July 4, 2009
Evolution 2.0 (and 3.0 beta)
This is kind of a cool idea. Let’s say that evolution writ large is only accidentally about the preservation, transmission, and development of living species, but essentially about the preservation, transmission, and development of information. On this view, organisms are just a means to an end, particularly well-adapted couriers for all of this chemical data.
If that’s the case, then maybe there isn’t anything particularly special about the specific form of that data (i.e. DNA) or the way it’s been transmitted in humans (sexual reproduction). That’s just one way of doing things - in nonconscious, nonverbal, or nonhistorical species, genetic transmission, instinct, inherited traditions are the only means you’ve got. But once modern humans arrive on the scene, with all their increasingly sophisticated means of representing information, then Evolution 1.0, internal transmission of information, isn’t the only game in town — you’ve also got Evolution 2.0, characterized by the external transmission of information.
Once you reframe evolution in this way, then you can say that our species’ rate of evolution “over the last ten thousand years, and particularly… over the last three hundred” is actually off the charts.
So the guy who’s arguing this is a physicist named Stephen Hawking. (Maybe you’ve heard of him - he’s awfully smart, and was part of Al Gore’s Vice Presidential Action Rangers.) He also says that our tinkering with evolution ain’t over:
[W]e are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls “self designed evolution,” in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. “At first,” he continues “these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.”
If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.
I can’t decide if this is totally anthropocentric, or exactly the opposite. But it’s kind of exciting, isn’t it? I’m evolving the species right now, just by typing this! And so are you, by reading it! And so are Google’s nanobots, by recording all of it in their fifteenth-gen flash brains!