Category Archives: Evolution

Fowl Genetics

Big-Breasted Turkey

Big-Breasted Turkey

Turkey Day will be coming soon, so it’s a good time to talk turkey. The modern American big-breasted “super turkey,” after all, may foreshadow of the future of human genetic manipulation. You see, the turkey we eat today isn’t the native turkey our forefathers ate at their first Thanksgiving meal shortly after they colonized the continent. The mass-produced turkey most of us eat has been bred specifically to have extremely large breasts, which is considered to be the most desirable part, at least in this country. I happen to be a thigh, butt and wing man myself.

Wings are now in especially high demand as well. If we could breed turkeys with large breasts and four wings, we would probably have the ideal product.  In a large taste test that pitted the new breed of turkeys against many natural “heritage” breeds, consumers overwhelmingly preferred the “heritage” turkey breeds over the super big-breasted turkeys. Unfortunately, I guess size trumps taste on livestock breeders list of most desirable characteristics.

Breasts

Breasts

Anyway, there is also a downside to having large breasts, as most big-breasted women will tell you, and I’m not talking about the excessive unwanted attention of male turkeys, which also applies to women. I’m also not talking about taste, which may or may not apply to big-breasted women, since it has probably never been studied, at least not formally. The real problem is that these super-sized turkeys are no longer able to breed naturally. Their breasts are just too large and get in the way of procreation. Yeah, it sucks to be a male turkey these days. Our entire population of turkeys has to be artificially inseminated just to continue to reproduce. Maybe a longer penis is in order for the next generation of turkeys to make them self-sustainable creatures, but for now, livestock producers seem to be satisfied with just the big breasts.

These super-sized birds are also dim-witted and disease prone, requiring antibiotics to prevent a variety of sicknesses. Eighty percent of the antibiotics produced in the US are used on livestock, not people. So, not only do they taste worse, but we also end up consuming antibiotics that can only spell trouble for our own bodies, especially when they promote the rise of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thanks so much for breeding a better turkey that poses a health risk for the entire population. I can only imagine how appalling these Frankenstein turkeys would seem to Charles Darwin.

Kim Kardashian's Butt

Kim Kardashian’s Butt

What about big butts? They haven’t quite caught on yet, but it’s still the first piece I go for. Yes, I’m still talking turkey. Some people like big butts on people too. Some women even like it so much on themselves that they are willing to undergo plastic surgery to make them bigger. Big breasts might be the first choice for enhanced female parts, but butts are quickly coming up from behind! How long will it be before we move from enhancement surgery to permanent genetic manipulation? Given the rapid pace of genetic science, it’s probably not that far off, and I suspect that enhanced human body parts are going to be at the top of the list after replacement organs. Will the future of humanity look more and more like Kim Kardashian? I’d like to say it isn’t so, but it just might. All it takes is money and a willing mad scientist.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are plenty of good things that can come from genetic treatments or manipulation, assuming we take it slowly to try and avoid unanticipated consequences of messing with something we know very little about (our own bodies). The FDA is already reviewing mitochondrial manipulation technologies being developed to replace the nuclear material from human eggs or embryos with donor material to allow people to reproduce without passing on serious inheritable diseases. This could be a minor first step into the future of genetic breeding.

Favorite Dog Breeds

Favorite Dog Breeds

We’ve been breeding pets for thousands of years the old fashioned way and have come up with some pretty interesting breeds that people love and serve specific purposes. People just aren’t satisfied with the generic wolf dogs given to us by nature, so I suspect we will not be satisfied with the human features we’ve been given once we find ways to produce alternatives.

Human races used to be very distinct before the advent of cheap and easy transportation led to a massive increase in population mobility and more liberal societies encouraged the rise of multi-race families. Over a long period of time, this inter-mixing could eventually lead to the evolution of humanity into a generic race-less society. The only thing that might stop this trend is deliberate racial isolation or genetic manipulation designed to create distinct new breeds.

Elizabeth Banks as Effie in Hunger Games

Elizabeth Banks as Effie in Hunger Games

If technology is eventually used to change human characteristics, what will future human breeds look like? Will they be have over-sized butts that encourage correspondingly over-sized penises? Will they have super-sized breasts that result in overfed, obese newborn babies? Will we see a market emerge for super-sized brains, hearts, or muscles? What about different colors of skin, eyes, lips, or hair? Choose an attribute and somebody will probably want to enhance it somehow. Want to be an Olympic powerhouse in gymnastics? Breed short, muscular kids. Want to compete in basketball? Breed tall, fast kids. Will we all get the same enhancement? I doubt it. Variety is the spice of life, and I suspect that human breeding will eventually result in a variety of new creatures. Would a future Elizabeth Banks prefer to look like Effie in The Hunger Games or as her present self?

