Synthetic Life

Posted: May 23, 2010 in Politics, Science

This week Craig Venter announced the creation of “synthetic life.” The bacteria has a website encoded in it’s DNA. That’s pretty frakking cool. Also, longevity pills will soon be on the market. Combine these two and it’s getting more and more obvious that as a species we are going start actively directing our own evolution.

This has provoked a great deal of discussion, and I’ve gotten into a couple of arguments this week. I’ll detail a couple of them here because I thought that it might be a nice idea to include my thoughts here for later reference.
The first idea is that really, at its heart all life we know about springs from DNA and DNA is nothing more than a computer program. His team has successfully written the first artificial genome, put it in a cell and booted up the cell. The cell is the hardware, the DNA is the software. The hardware takes the DNA and turns it into an organism.
I really appreciated how he pointed out that the major challenge in the research was debugging the synthetic DNA. One deleted base-pair prevented the cell from booting up. That’s pretty neat and reasonably intuitive – certain sections of DNA are more sensitive to perturbation than others.
This article prompted a discussion about designer genetics – I pointed out that now we have the tech to design and create new, never before existing species. Since we’ve (as a species) figured out how to write our own programs (DNA) that would run (become organisms) we’re now at the point were we need to figure out the “standard library” of genes that go into organisms.
I remember the first PC Jr. we got when I was a kid, and I started to program in BASIC. There weren’t a lot of libraries and I wrote my own routines, which took a great deal of time, effort, etc. We’re going to need to come up with a good word to describe people who are going to be writing genetic code in the future. Genetic Programming is already taken by the artificial intelligence folks. I’d propose “genetic life coders” or GLC’s but that sounds kind of lame. If you’ve got something better, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
The point I’m trying to make is that we have an immense library of genes – from every species on the planet. The thing we have to do now (and where I’m sure a shit-fuck-ton of research dollars are going to be headed) is in sequencing, and identifying the function and purpose of every gene on the planet. As that’s happening, I’m sure that folks are going to be trying to figure out ways to design new functional genes to create new proteins for specific purposes.
The tech is really quite amazing, Venter’s team can now produce a synthetic piece of DNA several hundred thousand base pairs long in under twenty-four hours. That’s twenty-four hours from finished computer designed DNA sequence to ready to boot up a cell. TODAY. Twenty years from now, how much do you figure the tech will have improved?
The second interesting article I ran across was this: Pill to Live Past 100 Ready in 2 Years. This raised the interesting point of what happens when science finally triumphs over age related disease and death. I’m not talking about immortality, though. I figure there will always be accidents and murder (but I’m open to being wrong).
So dear readers – what happens when we live in a world where human beings have an indefinite lifespan? The first thing that comes up of course is the population problem: there are a finite number of resources on this planet – eventually there will be too many people (if there aren’t already).
How do we solve this problem? Allow me to state it simply: I posit that there is a sustainable population of human beings – I don’t know what that number is, but that number exists. I don’t want to argue about whether that number is two billion, twenty billion, whatever – it’s a number. Suppose that somehow, we figure out what that number is (because in a world where people have an indefinite life span, we’re going to have to figure that out). Population is controlled by two parameters – A = number of people born and B = number of people dead. The population is stable when A=B.
When human beings have an indefinite lifespan B is going to be composed of folks succumbing to non-age related illness (i.e. virus, bacterial infection, etc.), war, suicide, etc. I propose that if we’re going to get to a sustainable population, we’re going to have to have a global population policy. The number of people that die every year will decrease considerably. Consequently the birth rate (A) must decrease as well (or we won’t have a sustainable population – which leads to population collapse and extinction – parry that please).
How do we implement a global population policy? What should that policy be? And can we even have a civilized discussion about it? We’ve reached an era where human beings have the technological ability to direct the evolution of homo-sapiens. However, eugenics is still a dirty word in politics because of the horrible things that was done in the past. If we’re going to control the population in a world where humans have an indefinite lifespan – that means that breeding will have to be limited in some way. True, birth rates have been falling both here and abroad due to a variety of reasons – primarily education and access to family planning. China has a well known one-child policy to try to tackle this problem.
All of these policies have problems, and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t. But we (as a species) need to get a handle on how to control the population soon, because as the average life-span keeps increasing, people born this century may well be living to 500 or longer because scientists aren’t going to rest on their laurels until the problem of aging has been solved.

  1. Ellie says:

    Empowering women has been proven to be an extremely effective method at reducing the birth rate.

  2. Jason Ellis says:

    I totally agree with you Ellie. It’s perhaps the primary reason for the declining birth rate in the western world.

  3. Ellie says:

    Have you seen Stop the Blame: Population Control Imagery? ( ) I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t.

    When we start having conversations like the one you’re starting it is paramount that we bring in the conversation all oppressive biases. Racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, sexism, ablism, all of these issues are *immensely* tied into conversations when we start saying there can only be x people in the world. Extreme care must be taken to avoid such routes.

    Which is what I wanted to allude to in my last post a bit but I don’t think it quite came that way. Giving people autonomy, choices, ability to decide things for themselves, these are the paths we must take to achieve the goal of stability. Coming at it from any other angle (ie: We, the few in power, say that you, the people, must get rid of y people so we can have a stable number of x people) is going to be laced by all of the problems that bring out the worst in people.

    The game you’re talking about playing is an extremely dangerous one, most especially for those already deemed disposable by society who are likely to have the least say in the policies.

  4. Jason Ellis says:

    That’s precisely why I wanted to start this conversation! I don’t know what the right answer is – I don’t pretend to. The point is that there exists a number (x) of people that is sustainable on the planet. If we’re below that number, great! If we’re above that number, then we have to get to it. If we’re at that number, we need to stay there, or a little bit under.

    How do we educate people to make the choices necessary to reach a sustainable population? We’re moving in the right direction (reducing the birth rate via education, mandate etc. regardless of your opinion of the methodology in some countries). The question I’m trying to raise is what do we do when the life expectancy for human beings jumps from 75 years to 500, or 1000, or 10000?

  5. Ellie says:

    It’s not going to happen all at once, either. Those who are already most privileged to be benefiting from medicine will be the ones to see it first, it will take a while for it to trickle through to the rest of the human species.

    There is going to be a huge culture shift that happens once old age isn’t a cause of death anymore. It will take awhile to come into effect, as all social change does. Where’s it going to be heralded from? Are those who see the benefits first going to be the deciders of culture for the whole of the species? Isn’t that hugely problematic for everyone not those that benefited first?

    Simultaneously happening is the merging of life and machines. Perhaps something like the Matrix will become an option, only instead of being used as “batteries” people decide to upload themselves into a virtual world and live there. Again, this remains at the whims of those who watch the servers and can lead to all sorts of problematic things.

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