Hello, you’re a lab rat!

Abstract: The world’s biggest scientific experiment has you running in a maze…

It’s easy to look at your life, see the trappings of modern day living and think you’re a significant player in the world around you. Little do you realise that you’re playing just a minute role in a very, very large scientific experiment. Hello. You’re a lab rat.

If I were to ask you what you thought was the biggest, most sophisticated science experiment in the world, you’d probably take a stab at that ‘God Particle collider thing somewhere in Europe’ or maybe ‘that telescope they want to build in the Karoo’. Wrong. They pale into utter insignificance compared to a giant experiment happening closer to home. In fact, it’s in your home. It’s you.

Puzzled? That’s part of the experiment. Just go with the flow. I’ll take a stab at explaining it.

An experiment can be described as any a scientific procedure that is undertaken to test a hypothesis, demonstrate a known fact, or to make a discovery. It’s normally done by repeating the same process over and over, under controlled conditions, to ensure the accuracy of an outcome. Or it can involve repeating a process and minutely adjusting elements of it, just to see what happens.

And that’s where you come in.

You might have noticed that you look different to the people that you work with. The size and shape of your face and its features may be different, and that’s what makes you an individual, but that’s about it. That’s the total sum of the degrees of separation between you and everyone else. It’s the only thing that sets you apart.

Think about it: Your skin tone might be the same as some but different to others, your body shape may be different to others at work, but it’s certainly shared with others outside. And of course because you’re human, you have a humanoid shape, and your body operates like other humans.
But, you may add, you are still unique. Sorry to break this to you, but you’re not really. You’re simply a subtle variation on a well-established theme.

Every single cell in your body – except your red blood cells – contains your DNA; your blueprint as it were. But it’s not unique. It’s simple made up of a combination of your mother and father’s DNA, and their DNA, in turn, was almost entirely pre-programmed.

So when you popped into this world all those years ago, biologically speaking the difference between you and any other baby was infinitesimally small. In fact, if your DNA was an 18-hole golf course, what made you an individual would be the full stop printed in the name on a single golf ball hidden deep in the rough somewhere.

Of course, you are still special, at least to your parents; and every time you look in the mirror, you gaze at your face and examine the flaws in its foundation. Then you look at your body with the quirky little curves that shape its imperfect edifice, and you see yourself as unique, and so you should.

However, in the greater scheme of things, what sets you apart in your mind is trivial. Take for example the skin tone I mentioned earlier – one of the socially most defining ‘differences’ amongst humans. In South Africa, we differentiate between black and white. However, this is a purely socio-political context. The reality is that skin pigmentation, which is determined in part by only one of tens of thousands of different genes in the human body, is a continuous trait. That means we’re neither black nor white; each one of us lies somewhere in between.

So why do we focus on the small things but refuse to see the big picture? Where’s the problem? It lies in human arrogance. We believe that in that famous silhouette depiction of evolution, which shows an apelike creature progressing into a Neanderthal hunter and then into ‘modern man’, we are not part of the progression. We see ourselves as the end point – the apex of evolution as it were.

That is of course, not the case. Evolution is ongoing. It never stops. It is the continual adaptation of a species – through constant biological revision – to changes in its environment over time. Normally changes in the environment happen over millions, even billions of years. However, if there’s one thing we humans have succeeded in doing, it’s dramatically change our environment.

Think of how little physical work is now necessary in the modern working environment thanks to advancements in technology. Now imagine how the human body would adapt over time to the fact that the need for physical exertion was reduced. The makers of the animated film WALL-E did just that, and surreptitiously, and very cleverly, pointed to a future human population that is morbidly obese as a result of lying around relying on automated systems.

An unlikely evolutionary scenario perhaps? In the US, the current levels of obesity are the highest ever recorded, and it’s especially the case in children. Studies have shown that risk factors for obesity exist in the prenatal period of development.

It seems we may be evolving quicker than we thought, and those subtle differences that make you seemingly unique, are increasingly immaterial, but nonetheless have a place in human evolution.

So, every time a baby is born and its mother and father search its crumpled face for clues as to whom in the family it most resembles, they are searching for similarity. In fact, they should be celebrating its diversity, because it’s the hand of Mother Nature, God, or whatever you want to call her, constantly fine-tuning – tweaking as it were – the human model to see what happens, as part of the world’s biggest scientific experiment.

Originally published in The Sunday Tribune, 6th May 2012