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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Born a hundred million years too soon

I am not certain whom I should pity the most: the Intelligent Design advocates of Homo Sapiens or the future Scientists of the next technological species on our planet.

Much of what we know of the past is built on the fossil record and most of the rest upon the exponentially increasing DNA databases of fully sequenced life forms. For us it is an easy matter, in a relative manner of speaking, to follow characteristics through the billions of years of the fossil record and to compare DNA of long diverged species for commonality. In all cases it is the downright bad engineering of life forms that screams out to the designer that these things just grew and developed by a series of random local optimizations.

This will not be true for our future brethren. When they dig up their rocks they will find a point in the fossil record at which there is an explosive radiation of new and interesting lifeforms that have total disconnects with past life forms. They will see a discontinuity in life itself. Geneticists will see the unmistakable evidence of engineering perfection in the deep past of critters of their day.

What will they make of it? Will they accept that a prior technological species lost in deep time re-engineered life? Will their theologians believe in a universe that created itself and then had a God descend and set it right? Or a God that created things imperfectly and came back to fix His screwups? Will they expect Him to return to Fix Things again? Will they have a Cosmic Tinker in place of a Cosmic Watchmaker?

Just a few thought for a Sunday afternoon…

67 comments to Born a hundred million years too soon

  • DocBrown

    “When they dig up their rocks they will find a point in the fossil record at which there is an explosive radiation of new and interesting lifeforms that have total disconnects with past life forms.”

    You mean like the Cambrian Explosion?

  • Dale Amon

    No. That’s just the best and most interesting of a number of points at which normal but massive evolutionary speciation occurred.

    I am talking about the fossil layer of engineered ecosystems which will be laid down over the next few tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Aren’t market economies as we know them developed through a process of local optimization as well, as businesses make changes to investments and operations under the stimulus of profit and loss? What would an economy with intelligent institutional design look like? This would not be the same as a socialist planned economy, because you wouldn’t be rationally planning all the economic organizational actors simultaneously—but you would be rationally designing each new actor to function optimally in whatever economic niche you had identified as unfilled.

    Perhaps this would be how Charles Stross’s hypothetical “Economy 2.0″ would work. . . .

  • Dale Amon

    Ah, but what you are missing is that these designed critters will be designed and built to fulfill needs. It will be a market economy that creates them.

  • Midwesterner

    Like genetically engineering Ameglian Major Cows, sometime Dish of the Day at Milliway’s.

  • Nick Timms

    The article assumes that between now and then records of our present society are somehow lost. Unless there is some global disaster and human life has to start from scratch again why should this be? However I take the point that with greater understanding of the genetic code we are living in extraordinary times.

  • Kevin B

    Most people’s understanding of evolution is limited to the phrase, “Survival of the fittest” and most of those people misinterpret that phrase.

    Survival in this context means survival of the species, not survival of the individual, and fittest means most fitted, (to the particular environmental niche in which the species is competing), and not the strongest.

    At my age I often find myself raging against the design flaws in the human body. Knees, hips, elbows etc leave much to be desired, and the fact that the self-repair and re-growth mechanisms of the body start to break down after a few decades is most annoying. But as far as evolution is concerned, I’ve done my job by mixing my genes a few times and so my aching joints and deteriorating cardio-vascular system matter not a jot.

    From the point of view of evolution, (or even an intelligent Intelligent designer), enough variation within and between species to cope with environmental change is the key to life on the planet’s survival.

    From the point of view of our hypothetical future paleaontologist when he digs to to these layers he will see a change in environmental conditions which favoured certain grasses, ungulates, canines, felines and avians over others, accompanied by an expolsion in numbers of a particular species of ape, followed by another change in which that particular species of ape developed longer lifespans and better repair mechanisms.

    Of course the evidence in the geological record will be spotty and will lend itself to many interpretations and fierce arguments between supporters of the different schools will echo round the telepathynet, but my guess would be that huge theories based on limited data will still be advanced with great passion.

  • Dale Amon

    Nick: What odds would you put on Homo Sapiens still being around in a time as far in the future as the Jurassic was into the past? There is some possibility that something descended from us will be out amongst the starts, but it will be related to us somewhat in the way we are related to a Cynognathus. Distant. Different.

    As to records surviving… my proposed new technology species may find them once it really explores the Moon and the rest of the solar system. There will probably be bits left behind in the emptiness of space. But on a tectonically and environmentally active a place as Earth? I doubt it. Perhaps with extreme good fortune someone will find bits of some American town buried under a layer of rock in what was once the Yellowstone region…

    We seem ubiquitous now and to ourselves. We just are not used to thinking in terms of deep time. I intentionally picked a span of time that is 100 times longer than we have been a species and another hundred times longer than we have had anything approaching civilization… and roughly yet another hundred times longer than we have had a high technology civilization.

    “All we are is dust in the wind”

  • Doc Brown

    “Of course the evidence in the geological record will be spotty and will lend itself to many interpretations and fierce arguments between supporters of the different schools will echo round the telepathynet, but my guess would be that huge theories based on limited data will still be advanced with great passion.”

    Well said! The thing lacking in science, from evolution to string theory, is a sincere differentiation between what is known and proven, and what is, in the end, interesting, fascinating, brain stretching, indeed worthwhile speculation. But speculation nevertheless.