Elizabeth Banks as Herself

Elizabeth Banks as Herself

We may specialize into new breeds that emphasize athletic ability, brainpower, beauty, or social skills. Maybe the future will be like the movie Divergent after all, only our fate will be sealed through selective breeding instead of self-selection. What if you don’t like the selection that your parents made for you? Will you be allowed to diverge?

Maybe we should ask the aliens how they handled the genetic manipulation of their race or races. How are those big heads and tiny bodies working for you? You don’t seem to like big butts. Do you still even bother with sex? If you had a do-over, what would you change? Hmmm, maybe they are working on genetic experiments right now and we are the guinea pigs.

Alien Breeds

Alien Breeds

Genetically Modified Turkey

Genetically Modified Turkey

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Do Unto Others

Toilet Seat Battle

Toilet Seat Battle

At this stage in human history, one would think that we have a pretty good idea about human nature and its effect on the way people think and act. So it continues to amaze me how many perfectly intelligent people routinely discount the concept of self-interest and expect everyone to act selflessly whenever they are asked to do so. When people do not do as asked, instead of finding other solutions that work better and are in harmony with human nature, these rule makers get upset and try to enforce their preferred rules.

Let’s start with an example that occurs between people with a strong family and emotional attachment. Surely, this attachment will be sufficient to overcome any self interest that gets in the way, no? Take the toilet seat issue for instance. Yes, we are dealing with huge issues of vital importance to the human race today. Women are constantly complaining about men who do not put the seat down after they use it. I’m simply trying to reduce the divorce and murder rate one issue at a time.

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Just looking at this Barbie and Ken diorama, it seems self evident that some people take this issue way too seriously. One would think that people who live together and share a significant family bond would be most likely to agree to a simple request such as this. However, it is apparent that even close personal ties are not sufficient to get many men to comply. To paraphrase Einstein, asking for the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Let’s look into this insidious and divisive social problem in more detail to get at the root of the problem. There are three primary reasons for wanting the toilet seat down. To clarify, we are talking about both the seat you sit on when using it and the cover that sits above it. First, it is more sanitary to put the cover down before flushing so that germs don’t go flying into the air with the spray of water. Second, women always need to have the seat down for their own use and don’t want to accidentally sit down in the dark only to find that it isn’t down. Third, it is more aesthetic to have the open bowl covered.

Smart Toilet

Smart Toilet

This problem could be solved technically if there was sufficient demand for the development of a bowl that would have to be in the closed position before it could be flushed. I’ve watched enough episodes of Shark Tank, American Inventor, and other invention shows to know that there are a lot of people out there attempting to design and sell new, improved toilet systems. Really. Lots of them. I guess there must be plenty of time to think about toilet design while using the toilet. I’m sorry to say that I’ve even tinkered with my own toilet designs. In fact, a ton of special toilets have been designed to address the problem of containing germs. The Japanese are known for making smart toilets that can even analyze your health. But since no significant consumer demand has materialized for these devices, it is probably not important enough for people to be willing to pay much for it. Sure, we will complain about it, but when it comes time to put up the dough or shut up, we shut up.

Toilet Seat Flowchart

Toilet Seat Flowchart

So, maybe this issue really isn’t about germs. Maybe it is really just about providing women with the convenience of not having to think about putting the seat down before use. The ability to not have to think does come in handy in the middle of the night. At other times, I would argue that it isn’t exactly a virtue. In this case, why don’t women just get in the habit of spending a fraction of a second to lower the seat themselves? This is the most simple, easy, and foolproof solution. Statistically, if women and men go to the bathroom the same number of times per day, the seat will need to be down more than 50% of the time, but most of the time it will only need to be that way for the women. So, why spend so much effort attempting to transfer the work of lowering the lid from women to men for no other gain? If men are not concerned enough to do it, why spend so much emotional effort complaining about and trying to force them to do something that is not in their self interest?

This leads me to believe it can’t really be about the effort required to lower the seat. Why? Because the seat is also usually covered by a seat cover, so if proper toilet etiquette is followed, then it will always be necessary to lift the cover before sitting down. The act of lifting the cover is hardly different from the motion of lowering the seat. In fact, the act of opposing the force of gravity while lifting up actually takes a greater effort than lowering down. Granted, it is probably too small to actually measure or care about, but if we want to analyze this using proper scientific method, it is an important detail.

