Science rushing in to save us through radical change?

Glass ‘melts’ as we ‘freeze’ it close to absolute zero.  This is just one of many facts in science that challenge our day-to-day experience in conditions we are used to.  In biology we are discovering that self-replication is more fundamental in chenistry than we thought, and hence harder – or even impossible – to control.  Even a 32-amino-acid peptide can “autocatalyse its own synthesis.” We don’t know how widespread this ability is, but it may hint at “a route to self-reproducing molecular systems on a basis far wider than Watson-Crick base-pairing.”   Horizontal gene transfer plays a significant role in the acquisition of antibiotic resistance which can be conveyed to a new bacterial host. These genes interact with yet other genes to provide resistance even to newly invented antibiotics.  We can make artificial ‘parasites’ that are good at horizontal gene transfer.

It may be that he epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when, Homo sapiens, began to dominate.   Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization.  As Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species.  We may be moving from software exchange to gene sharing.  The evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was before separate species and intellectual property were invented.  Evolution does not take place in small steps, as Darwin claimed, but in leaps after long periods of stasis. We have to wonder if the next great leap will be one of our own creations.

The biology itself is aimed at  opening the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels.  The philosophical issues are massive, including a vision of a future without humanity, which might need cooperative revision of what we term ‘economics’ and a very different view of ourselves in the world.


8 thoughts on “Science rushing in to save us through radical change?

  1. Given the unavoidable anthropocentrism of all our thinking, I’ve been musing over the possibility that all philosophy – perhaps even our scientific “explanations” of things – are a kind of anthropology; a description of things the way we see them, reflections on the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

    Seen this way we may already be post-human, just unable to recognise this because it is we who are doing the “seeing.” Development and change are inevitable, the real questions concern the directions in which we want to go, whether we are being steered or doing the steering, whether those making decisions have any idea of the consequences of what they decide. Monsanto playing the role of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – only the master won’t come to fix things up, because he was never there – to give but one example.

    Does having an artificial hip make me a cyborg? .-D

  2. I have the feeling explanations on the NPIA may be stated in full with combinations of ‘useless’, ‘greedy’, ‘fatuous’ and ‘rimming’ Hog – all essentially “genetic” and making one wonder how wankers reproduce so well!
    If you are a cyborg Francis, you’re still on my Xmas card list. We can get to the edge of the universe in 28 years of ‘internal bubble’ relativity flight, something that makes me address the perspectival. I’d be happier (in the madness of) trying to build such a machine with our brilliant new neighbours than with what’s being done with technology by our ‘great and worthy’.

  3. Use of the term ‘fact’ is always problematic Melvin. You are, in a sense, only a letter away from absolute zero (Kelvin), and there is work on ‘the other side of this absolute’. We are always some way from creating the frictionless flubber available in neutron stars, with which I intend to coat the relativity flight Ark I’m working on in the shed.

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