    See Lee Smolin’s excellent book “The Trouble with Physics” for a discussion of this.

  • Dale Amon

    Kevin: While you describe how things have been, you are not looking at what is coming. We already have the capacity to build very simple species from scratch. It has been done. Over the ensuing decades we will add a detailed understanding of exactly how genes interact and once that is achieved we will be able to build a creature to specifications.

    One can argue that our civilization might turn its back on that capability. Perhaps and perhaps not. If not ours, then the civilization after ours, or the one after that, or the one after that. The point is that it is possible; we are nearly able to do it now; we will have the capacity to do it this century; someone somewhere in the next tens of millenia will make a unit of exchange off doing it; and once designed animals are in the ecosystem we will have left an indelible mark on the fossil record as they evolve and speciate over the next tens of millions of years.

  • Midwesterner

    By nature of being designed for an exclusive niche, these new species will die off as soon as they lose a benefactor.

    An example of this is zea mays. ‘Indian corn‘. We have so completely re-engineered this plant that it is totally incapable of surviving even one generation without human assistance. It already bears essentially no resemblance to even its closest wild relative. This plant is already being genetically engineered to make it even more dependent on humans, ie IIRC genes have been spliced into it to make it tolerant of herbicides. But without human application of those herbicides it is even more helpless. And yet this plant has taken over American agriculture to an extent that has never happened with any crop at any time, anywhere.

    So, I guess I disagree in as much as I don’t think we are creating reproductive species as much as reproducible species. As a curious side note, zea mays has had its own built in intellectual property protection for many decades now in the form of hybridization that does not automatically pass on its characteristics.

    I suspect that the life forms that survive will not be deliberately manufactured to survive. If they are capable of surviving as a pseudo wild-type it will be as escapees from a controlled system.

    Or as weapons. There is a scary thought.

  • Kevin B

    Dale, the point I’m trying to make is that the changes we are making to various species that make up our food sources, pets, and decorative plants will be viewed as an expression of ‘natural’ evolution. The reason for that is that they are. Our ‘meddling’ with nature is simply a change in the environment which brings about changes in species. Human beings are part of the environmental pressure and when we begin more overt ‘tinkering’, whether it be by ‘improving’ our own or other species by genetic manipulation or creating brand new species in the lab from amino acids up , this will still look like the normal process of evolution.

    There are competing schools in evolutionary theory between the ‘slow and steady’, model of evolution and the ‘sudden explosion’ model. The latter holds that a lot of what we refer to as ‘junk’ DNA is actually change ready to happen if the environment changes rapidly.

    Major changes in humanity’s DNA and a sudden explosion of new species could well be seen by our future scientists as just another change in the environment causing changes in species. And, essentially, they would be right. The emergence of an intelligent species manipulating the environment, even down to the genetic level, is just as ‘natural’ as massive tectonic events or cosmic collisions.

  • Kevin B

    SCENE:

    Cambrian High School, Atlantis, circa 530 my BCE

    “Right class. For your term assignment you will be split into teams and each team will design and create a completly novel organism using only the amino acids provided.

    “Extra marks will be given for survivability, novelty and the inclusion of features that will completely bamboozle future scientists. Hint: Wheels are good in that regard.”

  • Dale Amon

    Midwesterner: the problem with what you are saying is not that it will not be true many times, but that over a few millenia it will be wrong at least a few times, if not intentionally done many times or if not even a major economic factor.

    I again recommend the trilogy of books by John C Wright, “The Golden Transcendence” is one of them.

    How about an entire ecosystem designed for artistic purposes only?

    Kevin is still not getting my point in thinking of small genetic improvements of our food animals and plants. How about a mailbird that is design optimized for carrying messages steallthily and as part of its genetics grows the memory storage and navigation using graphene nanofilms? How about a rat-hunter with a little chemical laser it can charge up to fry the rats whose pheromones it is optimized to track? Or maybe a specialized carpet mite that eats dust at night and migrates to a point with a special magnetic signature to dump the dirt in the morning? Or astro turf for ballfields that grows and repairs itself? Or a small insectlike flying critter that hunts down mosquito larvae using technical means beyond the best nature has offered? How about a whole interlocking ecosystem of these human designed critters that can outcompete any interlopers into their niches?

    Get your minds out of the little boxes. The future will be stranger than we imagine, but it can be fun trying!

  • Kevin B

    Dale, I think I am getting it. I just think that in 100 million years the scientists of the future will regard an explosion of life forms produced by human ingenuity as the same as any other explosion of varied species; as a response to a drastic change in the evironment.

    The drastic change being that an intelligent species learned how to engineer critters for it’s own needs or amusement.

    And they would be right.

  • J

    Dale, have you been reading Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age’?

    I tend to agree with Kevin – engineering is fundamentally similar to evolution – speculative designs are created, some last a while, some don’t, some change incrementally, sometimes radical new ones come along. If anything, genetic engineering will be even more like natural evolution, because we are unlikely to be moving physical molecules like individual bricks, but rather influencing natural construction processes to produce specifically modified output.