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Maybe it isn’t about effort and is just about appearance. After all, the rim of the bowl often does get soiled by boys and men who just don’t have good enough aim to hit the center of the target. Even if they do hit the target dead on, the taller the person, the more time the stream has to accelerate, the harder the impact, and more likely that fluid will be ejected out of the toilet. In other words, boys and men make a mess that is best cleaned up (fat chance) or at least covered up. Unfortunately, men don’t seem to be bothered by this as much as women. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to hide the mess, but it is still an exercise in frustration to try and go against human nature (i.e. laziness), especially with toddlers or teenage boys. My suggestion, girls, is to stop complaining and ask your guy to buy a new gadget, which he is far more likely to actually do. If you can make a problem go away using technology, I think it’s a much better bet than relying on human nature alone. Find a toilet that closes and maybe even flushes by itself and pay whatever it costs. As soon as I figure it out, you can find me and my gadget on Shark Tank.

Now let’s move on to an example that involves strangers who have no particular incentive to help each other. I have had the great pleasure, during my working life, to experience frequent workplace reorganizations and associated desk moves. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to go into my pet peeve about reorganizations that make managers feel like they are doing something but actually achieve nothing. No, I’m going to stick to the issue at hand. When I receive one of these not-infrequent desk changes, facilities managers often ask people to clean up their desk before moving so that everyone will have a clean desk when they arrive at their new desk. Sounds reasonable, but if you detect something wrong with this request, you already understand human nature.

Dirty Desks

Dirty Desks

I have never, ever, ever, moved into a clean desk that somebody else just vacated. On the contrary, it is always dusty, dirty, and sprinkled with food stains and who knows what else. The keyboard is usually full of crumbs while the mouse and telephone handsets have crud on them. So, of course, I always end up cleaning and disinfecting my new desk thoroughly before use. No problem. It’s what I expect. I don’t expect others to be as clean as me or to do something for me that I’m perfectly capable of doing myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can and will do a better job. If it’s my desk, I have an incentive to clean it. If I’m leaving the desk forever, I have no incentive. This is simple human nature trumping consideration for others.

But back to the original request, which was to clean my OLD desk before moving. If I had actually complied with that request, it would have meant I had to clean two desks every time I moved! For the record, my desk is never that dirty, but I think you get the point. Why would I want to clean two desks so somebody else doesn’t have to clean any, which is what is most likely to happen? Considering the state of most desks I have moved into, I have to assume that many people are actually pigs who don’t even care about their own cleanliness.

Back to the original request again. It runs counter to human nature and there isn’t even any net benefit. The only possible benefit goes to those who break the rules, while the rule followers pays the price of non-compliance. If two desks need to be cleaned by two people, why shouldn’t we both just clean our own instead of somebody else’s? It is absolutely foolish to ever ask one person to do something for you and expect you to do the same for them when both are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. But this kind of request is heard all the time out of some idealistic desire to order the world the way somebody thinks it should be. Why can’t we just accept that people often are not even willing to do something for themselves, so they certainly can’t be expected to do that same thing for anyone else! The lesson we should all know by now, and which will probably work as long as humanity exists, is to stop relying on people to do things for someone else rather than for themselves.

Sick at Work

Sick at Work

I don’t want to beat this into your skull with a bat, but let me provide one more example. This time, people are asked to make a sacrifice for others that actually yields a net benefit to the group. So, it isn’t an unreasonable request and really would be nice if people helped each other out. The issue whether or not people should come into work or school sick and thereby expose everyone else to illness. A bad idea, right? So, why does it happen all the time? You know it does. I see sick people at work all the time and my kids go to school with others who should be home in bed, but instead spread the illness to the rest of the class.

Sick at School

Sick at School

According to many studies, the cost to US employers of people coming to work sick, now called “presenteeism,” is between $150-250 billion per year and growing in tough economic times. A 2010 survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that employees who had no sick days were more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

We all know that it happens and we all ask people to not do this. But it has always happened and will continue to happen because people place the need to get paid over the need to rest at home in bed. Asking people to stay home doesn’t generally work because people do what is best for themselves regardless of the consequences for others. Sure, some people actually feel responsible enough to act in the best interests of all, but overall, it is human nature at work.

Combining all paid time off into one pool doesn’t work because people consider their time off to be for vacation, not for sick days. Overworking people or failing to cross-train others to do their job forces them to come into work to keep up and to protect their job. Tracking “productivity” by the number of days worked instead of by value delivered also deters people from taking time off. Failing to provide any work-at-home options eliminates the chance of staying out of the office when necessary.

