Genetics, Computers, and the Age We Live In
Free Flow Information
We live in a wondrous age. Never in history has the individual had such access to human knowledge (although many still don’t). The Internet is easy to take for granted, but it’s worth remembering what a recent development it is. A decade ago broadband was a new thing for me; only a few years earlier I was dialing up through a phone line. Oh, the nostalgic dial up tone…
As several people have put it, the Web is akin to a global human nervous system, whereas previously information spread purely by means such as word of mouth, telephone, and courageous pigeons. One of the most important consequences is the phenomenal rate at which human knowledge can expand.
I recently read The Double Helix, by James Watson, one of the “discoverers” of DNA back in the 1950s. One point that struck me was that beyond ingenuity and drive, serendipitous access to experimental evidence played a huge role in the discovery. Watson and Crick were frequently in touch with academics like Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the latter of which had excellent pictures of X-ray crystallography suggesting a double-helical structure. They also learned, by slow dissemination, of Chargaff’s groundbreaking experiments. This enabled early insight into A-T and G-C base pairing, and by extension a method for information storage and replication.
The famous chemist Linus Pauling, for all his brilliance, may simply not have been exposed to the right kind of evidence, people or thinking. That’s not to deny Watson and Crick’s own talents, of course, but only to suggest the amount of information asymmetry before the age of the Internet. The Web does not necessarily put everybody on the same playing field: there’s still a lot to be said about physically being around the right people, in the right place and the right time, notwithstanding an individual’s isolated predispositions. But I can’t help but be astounded at the current rate of scientific development, catalyzed (for lack of a better word) by open online information sharing. It’s unprecedented.
Fear of Flow of Information: DNA and Change
The pace of technological change these days can be overwhelming. Along with all the opportunities, there are some scary threats. What if Artificial Intelligence continually self-improves, leading to a singularity event? What if genetic manipulation goes out of control? Given my recent readings, and a viewing of Gattaca (a sci-fi film on genetics), I started thinking about the process of evolution and the evolution of our biological understanding.
Despite all our fear of genetic manipulation, consider the following: for most of our history, man/womankind has been subject to natural selection. Random (?) mutations occur in our genome, and our environment picks out the good ones, and suppresses the bad ones. But what happens when most evolutionary pressure is removed? Some mutations may be fatal. But I suspect many of the negative ones will be somewhat benign: perhaps leading to small differences like tooth number, or unnecessarily bigger ears. Without the harsh pressure of selection, coupled with advanced medicine, these mutations carry on in our gene pool, combining and amplifying.
The question arises: alongside our technological progress, far from being unnatural, is it not inevitable and necessary for us to develop an understanding of genetics, and an ability to manipulate genes? That’s not to say we should be reckless. But perhaps wise, intelligent intervention is upon us.