    The fact is, natural evolution has created things well suited to living on the earth, and since we are unlikely to massively change the nature of the earth, there is unlikely to be great benefit to radically new creatures. Engineer a cow that produces long-life milk – perhaps. A cow with wings – unlikely. The fossil record doesn’t exactly preserve the details. Maybe we’ll create a cow with 8 legs so we can get more steak? But, if we can do that we’d be so much better off just growing the steak in a vat, the juicy meat rigged to a 100 meter long artificial rod of bone, itself extruded from a vat of specialised cells. Exciting (or terrifying) stuff, but unlikely to dent the fossil record.

  • Dale Amon

    Eventually perhaps… keep in mind I am not talking about a simple adaptive change, but the sudden appearance of life that shows little or no relationship to that which went before it. The sudden appearance of things which could not come about by natural selection. That will definitely put some wind in the sails of those who claim supernatural origin, and it will take a great deal of development before the idea that there was once another technological species more advanced than they will not go down well. You think Scopes was bad? Hah!

  • Gib

    Kevin,
    You say “Survival in this context means survival of the species, not survival of the individual.”

    Actually, we know now that it’s about survival of the fittest gene. Which is neither the individual, nor the species.

  • Dale,
    Fascinating post. Real (GM) food for thought. It almost sounds like a the premise for a Sci-Fi story.

    It reminds me of Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” in an obscure way.

    Now here’s a question. Let’s say we, products of evolution that we are GM various stuff then are those artificial beings products of evolution too? In a way evolution produced them as it produced Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Louise Brown.

    Why do I mention the Bear story? It (in a different way) posits the idea that evolution itself can evolve.

    Alas, I never finished it and moved house and I think I’ve lost it.

    This is woo-woo stuff. Cheers Dale.

  • Survival in this context means survival of the species, not survival of the individual

    Sorry Kevin, you have it completely reversed here. Darwinism does not work at the species level, and has no interest in species. A species is merely a byproduct of the cumulative effects of individual survivals. There is no mechanism by which Darwinism can operate at the species level.

    Selection works by the differential survival of individuals, and the differential breeding rates of those individuals.

  • Dale, sorry, side issue I know, but I can’t resist this -

    Or astro turf for ballfields that grows and repairs itself?

    Isn’t it called grass?

  • Dale Amon

    Grass??? That’s just so… so… twentieth century! You need a properly designed biological astro turf that grows itself to the pre-programed length, height and texture and automatically fills in the holes where cleats dug into it.

  • Pa Annoyed

    What do you suppose those future scientists will make of the copyright messages in the genomes, then?

    And presumably there will have to be some sort of DRM copy protection to prevent kids cloning them on the home bio-fabricator.

    People will struggle with Microsoft Metabolism(TM), vulnerable to viruses, prone to the blue face of death, but still somehow the only mitochondria that all the latest, coolest game monkeys will be compatible with. Somehow, flying-zombie-vampire-monkey-shoot-em-up is not quite the same with flying Penguins.

    And there will be adverts, of course. Giving our creations speech would probably work best, but writing might be more practical. In the future, the mould on your bread will spell out “Buy Hovis for long-lasting freshness”. Biologists will wonder at singing weasels chanting ancient political campaign slogans in intricate harmony: “Let’s solve world poverty by making money grow on trees” and so forth.

    Given some of the uses to which we put much of our advanced technology – daytime TV and texting and the stranger corners of the internet – are you sure that it is the creationist aspects that are going to cause them the most confusion? It would be a very strange God they found themselves worshipping.

  • “Sorry Kevin, you have it completely reversed here. Darwinism does not work at the species level, and has no interest in species. A species is merely a byproduct of the cumulative effects of individual survivals. There is no mechanism by which Darwinism can operate at the species level.

    Selection works by the differential survival of individuals, and the differential breeding rates of those individuals.”

    Nah, otherwise how would bees or ants work with so few of their individuals directly involved in reproduction? A single worker ant cannot be explained by evolution, but a colony can very easily.

    With humans, I think the interaction is rather complex. Our genes have an interest in the survival of us as individuals for sure, but also of those around us (and that could be extended from family to tribe to nation). Evolution is probably part of the explanation for fittness on several of these levels.

  • The Cambrian explosion is a good analogy to what Dale is suggesting here, but not good enough.

    Creatures will suddenly appear in the fossil record for which no possible pre coursers occur in previous generations. Not only that, but both alternative uses of DNA, as a structural material possibly, and alternative mechanisms of hereditary, will suddenly turn up. Critters, part biological and part inorganic, will be found frozen in amber, with no prior development.

    It will confuse the buggery out of the scientists, and, possible, slow down their own understanding of how things work.

    On bioconstructs which actually have a chance of surviving our demise, we really should look at incorporating something which indicates, beyond rational dispute, that these things are artificial.

  • You need a properly designed biological astro turf that grows itself to the pre-programed length, height and texture

    Ok, so you have not just grass, but goats as well.

    There, that’s one bioengineering problem solved.

  • Selection works by the differential survival of individuals, and the differential breeding rates of those individuals.

    CC: but the individuals only breed within their species (that is, if we are talking about natural breeding).