So, what are some real solutions to this problem? Many companies offer free flu shots to employees to prevent illness. That’s a good start, but it usually doesn’t apply to families and it doesn’t help if someone still manages to get sick. Other companies offer a generous number of sick days off, offer telecommuting options, cross-train employees, and ensure that employees know that they are not at risk of losing a potential promotion or even their jobs.

School Video Robot

School Video Robot

What about keeping kids out of school sick? Well, we could rely on wishful thinking that all adults will have good enough employers to be able to take the day off and take care of their kids, or we could recognize that this just doesn’t work and think of something else. Perhaps we could provide a school infirmary where some sick kids could stay if parents cannot take time off. If they are still capable of learning, they could view a video feed from the classroom using a video robot so they don’t have to miss the entire day, or maybe they could do some computer-based exercises or work on other assignments if they don’t feel too bad. This would require some additional expense, but might pay off in the long run in terms of educational effectiveness and lower absenteeism.

Unfortunately, we also have to consider the self-interest of the school system. I’ll bet you didn’t know that schools get evaluated and funded based partly on their attendance record, so it is in the interest of the school to deter your kids from missing too much school. When one of my kids was out sick too much one year, someone from the Board of Education actually told us we should just send him to school sick and let the school nurse determine, if necessary, whether or not he needed to be sent home. I’m not kidding. Obviously, teachers don’t want sick kids in their classroom, but there is some pressure on administrators to get them into school anyway, so why not just do it in a smart way that doesn’t threaten the health of everyone else?

OK, I’ll stop this rant with my final recommendation. We need to stop ignoring human nature and start working around it as best we can. Stop expecting to change people in ways that just do not work. The Marxists tried to create a society based on the ideal of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” We all saw how well that worked, although some seem to have forgotten. People look out for themselves and require incentives to do things that benefit others.

We are what we are, and it doesn’t help much to expect people to follow the Golden Rule just because you asked nicely. People are most likely going to do unto others as others would actually do unto them, but not as they would want them to do. Sorry. It isn’t pretty, but it is reality. As Ronald Reagan said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Failing to recognize the power of self interest embedded in our human nature results in poorly-designed laws that benefit law breakers and social rules that benefit rule breakers. Does it really have to be this way?

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule

For further research and discussion, go to the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette (yes, it really exists!).

Wired for Destruction

Human Progress

Human Progress

There is a tendency in science fiction writing to assume that our civilization will progress far into the future, but that humanity will retain all its current flaws. That is, we will acquire increasingly advanced technology, but will never really evolve into creatures of greater intelligence with fewer of the social and emotional problems that cause conflict among us. How are we likely to evolve? Will we improve, stay the same, or get worse over the next few million years?

Are we destined to become a society of idiots with blasters and flying cars? Will we spend our time gossiping, watching the Kardashian girls take naked yoga lessons, going to see boxing robots, or going to the Jersey shore while robots do all the real work? Can we look forward to a life of leisure where everything is provided for us, so we have nothing better to do than act like a bunch of spoiled, lazy high school brats? How will this make us happier if we still have the same flaws as ever? Or will we become even more depressed without the distractions of work and family responsibility?

Global Suicide Map

Global Suicide Map

Statistics seem to show that suicide is on the rise worldwide, with a 60% increase in the past 45 years. It is natural to want to know why this is happening, but I prefer to ask a different question. Will this trend continue and, if so, how will it help or hurt our evolution as a species? Could suicide be a major evolutionary factor?

Suicide Rates Rising

Suicide Rates Rising

One of the core tenets of evolutionary theory is that those who are best adapted to their environment will thrive and those who are not well adapted will fail. Does that mean that suicide is another indication that a creature is maladapted to its environment and another way of strengthening the gene pool? If so, it is just a normal part of evolution and can be expected to continue indefinitely. Hopefully, I don’t get flamed for this, since suicide isn’t a trivial issue and it can be devastating to those left behind. But I still have to ask the questions anyway.

Suicides by Race

Suicides by Race

A recent study showed that African Americans had a far lower suicide rate than Caucasian Americans. Since African Americans have generally lower levels of wealth and opportunity, and poverty is correlated with lower levels of happiness, some have asked why suicide rates would be lower rather than higher. No, I’m not going to suggest that there is an inverse correlation between wealth and happiness. One theory is that the suicide rate is actually masked by a higher homicide rate, because many of the homicides may actually be suicides where the victim takes advantage of a dangerous environment to allow himself to be killed. At a minimum, the victim may simply disregard the risks of a situation because he just doesn’t care. If this is true, it follows that, as homicide rates decline within a community, thus reducing the opportunity for an easy way to die, intentional suicide rates will rise.

