From Center For Humans & Nature: “What the Planet of the Apes Franchise Teaches Us About Evolution”

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Center For Humans & Nature

9.20.17
William B. Miller, Jr. M.D.

The Planet of the Apes series is one of the most successful franchises in Hollywood history. Since 1968, and over the course of six attention-grabbing movies, nearly 2 billion dollars has flowed from audiences to Hollywood.

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War for the Planet of the Apes is a 2017 American science fiction film directed by Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Let Me In; Cloverfield) from a screenplay co-written with Mark Bomback (Total Recall; The Night Caller).

In the most recent films of that series, the narrative begins with ALZ-12, a drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. In the movie, that drug was based on a specific type of virus, known as a retrovirus. Retroviruses easily infect cells but can also make a special copy of their own DNA that can be inserted into a genome, which is our basic central system of heredity. In the case of the apes that were exposed to the drug, the retrovirus used in the drug successfully inserts into their DNA and they are permanently and dramatically changed.

Sounds like a great science fiction plot, right? Not entirely. This type of retroviral infection has happened throughout evolutionary history. It’s even happening right now. For example, HIV is a retrovirus. Another example, is Koala retrovirus, which is very similar to HIV. An important difference, especially if you are a Koala, is that this particular retrovirus has successfully inserted itself into the Koala genome and is now a part of their heredity DNA. This is a particular surprise since it has only been a very few years that we have been aware that this type of infectious insertion could happen and an instance of it has already been documented in real-time.

Over the course of evolution, we, as humans, have not been spared. There is substantial evidence of overwhelming viral contributions to our human genome. It has been estimated that as much as 50% our genome can be considered viral in origin with at least 9% of it known to be specifically retroviral in origin.

In the most recent movie in the franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, a worldwide retroviral infection proves a boon to the apes. Non-human primates, and particularly the apes, became smarter and stronger. They gain the ability to speak. Their reflexes and endurance are improved. Even their eye color is changed. The outcome for the humans? Not so good. That same virus caused a mass human extinction. The few remaining humans that survive are immune but, arguably, not as clever as the apes.

Of course, nothing like this has actually happened right before our eyes. But the mechanism by which these evolutionary processes are portrayed is not scientifically unreasonable if you are willing to accept the growing scientific evidence that the standard Darwinian narrative of evolution needs some contemporary adjustment.

Certainly, the Darwinian interpretation of evolution remains preeminent. Darwinists insist that evolution proceeds by tiny changes through random genetic variations. Once those genetic accidents occur, the direction of evolution is shaped by natural selection. If the changes promote an organism that is more ‘fit’, meaning that it can reproduce more successfully than another, then this random mutation and the change it allows can continue. Crucially though, for Darwinists, evolutionary changes are necessarily small in scale.

Yet, there are a growing number of scientists that think otherwise. They believe that evolution can move in jumps from time to time. And pertinent to War for the Planet of the Apes, those scientists think that these bigger evolutionary gaps happen through the insertion of an infectious agent, like a retrovirus. The theory is that every once in a while, a virus can insert in a genome and trigger a significant rearrangement of our underlying genetic code. This switch of code can reveal faculties that have been present within the code but have remained hidden or add new stretches of code that can be used by for our benefit.

So, why is this not far-fetched? CRISPR teaches us why. CRISPR is a new and highly effective scientific technique for altering a genome with a deliberate accuracy. CRISPR is an acronym that stands for the particular specialized regions of DNA separated by spaces in a genome which are the targets of that technique. Scientists have devised a means of inserting carefully tailored clusters of DNA into these areas by taking advantage of those repeating segments and the spaces in between them. Importantly though, those spaces are areas of previously inserted viral code as a result of prior infectious attacks by viruses or retroviruses. Over the course of evolution, new virus attacks have yielded new spacers. Scientists are able to use small segments of genetic code to precisely insert or delete genetic code based on those spaces and the types of code in between. The important point is that the mechanics of CRISPR is very similar to how infectious code has always interacted with our native DNA.

So what does this mean for evolution? Quite directly, if Man can do it, then Nature has always done so. Man is not yet capable of devising a method of adjusting any genetic code that Nature has not already provided. When scientists inserts bits of genetic code to correct a problem, they are mimicking a natural process and making adjustments to it fit our ends.

Certainly, any of the CRISPR alternations may yield substantial benefits. But, the process is still very new with wide-ranging consequences. If genetic syndromes that affect how we look, act, or metabolize can be adjusted by Man by a focused switch of code, then Nature has done it, too. Not often, surely, but just enough to yield the complex organisms that we can observe.

A salient question arises. What parameters and controls ought to be placed on this technique that so powerfully mimics the actual mechanisms of evolution? Do we, as yet, understand the entirety of its implications or are we inadvertently exposing ourselves to substantial unintended consequences?

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