  • Alisa,

    but the individuals only breed within their species

    But the selection works on the basis of “Does this individual get to produce a greater or lesser number of offspring than the average of the surrounding population?” And if so, was it because of chance? Or because of some specific hereditable advantage? A species is the long term result of some form of genetic/breeding isolation, not the cause of it. A species arises as a result of individuals within a breeding population engaging in differential breeding success.

    Species are not selected for, because species is an abstract concept, and abstract concepts don’t breed. Individuals are selected for because individuals are concrete entities, and some concrete entities breed. (So I hear, these days I wouldn’t know)

    More to the point, that is a tautology, because a legitimate, although not exclusive, definition of a species is “a genetically isolated breeding population”, therefore your statement is true, by definition.

  • DAMN AND BLAST IT.

    @#@#%^#$%^

    smitten

    An erudite discussion on Darwinian theory and I am @#%@^# smitten.

    I guess the gods of smite control are not Darwinists.

  • Jethro

    I agree with CountingCats. It won’t just be people asking how a fish gene wound up in a tomato, the real question will be why , when carbon-based life built on dna and proteins with certain chiralities already dominated the planet, did artificial lifeforms based on different chiralities and elements just suddenly pop up?

    Additionally, will they even recognize the explosion as well as we do the Cambrian one? After all, we’re currently picking up the low-hanging fruit of the fossil record and removing the fossils from the environments that have preserved them. Reconstructing Common Descent might be harder in more ways than one. They may find the pre-human past harder to discern than the post-human and come to the conclusion that a designer was responsible for all life, not just it’s then-current course.

  • Dale Amon

    It is not picking on you Sir Cat…. for some reason our smiter smites much on this topic. I have been unsmiting myself and others constantly through this discussion.

  • Dale Amon

    Of course the political messages will have become greatly changed in the many millions of years since the creature were designed… evolution will warp things. And even if the messages were even partially intact, they would be in a language of a species gone for longer than the big dinosaurs to us. After all, are you absolutely certain that birdcalls aren’t the remnant of some dinosaurian civilizations adverts for scale cleaners? How would you know? Why would you consider the idea?

  • Dale Amon

    i can imagine scenarios in which there would be a dearth of old fossils, but they are a bit far-fetched and would require an intentional clearance using some replicator that worked its way through much of the Earth’s crust. While I can imagine this being done for the purpose of recording data, I don’t see why it would be done destructively. Thus I see no reason why there would be a dearth of available fossils to our far future species.

    The fossils in our museums are by and large ones which have been recovered as they weathered out of the rocks. Had they not been recovered then, they would have been lost forever. This same rate of loss has been happening for all of Earth’s history and is one reason why it is difficult to put together much of a picture of the Ediacarian for example. There just is not that much rock of that age left.

    In 100 Million years there will still be a considerable amount of the Earth’s surface from our time still weathering out of mountains and river cuts.

  • In 100 Million years there will still be a considerable amount of the Earth’s surface from our time still weathering out of mountains and river cuts.

    And the scars from our own activities will still be visible, sticking out like a sore thumb. The lack of these scars is a good argument against the putative dinosaurian civilisation.

    Unless, by dinosaurian civilisation you are referring to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although I don’t think those guys bioengineered birds tho.

  • Cats:

    A species is the long term result of some form of genetic/breeding isolation, not the cause of it.

    It is both. Gib and Nick nail it, IMV. Darwin is to genetics what Newton is to modern physics.

  • “Creatures will suddenly appear in the fossil record for which no possible pre coursers occur in previous generations. ”

    Don’t we have a record of this happening in the words: “And God created Man”?

  • Don’t we have a record of this happening in the words: “And God created Man”?

    Nope.

    Baseless superstition does not constitute an historical record. Not to me anyway.

  • Nick M

    I demand an artificial owl!

    The dinos did have a civilisation. I have seen cartoons.

    Cartoons don’t lie.

    Seriously tho…

    How feasible is it to recreate mammoths? With DNA from the ones they dig up from the Siberian Tundra. They were apparently closely related to Asian Heffalumps so there’s a good chance they could be tamed and used for logging in the far North.

    It would do wonders for the Siberian Tourist Industry and it would just be super-cool.

    Robert,
    I think Dale’s point is almost “… and then Man became God”.

  • Bear with me…

    “The problem is we have guided missiles and unguided men”
    -JFK

    I disagree. I actually think many of our moral sensibilities have advanced along with technology. I mean we have cell phones and don’t burn witches. Look at all the most technological societies on the planet. They are the most likely to have humane laws and customs. The medieval theocracy of Saudi still executes people for sorcery! Oh, they have a modern airforce but where did that come from? And BTW BAE Systems has thousands of Brits out there keeping it ticking over.

    So no, I don’t worry about our powers extending to even God-like status. Hence my previous comment was not entirely tongue-in cheek.

  • Dan

    “Grass??? That’s just so… so… twentieth century! You need a properly designed biological astro turf that grows itself to the pre-programed length, height and texture and automatically fills in the holes where cleats dug into it.”

    This puts me in mind of the story about when NASA realized that “normal” pens did not work well or at all while in orbit. After many research dollars had been spent in pursuit of a writing instrument for astronauts, somebody thought to check what the Russians were doing about it.

    They were using pencils.