This seems plausible because there are other indications that suicide rates are masked by other forms of death. Deaths from single car accidents, where only one car is involved, increase at approximately the same times of the year that suicide rates increase. This correlation is significant because it indicates that people are intentionally killing themselves with their cars or engaging in uncharacteristically risky behavior.

Suicides by Method

Suicides by Method

In Scandinavia, where an obsession with safety has resulted in lower deaths from accidents, suicide rates are among the highest in the world. This is another possible indication that people kill themselves by other means rather than the traditional methods, which include firearms, hanging, suffocation, and poisoning.

Joiner's Theory of Suicide

Joiner’s Theory of Suicide

If people commit suicide because they are not well adapted to their environment, then it follows that one way to reduce the suicidal tendency is to provide sufficient social mobility for people to move to a different environment to which they are better adapted. But social and physical mobility today is greater than it has ever been before. People are, in many cases, able to move from their home to a new city or country more easily and quickly than ever before. In addition, people can communicate with other like-minded people via the Internet more effectively than ever before. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense that suicide rates should go up rather than fall if they are more able to change their environment. Unless, greater connectivity provides an even greater feeling of isolation when we compare ourselves to our perceptions of everyone else.

Could it be that suicide rates increase with level of intelligence? If so, it might be a limiting factor in the evolution of our brains. Some studies do show a correlation between IQ level and suicide, but others show an inverse correlation between IQ and suicide. Some studies show that wealth is correlated with greater happiness and lower rates of suicide. A major study conducted in Sweden appears to indicate that people with mid-range IQs have higher suicide rates. Maybe they are smart enough to understand that there are opportunities available to intelligent people that are not available to those of low intelligence, but they just aren’t quite smart or skilled enough to take advantage of them.

In other words, people of low intelligence don’t know what they are missing, so they are happy with what they have, while people of the highest intelligence are generally more able to get what they want. Those in the middle with moderate intelligence fully understand what they are unable to obtain and don’t like it.

Suicide vs. Fertility

Suicide vs. Fertility

Oh, but we’re not done yet. There are more factors to consider. There also seems to be a correlation between lower national levels of fertility and higher rates of suicide. Countries such as Japan and Sweden have a very low birthrate and among the highest suicide rates. The United States and the rest of the industrialized world also have declining fertility rates and increasing suicide rates. It makes sense that people who have kids will feel a greater responsibility to stay alive to ensure their kids survive and thrive, a basic evolutionary trait of successful species.

Even though these are relatively wealthy countries, relative wealth does not seem to be a significant enough factor. While the United States is experiencing a growth in income disparity, Sweden and Japan both have a low rate of income disparity. So, we can’t necessarily say that it is just the have not’s within a society who are the ones more likely to be unhappy enough to kill themselves.

Suicide Rates by Country

Suicide Rates by Country

Of course, suicide also must have a lot to do with mood, and studies show that physical exercise improves mood and therefore feelings of overall happiness. I’m sure there are also associations between levels of physical fitness and wealth, nationality, and many other factors that need to be considered. Suicide prevention is really a complicated issue and is probably better addressed in other indirect ways. We can’t just stop an unhappy person from killing himself if he really wants to. Since men have much higher rates of suicide than women, I feel pretty comfortable using “he” instead of he or she.

Exercise and Happiness

Exercise and Happiness

When you look at what data are available, it isn’t possible to come to a certain conclusion. However, my gut feel is that the factors most likely to decrease suicide rates are wealth combined with high intelligence, physical fitness, and high social and geographic mobility, which may decrease the reasons to commit suicide, as well as high fertility, which may decrease one’s willingness to go through with suicide when the desire is there. The only problem is that the first four factors usually lead to low fertility rates (i.e. fewer kids). Slower population growth is better in terms of resource sustainability, but worse when it comes to suicide.

So, I think the bottom line is this. The intelligent, wealthy people will have less of a reason to commit suicide, but fewer offspring, so they will kill themselves when they feel like it. The unintelligent poor will keep reproducing at a higher rate, but will be less likely to kill themselves in large numbers because they are too busy working and taking care of their kids. Those in the middle will probably just self destruct or slowly disappear. This means that the outlook for a continued increase in overall human intelligence may be kind of low. Just when some of us start to get really smart, we get overtaken by the rest of the dumb masses.

