understand the feelings and hardships of others.
Since our thoughts could control power stations, which can move objects, we would also become telekinetic.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let me see like 'Gordi'
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He's the host of the Fox series "Cosmos" and the author of many books on science topics. His latest is "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry."
I'd like to see artificial evolution, more accurately called genetic engineering, applied to eradicate genetically tagged diseases. These include birth defects as well as cancers one might contract in adulthood. Next, or perhaps simultaneously with that plan, would be the ability to regenerate neurons, and ultimately entire limbs.
I'm not asking for much here. Plenty of other animals can do this — from planaria to newts. For me, anything else would count as entertainment — 12 fingers, three arms, and, yes, gills.I'd also like to see in a much broader bandwidth than "visible" light — like Giordi from "StarTrek: The Next Generation." That is, to be able to selectively see across the entire electromagnetic spectrum — radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.
With such power of vision, our world and the universe would be much more "alive" than we currently perceive it to be.
Priyamvada Natarajan: Built-in crystal ball
Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan is a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale University, where she focuses on obtaining a deeper understanding of dark matter, black holes, and other exotica in the universe. She is the author of "Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos."
After pondering one additional human capability that would be amazing to have, I realize that it's not an extra limb like the pantheon of Indian goddesses or a third eye like Lord Shiva's or a set of wings that would set us free to roam the world. It would be the ability to foresee the future, coupled with the ability to change the course of events. I've always been fascinated with the opening line of T.S. Eliot's poem "Burnt Norton," which reads "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future..." Being able to peer into the future would enable us to see the impact of decisions that we make today. This would be transformative. It would make us superior beings, a species that can use its intelligence optimally.
We would be responsible scientists, as we could see the impact of our discoveries and actions, and more responsible humans, as we would see the impact we have on others and on the environment. Seeing the peril that our planet is in sharply and starkly by getting a glimpse of the future would spark us into action to be better stewards. Having the ability to intervene and alter events would help us make amends, to right wrongs, and perhaps prevent some things from occurring in the first place! Imagine what we could have averted — for instance, the invention of nuclear weapons; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima; devastating earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and storms; and many lethal epidemics that have decimated our species.
We could also go back in time and relive the pleasures that we did not savor enough in the moment and recapture more fully those magical moments.
Scott Solomon: Super recognition powers
Dr. Scott Solomon is a biologist, professor, and science writer. He teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication at Rice University. He's the author of "Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution."
We humans are exceptionally good at recognizing other individual humans. But imagine if we could tell individual species apart. There are around 5 million species alive on the planet. We know almost nothing about most, in part because only a handful of people — experts called taxonomists — can identify them. Many species don't even have names.
Being able to recognize every living thing would have practical benefits. Customs inspectors could tell the harmless stowaways from the next invasive pest. Recognizing microscopic organisms would allow doctors to identify infections without the need for blood tests. Machine learning technology, like that used by the iNaturalist app, is getting better at identifying species for us. But if we could simply recognize them at a glance, perhaps we would treat other species a little better. After all, knowing someone's name makes them seem like less of a stranger and more of a friend.
Seth Shostak: Better color vision
Dr. Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and the author of "Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence."
A lot of my friends think humans are marvels of engineering. My own opinion is that my body is a slipshod design. As anyone over 30 knows, we barely work. Thanks to the four-lobed nature of an ancient fish, we have two arms and two legs — nothing optimal about that. With another pair of hands, I might manage piano duets on my own, but then there would be a tangle of shirtsleeves in my closet.
So while I'm not so keen on more hands, here's a change to our physiology I would welcome: more cones in our eyes. Cones are the receptors that give us color vision, and we have three types — basically red, green, and blue. The fact that we have only three types of cones has been a boon to color photography, TV, and printing. But it means our color vision is miles from being perfect. Shine a red and a green light onto a sheet of paper from far away, and your lyin' eyes will say you're looking at yellow, even though there's no yellow light there at all!
Sure, your eyes make nice sharp images, and you can quickly localize a source of light. Your ears aren't so good at localization, but they can separate out different frequencies, or tones. You can hear chords! If your ears were as bad as your eyes, all the instruments in an orchestra might just as well be playing the same note.
What could we see with eyes that had, say, four color receptors (some shrimp have as many as a dozen)? I don't know. But nature has cheaped out on my eyes, and I for one am sure I'm missing something grand.
Tabetha Boyajian: I want to go 'poof'
Dr. Tabetha Boyajian is a professor of astrophysics at Louisiana State University and the scientist most closely associated with the discovery of a perplexing celestial object called KIC 8462852 (Tabby's star), which sparked speculation that "alien technosignatures" had been discovered.
The ability to "poof" (teleporting without a machine) would be a total game changer. Practically speaking, this would mean no more long (and potentially dangerous and/or expensive) commutes — traffic jams would be a thing of the past.
We would have much more time to do fun things, and the environmental impact would be positively astounding! But overall what I think would be the most exciting about "poofing" would be opportunities to explore remote, exotic places around the world, or possibly even other places in the solar system and beyond.