    Still, engineering artificial grass to fill in cleat holes is the sort of thing the NFL is noted for. They’ve spent untold millions over the years studying how to improve helmets and pads, the better to make players less afraid to *really* knock each other on their asses. If they feel less afraid of tearing out an ACL like they do so often on the current artificial turf, their performance will probably improve also.

  • I think Dale’s point is almost “… and then Man became God”

    To the question, so far unput, “But isn’t all this tinkering with living things playing God?” my answer is – Yep, it is about time someone did.

    The most wonderful thing about appreciating the wonder of the Universe is that, in humanity, these is finally something that is capable of doing the appreciating.

    Nick,

    DNA is not a stable molecule, its components disassociate and the strands tend to break apart pretty soon after death. Freezing cells by dumping them in permafrost for 20,000 years causes a fair bit of damage as well. Stick a bottle of beer in the deep freeze for a week and then imagine that it is a tissue cell. Still, there are a lot of cells in a mamoth, and it is possible a complete strand can be found and extracted from one cell, and another strand from another cell, and so on, then maybe, but we don’t have the tools for that fine a level of surgery. Yet.

  • While developing ideas for a science-fiction setting, I borrowed an idea from the old Traveller game, that ancient aliens had spread humanity to other stars BEFORE Earth natives did it themselves.

    One of those populations looked around at itself and the non-human intelligences around it, and reasoned something like this: “All these other creatures can clearly be connected to the animal life on their planets by genetic and fossil records. We, however, cannot. We have no connections to any animal life, anywhere. Therefore, we are unique, and unique in a way that makes it clear we’re not mere animals…”

    Quite a nasty bunch, really.

  • Brian

    Having worked on to many projects that start out well and end up as bureaucracies, I have no problem whatsoever believing that most theories of creation and development – evolution, ID, the backs of great turtles, whatever – are integrated.
    Who says the process was not started then deliberately abandoned in order observe the fallout to arrive at an answer?
    When you meet that which is responsible if you believe, or don’t if you don’t, the answer may be revealed. Till then we’ll continue to bandy about SWAG’s as if they are the TRUTH for our brand of faith.
    Personally? I’m comfortable with the pursuit of mystery and that which is revealed by the chase.
    For all I know, God and Douglas Adams may wind up having the last laugh.

  • Midwesterner

    i can imagine scenarios in which there would be a dearth of old fossils, but they are a bit far-fetched and would require an intentional clearance using some replicator that worked its way through much of the Earth’s crust. While I can imagine this being done for the purpose of recording data, I don’t see why it would be done destructively.

    In 1971, John Prine wrote a song. The chorus goes like this:

    And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
    Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
    Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
    Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

    In 1975, in a ’62 Ford wagon with a 145# Alaskan Malamute and a lot of camping stuff in the back, I was driving through Kentucky and saw a sign marking the beginning of Muhlenberg county. There were picket fences of evergreen trees on either side of the interstate blocking any view of the surrounding countryside. But as I topped low hills, I could see over them. It was one big panorama of grass covered piles of spoil, rearranged in artificial naturalness.

    A later species (us) had systematically removed every vestige of the carbon of previous species because we found that carbon useful. The entire county was ground fine and filtered.

    You are no doubt right, Dale. Bits and pieces will slip through and survive the grinding mill of tectonics and later more advanced forces, but in the time frame you are talking about, I think you hit the biggest point (I think it was you) when you suggested that most of the surviving evidence will be found in space. I suspect most of the surviving evidence will be found on ships that lost propulsion power on a stable course. A freeze dried archeological record found drifting in an astronomical Sargasso Sea.

  • I am a believing Catholic. I find the whole ID discussion something that reduces and limits God, not something that I find required for belief.

    To me, the importance of my religion is in the story of salvation, not how long God puzzled over the blueprints of the earthworm.

  • paul a'barge

    In all cases it is the downright bad engineering of life forms that screams out to the designer that these things just grew and developed by a series of random local optimizations

    Hmmm. Let’s see. A huge long time ago there was nothing. Then there was the Big Bang. And then rudimentary life started. And after a very long time humans walked on the moon.

    And the best you can come up with is downright bad engineering?

    And give that predilection for negativity, you’ve decided that you’ve got good grounds to scream out to the designer?

    Okie Dokie then. Scream on if you must.

    Just a heads up though … when you’re screaming, he hears you. Just something to consider.

  • Dale Amon

    Actually you missed it. The Designer this screams out to is the human engineer who will do the optimization and build things which are far more elegant and fit to their purpose.

    Genetic algorithms are great for discovering interesting solutions to problems but they don’t have the ability to back track and clean up once it has been found.

    As to us being the result of non-human designer(s), I already wrote about that idea several years ago:
    http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2005/01/toward_a_taxonomy_of_god.html

  • Nick M

    paul a’barge,
    “If Honda had created the human race rather than God nobody would ever die. ”
    - Jeremy Clarkson.

    Mid,
    There is a Brian Aldiss short which posits a future human colony around another star and every so often one of the earlier, slower generation ships turns up with a bunch of corpse because something had gone wrong.

  • Orion

    “At my age I often find myself raging against the design flaws in the human body. Knees, hips, elbows etc leave much to be desired, and the fact that the self-repair and re-growth mechanisms of the body start to break down after a few decades is most annoying. But as far as evolution is concerned, I’ve done my job by mixing my genes a few times and so my aching joints and deteriorating cardio-vascular system matter not a jot.”

