Peace negotiator, biomass mapper, transformational economist, high technopriest, and TED circuit superstar, Juan Enriquez has worn a lot of seemingly disparate hats in his time.
But when I ask him how all these strands come together in his mind, he replies by asking me how many US presidents I can think of who were buried under the same flag under which they were born.
Now, I can’t say American presidential history was high on the agenda at school in England. Luckily, Enriquez is being rhetorical.
“The answer is exactly zero,” he continues before explaining that it was an abiding interest in why countries survive or disappear – apparently 75% of the flags that fly at the UN were not there 75 years ago - that began his trip down the fascinating rabbit hole that is the Life of Juan. Warming to his subject, Enriquez jumps back in time.
“If you’d projected 300 years of British history and said, ‘okay here’s a map of the world with the British Empire in 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900’ and you’d asked Robert Cecil, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Marquis of Salisbury, where he thought the map on his wall was going to go 50 years later, it’s conceivable he might not have said it’s going to go from a million square miles to 89,000. Right?” Enriquez pauses before delivering the pay-off. “So, the basic lesson of this is it’s not the big and powerful that survive, it’s those best able to adapt and adopt. To quote Darwin.”
Instead, he insists entirely reasonably, it’s the smart and the flexible who thrive. People, institutions, corporations and nations that are not so wed to their conception of themselves – to the who, the what and the why they are – that they are unable to see the future coming and so do what it takes to be riding the train when it leaves the station.
It is to find out a bit more about one of those trains – Life Sciences, which according to Enriquez is probably going to be the biggest revolution in human history - that I am sitting here in the offices of his company, Excel Medical Ventures, up on the 28th floor of Boston’s Prudential Tower. The venture-capital firm that helped fund Synthetic Genomics, creators of the world’s first completely synthetic organism earlier this year, Excel is proof that Enriquez is prepared to bet on his beliefs.
So what are Life Sciences? Simply put, it’s the collective term used to describe the study of living organisms and increasingly, the ways they can be re-engineered. An umbrella term, it covers a staggering array of disciplines, many of which have only just been (or indeed still are in the process of being) created and which have sprung out of the junctures between medicine, botany, pharmacology, information technology, genetics, psychology, mechanics, imaging, ethics, ecology and a whole host of other discipline, many of which come prefixed with a ‘bio’.
Taking up where the Digital Revolution left off, Life Sciences is the process of writing in genes and proteins rather than 1’s and 0’s, of re-engineering the blocks of life to do whatever we want them too – whether that is increase milk productivity in cows, create new sources of fuel or grow healthy new hearts.
According to Enriquez, the revolution this discipline is in the process of unleashing is not only going to make the rapid change ushered in by the Digital Revolution seem glacial in comparison, it is going to refashion every aspect of our lives. Including life itself. From the way we age, sicken and eventually, how and when we die (or don’t) to the way we make things, grow food, think, communicate. Even the provenance of the clothes we wear.
“We can now ‘grow’ skin without having to grow the body, which means you’ll be able to make incredible leather without having to grow the cow or the alligator,” he continues. “When we engineer specific yeast to make specific breads, retroviruses to cure AIDS, horses to run faster and when we begin to engineer ourselves through plastic surgery, gene therapy, antibiotics, through a whole series of things, we are fundamentally changing who and what we are.”
And if that sounds like the stuff of science fiction, that may just be because unlike Enriquez, you haven’t really been paying attention. While Life Science’s full potential is far from having been revealed (or realised), all of Enriquez’s current projections are extrapolations of what is already possible.
For example, when he talks, as he does, about regrowing limbs, joints and eventually, complex organs, he’s basing his projections on work already underway. The first iterations of lab-grown skin are already in use in hospitals, the first lab-grown bladders and oesophagi have already been implanted and stem cell therapy has already proven capable of regrowing missing muscle tissue, of fixing some basic heart defects and of alleviating simpler spinal injuries. None of which we could do just five years ago.
Cures for blindness and an end to physical disability in general coupled with the gradual eradication of some of the world’s biggest killers, like heart disease and cancer will not only extend our lives – conservatively, Enriquez expects a doubling of life spans over the next century, much like the doubling that occurred during our grandparents’ time - but he further sees these transformations as the beginning of our transition from Homo Sapien into another species altogether.
“Putting together machine and body parts, beginning to grow organs, beginning to do transplants on a different scale, eventually beginning to download the brain, there’s a whole series of things where I think in small, discrete chunks, we change ourselves,” he explains, adding that like compound interest, it's the accumulation of those changes that eventually makes us all something quite different. “It’s not one country, it’s not one person, it’s not one field of study, it’s hundreds of thousands of small experiments going on to cure problems that when you bring them all together, means our grandchildren are probably going to be the beginning of a different species.”
Sound loopy? Then consider the fact that there were at least 20 other known species of human before us. Enriquez sees no logical reason why that process should stop with us, especially now that we are taking such an active role effecting change. Indeed, he believes that to posit H. Sapiens 2012 as the alpha and omega not only ignores history but is disappointingly arrogant.
“Maybe the point of a trillion stars, a sextillion planets, 14 billion years of history, 4 billion years of Earth and 20 versions of humans, is to create Pamela Anderson. That would be really depressing because it means that everything out there has now flat-lined, there will never be any improvement over what we’ve got,” he explains. “I find that viewpoint mildly arrogant. It tells you that God - if you believe in God - has reached his full potential, or her full potential, with us. Boy, is that an arrogant statement. That God cannot do better than us.”
God (whether you believe or not) could have a significant effect on the Life Sciences revolution. Not everyone will be prepared to accept the changes the revolution is about to usher in, many out of a belief that humankind is tampering with the province of the divine. This is why Enriquez further views the emergence of Sapien 2.0 (or as he prefers, Homo Evolutis) as a manifold event with some societies accepting all the fruits of the Life Sciences, while others do not, or cherry-pick in the name of tradition, culture or religion.
“For better and for worse, we’re going to engineer a whole bunch of stuff,” Enriquez says, winding down. “We’re going engineer organisms to hold information, to cure disease, to make fish food, to make fuels, all on a massive scale.”
Every time we take a quantum leap forward as a species, the prophets of doom begin howling. We may not have fully ingested the impact of the Digital Revolution – or for that matter the Industrial – but Life Sciences has already started changing the world. Horn of Plenty? Pandora’s Box? Hold on, because if Juan Enriquez is even half right, we’ve just hopped on one hell of a ride.
Originally published in Bespoke
Photo © Juan Enriquez