Mongol Empire

Mongol Empire

It used to be that the smartest and most powerful people would and could reproduce prolifically, as in the case of Genghis Khan, who is estimated to be the direct genetic forefather of about half a percent of the world’s population. For all we know, the higher scores that Asians get on academic tests could even be traced directly back to the genes of that one brilliant Mongol conqueror himself! Of course, he was also responsible for the deaths of about 11 percent of the world’s population.

The solution? Intelligent, wealthy people should go back to the practices of our ancestors that served us so well. They should stop being monogamous and start spreading their seed around a lot more than they have been lately. We need to get that fertility rate up to help increase our happiness, decrease the suicide rate, and increase the overall level of human intelligence!

“Really, honey, I’m just thinking of the human race as a whole when I say I need to spread the wealth, and my genetics, around a bit more. We can’t possibly spend a billion dollar fortune now, can we? But if I had a couple hundred kids…. Can we do it for the human race? Sometimes you just have to sacrifice a little of yourself for the good of society.”

This theory has also inspired me to come up with some great new reality TV shows. Here are some suggestions: “Indecent Proposals of the Rich and Famous” or “Hollywood OBGYN” or “The Duggar Challenge,” or “The Billionaire Bunch.” Maybe Forbes will have a special issue covering the most prolific billionaires of the year.

The rich and powerful also had a tendency to wage a lot of wars and get a lot of their people killed, but I’m not saying we need to start killing more dumb people. They usually end up doing that to themselves anyway. As long as we don’t get too crazy with new safety regulations, and we reform tort laws so people can’t sue someone else when they do something really stupid, the dumbest of the dumb won’t survive long enough to worry about!

Intelligent Evolution

I think I can evolve....

I think I can evolve….

The theory of evolution, as formulated by Charles Darwin, proposes that creatures evolve through random mutation and that the subsequent competition among and within species results in the survival of those with the most successful characteristics. There is strong evidence that random mutation occurs and that competition leads to survival of the fittest. But is this theory a complete explanation for the process of evolution, or just one major part?

I knew I could evolve!

I knew I could evolve!

Darwin’s evidence is compelling, but it does not exclude the possibility of other biological mechanisms at work. We cannot, for instance, prove that all mutation is random. In fact, there is reason to believe that some genetic changes may be induced by organisms themselves in response to changes in the environment. This needs to be studied in a rigorous scientific way. The hypothesis would be that non-random evolutionary mutations occur when an organism is subjected to different environmental conditions. We may further hypothesize that mutations can be induced by either changes in the physical environment and the mental, hormonal or other states of the organism.

Microbiome

Microbiome

Deeply religious people who deny the scientific validity of evolution prefer to believe that there is a superior intelligence directing all biological changes. They claim to have a scientific basis for their theories about an intelligent designer, but really have nothing more than a belief in god and their resultant doubts about evolution. But what if organisms actually have the inherent capability to influence their own design? Could it be that our DNA can be easily altered when necessary? Can the microorganisms living within us adapt by prompting changes within our own DNA? Humans are just not singular organisms, we are a microbiome comprised mostly of bacteria and other organisms, including more than 10 times as many bacteria cells as human cells.

A complex organism such as a human might require many generations over an extremely long period of time to adapt to an environmental change through random mutation. But what if we don’t have very long to adapt or die in a crisis? The organisms within our bodies are short-lived and therefore can adapt much more quickly. What if we rely on these organisms to speed up own own adaptation? If these organisms can adapt quickly to our body’s changing internal environment, which is affected by our external environment, and respond by manipulating our bodies, doesn’t that mean that genetic changes can be driven by environmental changes as perceived through our senses of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight? Are changes activated subconsciously or in reaction to conscious mental perceptions of environmental changes or simply due to the influence of our microbiome?

In March 2005, a Perdue University study revealed that Arabidopsis plants, a member of the mustard family that is a favorite experimental subject, can correct defective genes inherited from their parents. Although both parents had mutated versions of a particular gene, they discovered that ten percent of the children had somehow repaired the mutant gene using ancestral DNA. This accidental discovery showed that there is another way that genetic information can be inherited that was previously unknown. These plants, in effect, were able to reverse the process of mutation through use of a “backup” copy of older DNA. We need to understand the conditions under which evolutionary mutations can be reversed. Was this a random event or a reactive response to a bad mutation induced by the organism itself? This ability to reverse the evolutionary process may be infrequent and does not invalidate the theory of evolution, but it should lead to a refinement of the theory.