    Of course it matters: your increasing infirmaties ensure that your progenity will not have to compete with you when they mature. All the crippling disabilities of old age – impotence, baldness, wrinkles, arthritis, etc. – are DESIGNED (by Nature or some Supreme Being) to make you unattractive to potential mates and easier to cast aside. We have a specific purpose in life: make babies, raise them to maturity, then get the hell out of their way.

    Oh, and the allure of Intelligent Design is the difficulty of deriving the steps required between a cloud of hydrogen floating in frozen space and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Sticking God between the two events makes the math all so much easier.

  • Gabriel Hanna

    Nah, otherwise how would bees or ants work with so few of their individuals directly involved in reproduction? A single worker ant cannot be explained by evolution, but a colony can very easily.

    This isn’t true.

    Look at paper wasps. The mother hatches. She builds a little nest with half-a-dozen eggs. The eggs hatch out. These wasps are females. They don’t reproduce. They gather food for the mother.

    The mother meanwhile adds more to the paper nest and lays more eggs. Some of these are male, the rest are breeding females–new mothers.

    The first set of daughters–calll them “older sisters”–are genetically programmed to help their mother–who has the same genes they have.

    You can think of the mother and older sisters as being part of the same organism, if you wish.

    This is how ant and bee colonies got their start.

    The queen is the mother of all the aunts. The sterile workers are extensions of her body if you like. (Actually if you work out the sex ratios then the queen is better thought of as a reproductive organ of the workers, but that’s a detail.)

  • Matteo

    No doubt the future scientists who do notice the artificial design appearing after the breakpoint will be hounded out of academia for asserting the obvious. As we all know, the very idea of detectable design in biology is a clear violation of the separation of church and state, and thus is not legitimately assertible as a scientific fact. A federal circuit judge has even said so!

  • Dale Amon

    Infirmities of ageing are not a matter of selective pressure… they are just what happens when genes are allowed to drift by random mutation without selective pressure.

    The primary selection is he or she who raises the largest number of healthy progeny to an age at which they can take care of themselves will have characters that are selected for. To a lesser extent, those who stay around to help with their grandchildren and kin will have some far lesser selective pressure. Overall though, once you have passed through your twenties, what happens to you is pretty much the luck of the draw. A disease that strikes someone at age 35 will not get weeded out of the gene pool because the kids have already been born and raised.

    Our remote ancestors mated at perhaps 13 or 14 and were elders by their thirties if they didn’t die of disease or predation or accident by then.

    Those old age infirmities are going to be one of the first things to go as we gradually put our hands on the wheel of our own genetic destiny. We’ll start with non-somatic extensions and then work up.,

    I fully expect human lifespans to reach an indeterminate length: people will live until they make too much of a mess of themselves in an accident to be repaired. I’d place the average for that in the
    range of 400-500 years.

    Now once we get full backups, then our personalities will last for as long as they want to.

    I consider this sort of lifespan an absolute necessity for a starfaring civilization as I do not expect us to find a way around lightspeed any time soon.

  • Dale Amon

    There certainly is no evidence I can see of intelligent design to date… what I see is more in the realm of UN-intelligent design. Anyone who claims God designed the genetics of what is here now is claiming God is stupid and a p*ss poor engineer.

  • homeboy

    I think that you’re missing that human nature is going to lead this in a vastly different direction than what you’re imagining:

    “So when can I get retro-fitted with a prehensile penis?”

  • Kevin B

    All the crippling disabilities of old age – impotence, baldness, wrinkles, arthritis, etc. – are DESIGNED (by Nature or some Supreme Being) to make you unattractive to potential mates and easier to cast aside.

    Unless you are very, very rich.

    Or they’re just because Tree of Life doesn’t grow properly in Terran soil.

    Oh, and CC; I was getting smote a lot yesterday until I cleared out my browser cache. Since then, no problem.

  • Light

    If a version of man is around as far out as the Jurassic is behind us, then the entire human race will evolve as one species. Certain parts of the globe will favor certain body types and such, but the overall mixing of the total population will keep new branches of species from forming simultaneously. That is, unless a group of humans were isolated for some significant period during that time to make reproduction possible with the main population. In the mere thousands of years, populations can specialize their body types, so we get darker people where there is more sun because that gene for some reason over a long period of time makes for a more fit individual. This is a far cry from speciation off the Homo sapiens and small numbers of populations travel and mix and keep the whole pool active and mixed. Who knows, we may evolve so slowly that we never notice until we look back and check the genetic record. At what point do we define differentiation as a separate species?

  • Dale Amon

    The premise of the article is that the technological species in 100 million years is not related to us… it might be descended from cephalopods or rats or even from one of our own inventions.

    But to go with your question anyway… if humanity is around even through the end of this millenia, we will either have spread to the stars or collapsed into a dark age and be in the interregnum between our civilization and the next. If we spread outward it is inevitable that over even thousands of years, let alone millions, pockets of our descendants will find themselves cut off for millenia in places that are different enough to drive evolution. Whether it is a New Amish, or a broken down colony ship or a group cutoff by the fall of a civilization does not matter. Humans will speciate.

