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.