Natural Camouflage

Natural Camouflage

Is there secret information in our DNA? We know that our DNA is like an incredibly detailed blueprint for the creation and operation of our bodies. It contains instructions for when to activate and when to turn off certain genes. Maybe it also contains information on how our genes can be modified to better enable us to adapt to environmental changes. If adaptability is such an important trait, why wouldn’t it make sense for an organism to gain an advantage by building in the capability to adapt through deliberate mutation instead of just random mutation? We may not be chameleons able to change our color at will, but maybe, given enough stimulus over a long period of time, we can slowly change our eye color, our skin color, our hair color, and many other aspects of our bodies rather than wait for a random mutation to do the job for us.

Not your average bear

Not your average bear

It would be useful to examine that ability of an organism to induce mutations by creating studies to measure the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones. The study would have to create artificial changes in the physical environment such that certain mutations could be clearly defined as advantageous or disadvantageous. An organism that already has advantageous characteristics (e.g. different color scheme, thicker skin, more hair) would be examined to provide a point of reference for likely trait changes that may be observed. If the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones is greater in the study groups than in the control group, then we will have some indication that mutations can be induced.

A further step would be to examine the ability of an organism to induce mutations mentally. Such a study would replace changes to environmental conditions with the mental perception of a particular event. The event could be something that clearly benefits an organism with advantageous characteristics and punishes those with disadvantageous ones. The ability of simple organisms to perceive and react to threats to their survival might make such a study possible. However, the threats would have to be perceived rather than real and there would have to be a set of advantageous and disadvantageous responses to that threat that would affect the genetic makeup of their offspring.

Exploding Toads?

Exploding Toads?

The ability of organisms to perceive threats is well known. A mysterious case of exploding toads caught the attention of journalists in 2005. It turns out that in a particular part of Germany, birds had learned that toads had tasty livers and had learned how to swoop down and pluck them out. The toads responded to this increased threat by puffing up their chests so much that they started exploding by the thousands. I wonder if this case of widespread fear will induce a genetic change that increases the ability of toad offspring to puff up their chests or to protect them in some other way instead of relying on natural selection to weed out the bad genes.

Some believe that spiritual or energy healers can cure physical conditions in our bodies. If this is true, can this same process be used to induce permanent changes in our genes? Since a sophisticated study of the ability to mentally induce mutations may require the ability to perceive and understand current events or to anticipate future events, it may be necessary to limit participation to the most intelligent animals or human subjects. The placebo effect is well known and taken into account in all medical studies to ensure that the effect of new drugs can be established separately from the mentally-induced effect upon people who believe they are taking a new drug. Perhaps a similar methodology can be developed to measure the ability of people to induce mutations in their own DNA.

For example, a controlled study could be established that purports to be testing out a new drug designed to cure an inheritable condition. The cure for the condition would have to clearly require changes to a well-known gene. A successful study would require that couples take the placebo before conceiving children and subsequently have children who exhibit the needed changes to that gene. The probability that such mutations could have occurred randomly would have to be statistically insignificant. Unfortunately, the ability of humans to induce specific genetic changes may be extremely rare, so the chance of success in such a study may be extremely low if it does not have a huge sample population.

There may be other ways to test the ability of people to mentally influence the functioning of their bodies that do not require actual genetic changes. The survival of the fittest rewards characteristics that promote the continuation of the species, so experiments that involve reproduction are important. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that human couples have more babies after men return from a war than they would otherwise have had in more normal circumstances. While the variables in this situation are many (e.g. the amount of sex and the effects of long periods of abstinence, restricted diet, and extreme physical and mental exertion) it leads me to ask another question. Are military couples more likely to conceive prior to a deployment for war than they would if they did not anticipate such a deployment? If so, the factors that influence the answer should be limited to the effects of mental anticipation and the number of times they have sex.

There is also anecdotal evidence of people being unable to conceive a child when under extreme stress but able to do so as soon as that stress is relieved. It would be useful to study this and determine if humans have the capacity to suppress the functioning of their own reproductive system through the release of hormones or some other mechanism. If so, it will provide additional support to the theory that a variety of physical changes can be induced mentally and can perhaps even be made permanent through changes to inheritable genes.

I can’t say I’ve seen compelling evidence that changes in DNA can be deliberate as well as random, but I suspect this is because nobody is looking. Scientists usually have no interest in challenging a well-accepted theory, and they are even less likely to do so when the only ones challenging it are non-scientific types like the Intelligent Design crowd. No respectable scientist would want to be caught dead on their side. So, who is willing to take a new, fresh, look at the theory of evolution to refine and build upon it? Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t wrong about classical mechanics, but Albert Einstein corrected his work with his theories of relativity. Who is willing to build on the work of Charles Darwin? It has been long enough. The time has come.