    If humans do not leave for the stars, it will either be that we have collapsed into an irrecoverable non-tech society, in which case populations will be isolated just as they were in pre-history, or that we have ‘gone on’ and joined the singularity in which case I am lacking by a large number of orders of magnitude the IQ to suggest what will happen.

    Even if we were to stay in our solar system, there will be times and places in which pockets will choose to change their DNA and become new species by choice. It only needs to happen one in awhile, every 10,000 years or so, and before you know it our solar system would be swimming in Genus Homo species.

    There is no mechanism I can come up with that would be guaranteed to last forever and be applicable in all times and places. Speciation Happens.

  • I would suspect that humanity will start speciating as soon as any significant number of people get into space. The environments will be so different that we will see notable divergences within even a few hundreds of years.

  • JL

    I suggest an alternative future.

    I agree that there will be genetic tinkering with senescence, and eventually the ability to engineer immortality.

    You will then have two classes of people– those who live for centuries or forever, and those who are “natural” and die. This will create a huge gap in wealth and experience, which leads to jealousy and war (I imagine a Master and Underclass relationship).

    I see the long-lived class being forced to treat/induct the successful of those in the “natural” human class, until this population absorbs nearly all of the un-engineered. Most likely, you may even have tinkering with the naturally born to make dim servants.

    There would need to be strong controls to keep the population stable. Breeding would be carefully regulated when everyone lives forever. Money would get pretty weird, too, because the oldest individuals would have the most by interest and accumulation, but simultaneously, commerce could get pretty stagnant as the same people trade with one another over and over– no new people! No senile or retiring people!

    I think there will be a fixed, regulated population of very indolent creatures. There might even be a tech stagnation, too, as there is no urgency to develop quickly with lifetimes on your hands. Regardless, thins would advance (it just might be more slow with the loss of a sense of urgency). There would be less probability to generate geniuses; the population of an age is what you get for a long time, and there is less gene mixing and variations of environment to stimulate new thinking. The real question would be memory– would a human who lives forever be capable of remembering everything through the centuries?

    I am not sure if that would make the population as a whole more vulnerable (or less) to some catastrophic event. I would imagine that those who master biology to the extent of perpetual regeneration of cells would be able to crush disease, unless new “diseases” occur from each splicing event which cause some sickness.

    I suppose there could be huge problems if enough of a static population were wiped out by something of the scale of a global war or by an asteroid strike. Then you’d have weird disruptions when society tries to generate a mass replacement population of immortals and having them catch up with the old guard in experience (and possibly wealth if property is destroyed).

    I imagine it would be hard not to have a pretty flat social order when people have the time to learn just about anything there is to know. Who would need anybody else’s ideas when you’ve all explored most human concepts over multiple lifetimes?

    How would people behave once they’ve tried living out every whim and lifestyle and yet continue to live on?

  • Sunfish

    Alisa,

    It is both. Gib and Nick nail it, IMV. Darwin is to genetics what Newton is to modern physics.

    It’s both and then it’s neither. “Species” is one of the weird concepts in biology: the one that makes the highly-organized and logical people study physics instead. “Species” doesn’t actually exist in nature. It’s a by-product of the human desire to sort random assemblages into neat piles.

    Hell, we can’t even agree on a method of dividing organisms into one species or another. Ernst Mayr thought that two organisms capable of producing fertile offspring were the same species, and that the whole of that species was all organisms capable of so interbreeding but not capable of breeding with anything else. Sounds great, except plants do some weird hybridization and plenty of microorganisms reproduce by fusion and therefore don’t breed with each other at all.

    What if the reproductive organisation was caused by the inability of a male St. Bernard to inseminate a female Cairn Terrier without, um, difficulty? Is that still reproductive isolation? What if my Golden Retriever is genetically perfectly compatible with the wolves that aren’t supposed to be in this part of Colorado, but is isolated through social selection? Are they then separate species? (She’s fixed, anyway. No half-wolf half-goofy-child hybrids in my future. That could have been weird.)

    I guess the take-home message is, taxonomy and systematics aren’t really sciences in their own right. They’re more like the natural sciences version of what librarians do: an attempt to neatly arrange things that won’t arrange neatly.

  • Dale Amon

    JL: A servile class would be rather far fetched in a world with even enough nanotechnology to allow functional immortality. Even today, those services trades which do not require intelligence are being automated. There will certainly be a transitional period in which people in not yet developed countries are cheaper than the capital expenditures for the automation but that will be a very short period historically speaking.

    Once available, the technology will be adapted initially by the wealthy; they will pay through the nose and other orifices for it and cover the early learning curve costs just like they always do. The demand is so obvious and so large that market pressure will make it a certainly that the mass market will be served. There will be many mega-fortunes made in making us all live very long lives.

    As to population, educated populations already are failing their demographic duty. Perhaps with longer life spans that can be reversed. If a woman lives a thousand years, then taking out 20 years from her professional life to focus on child-rearing will not really seem like such a career-killer.

    Personally I see us stabilizing at a much lower population on Earth somewhere in the next century. UN demographics projections are for a falling global population in the second half of this century.

    There will also be the solar system and O’Neill colonies to siphon off population.

