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The fifth word of Christopher E Mason’s new book outlining a roadmap for the survival of the human species is ‘engineering’. Given that ‘The Next 500 Years’ is on the surface primarily a discussion centred on genetics and biology, futurology and space travel, it’s probably worth starting with what the author means by the term, which he goes on to use frequently and which is so familiar to readers of E&T.

It’s important, says Mason, to recognise that “engineering as a discipline has finally moved into the biological space. Evolution has always been the greatest accidental engineer. But now we can actually have evolution occur with planning. Instead of being unguided, it can now be guided, which is the definition of engineering. We can now build or modify a system in biology and predict what will happen, much like an engineer will.”

The concept of engineering the biology of our future is fundamental to Mason’s outlook on nothing less than the long-range survival of the human species, and of all life. Mason, who is professor of genetics and physiology at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, says that as we are the only species (we know of) with the self-awareness to think deep into the future and also to be aware of the potential for our own extinction, we have a moral duty not just to make ourselves safe, but to ensure the survival of all other life.

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