    As to folk becoming bored after a period of long life… yes, there probably are people who barely have enough reason for living through a current lifespan let alone thousands of years. They will find ways to kill themselves. Think of it as evolution in action. The ones who survive will be the ones who see life as a never ending opportunity for learning and experience. Those who don’t will remove themselves from the gene pool.

    The biggest problem I have with your proposed future is the concept that a ‘system’ could be created that would eternally work. It cannot. Even with long lived humans, things happen. There is the natural chaos that guarantees change. As much as I espouse libertarian ideas, I fully recognize that a libertarian society is just something that will take its turn upon the eternal stage and then pass. The future holds hells and heavens beyond imagining. Mostly it will be inbetween.

  • Dale,

    The future holds hells and heavens beyond imagining.

    Are you going to claim ownership of that? Because I would kinda like to use it myself one day.

    As an off topic FYI – I received notice of this yesterday, you may be interested. A PDF of Tom Ligon’s article(Link) in the Jan 08 issue of Analog, on building a Bussard reactor, on your kitchen table, for fun and profit.

    Another step towards creating a society of plenty, rather than scarcity.

  • JL

    Dale-

    I agree with your summary, but disagree with the fact that there will be no servile class. If you can engineer organisms “up” you surely could master the art of creating sub-humans. It’s not that I think people of the future would “need” laborers, but rather would want servants. There is no “need” for most of us to own pets, but we do. In the world of biological tampering, we’d have all sorts of hybrid animals as well as human beings altered to suit the desires of the Masters.

    Needless to say, bored people play games to amuse themselves, and I figure the game would be to engineer people the way humans have bred dogs. Light companions who come up with amusing things to say and do, and who come in various shapes, colors and sizes. Maybe even with super-short life spans, like the clone characters in that short story (title???) by Phillip Dick. I bet you even bored immortals probably wouldn’t want to breed complete monsters, and would surely use “taste” to keep creatures not crippled nor disfigured. We don’t do that to dogs (exception: the Shar Pei).

    I agree with the evolutionary pressure toward suicidal behavior. That would stabilize over the countless years, and that is exactly why I think those people would be indolent– less action = the best action to select for longevity.

    I think your Hell would come only from our perspective. I think we’d find the morals of the future immortals repugnant. This is nothing new– a 12th century citizen who is a devout Catholic would be frankly horrified if forced to spend a day in modern Las Vegas.

  • Dale Amon

    JL: I think you have absorbed the drumming media message that immortals simply *must* be bored and that ‘death is a good thing.’ I very much disagree with both positions.

    The message has been so consistent in screen and TV over the years as to be almost propaganda. Whether on Star Trek or Zardoz or Aeon Flux, the character type is always the same: bored, indolent, mean or childish.

    I expect very much different. The standard role you see in the media is of exactly the kind of personality that will *not* survive. Look for those who are never bored and always busy for an idea of the personality type suited to long life. I really see no reason for boredom in a big universe.

    Script writers simply lack the creativity to get inside a happy thousand year old’s head so they fall back on cliche’s or go inside their own head for ‘truth’ and figure they’d be amongst the ones who could not handle it and therefor no one could. The only thing to take home from the movie immortals is that screenwriters will be among those who self-select themselves out of the gene pool.

    And as to breeding serviles… it will probably happen somewhere, somewhen for some interval, but AI is so much less bother. It just doesn’t seem likely. Besides which, with thousands of years of lifespan, just think of the fun the anti-slavery campaigners would have. So much so that I imagine things going much the other way in a long lived society… you think PETA is bad? HAH!

    Personally I’d head for deep space to get away from it…

  • Howard West

    Did you know Mankind has transcribed documents dating back to the Melt Water Pulse 1 B 12,500 years ago? Those documents have been dated by the texts through the uses of text star charts written in the documents ? Yes there were at least two different ancient writers that knew that Polaris was below the Northern Horizon Circle setting as an early seasonal constellation with the new moon. They were written in an alphanumeric script with line ciphers to verify the transcription. Copies were found a Qumran from 2,000 years ago. However you need a computerized star chart to even know Polaris was ever below the Northern Horizon Circle. Problem is the “EXPERTS” have already dated them much closer to our time.

    The books are the Book of Enoch and the Book of Job.

    Howard West

  • Dale Amon

    Do not knock the experts. They are people who are aware of vast amounts of information and are very conservative in acceptance of claims as fact. It took decades to convince the majority that humans had reached North America pre-Clovis. Making that case took a great deal of work by a large number of people over a large period of time.

    If there are scientists who agree with this dating, they will simply have to fight their corner against all comers in the peer reviewed literature.

    I am one of those who thinks there may have been a much earlier human civilization in coastal areas of the previous glacial period that are now deep under water. I posit it but do not tout it as a fact. Unless long life extension comes along I do not expect to be around long enough to find out if my supposition has any real data behind it, let alone become accepted historical fact.

  • HowardWest

    OLD THEORIES DIE HARD
    ‘ A Harvard Professor Thomas S. Kuhn back in 1959 put it this way. “That no amount of factual evidence will shake an established theory: until scientists themselves, as a result of extra-scientific factors “shift” away from the “Paradigm” within which an Established, but incorrect theory is embedded. For that reason a Visionary never expects to be believed: he expects to be proven RIGHT!