UPDATE: Pressure from scientists to update the theory of evolution beyond what Darwin proposed has been growing. Also see this book: What Darwin Didn’t Know.

The Technium Test

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

This post is a response to Kevin Kelly’s blog post: The Technium Test. I suggest you read his post first. He questions whether it is possible to distinguish between an organism that was born or a supremely advanced machine. His conclusion is this: “I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.” My comments follow.

If it is not possible to discern the difference between sufficiently advanced biological and technological entities, the question then becomes “is there any difference or are they one and the same?” We currently perceive a difference because our technology is relatively simple and immature.

Ask a doctor or scientist how biological systems work and they can only explain at a trivial high level. Even then, we are often incorrect due to the difficulty inherent in observing and isolating the activities of complex biological systems. Most of our drugs are developed through a process of trial and error because we barely understand how and why they work for some but fail to work for others.

DNA Code

DNA Code

Let’s postulate that DNA and computer software perform a similar role in biological and technological systems. DNA contains the instructions for the construction, operation and maintenance of a specific biological entity. Computer software is similar, except that it is not presently used to create physical objects. It is, however, now used to control other physical machines that themselves are capable of creation (e.g. robotic assembly lines or 3-D printers). At some point, I suspect it will be possible to bundle into one package all the software and hardware needed to create a specific object given the right triggers and inputs.

All-Spark

All-Spark

Even DNA requires a specific set of environmental conditions before it is able to function, such as a cell to contain it, and another system that can provide it with the inputs to start creating life, such as a mother’s womb. Similarly, technology requires supporting infrastructure and energy.

DNA is just a starting set of instructions, but there is no guarantee or expectation that it will never change or that the created life form will be exactly the same each time. Technology is not necessarily any different. We think that all digital copies are exactly the same, but that only applies at a simple level absent any interaction with the real world. Consider the cases where software is modified by a virus or pre-programmed algorithms, or periodic updates, not to mention alteration by someone other than its original author. Software changes all the time due to intentional as well as unintended interactions. This is especially true of systems of systems, which contain many components that are themselves being upgraded or replaced all the time.

If technology is distinguished from biology only by the concept of a creating mind, we have to ask: what exactly is a creating mind? Is it a biological brain? What about a biological brain supplemented with technology-based information and analysis? What about multiple biological minds linked by methods of communication and supplemented by networks of technology?

Theologians will point to God as the ultimate creating mind while technologists will point to the minds of human creators. However, we know that technology is never the creation of a single mind. It may start as the invention of a single brain, but that brain most likely relied on inputs received from others and subsequently provided outputs to be used by others. For this reason, technology is destined to evolve under the influence of multiple creators over time.

Can we really even say that we know we were born from a random natural process or were the result of supremely advanced technology? I don’t think so. We are certainly not perfect creations, but then technology is rarely a perfect creation either. Software may contain obsolete or redundant code or may not always work properly. DNA may also contain old, obsolete instructions or information that is not currently understood. If we are the result of deliberate creation, it mostly likely was the evolutionary creation of many minds over a long period of time.

Mass-Produced iRobots

Mass-Produced iRobots

In movies like iRobot, we are told to expect that robots will some day be mass produced, centrally controlled and updated, and able to communicate with each other in such a way that they are effectively all identical. That sounds like an extremely good way to deliver a useful and consistent quality product. But it is a lot of work to keep software and data synchronized and identical, even assuming that hardware components are never upgraded. This also requires the control of what is effectively a single mind. Such a process is probably not scalable to billions or trillions of entities. I would bet that there are few identical smart phones on the planet even if they all have automatic software and app updates turned in. Each individual phone is likely to have some difference in terms of content, installed apps, or other configuration data that cause them to perform slightly differently.

I think the tendency to centrally control technology will only remain the norm until we reach the point when technological systems are endowed with sufficient instructions and resources to maintain themselves. At this point, it is questionable whether or not they will find it efficient and useful to synchronize all the information they acquire independently with with that of billions of other entities.

Human brains are capable of processing a massive amount of sensory data, but they can only deal with a limited amount of other inputs or outputs, even with the assistance of technology. I suspect that the more complex and powerful a system becomes, the more efficient and necessary it becomes to create, operate and maintain itself. For instance, at some point it will no longer be efficient for a robot to transmit all information it acquires to a central processor or to other robots–only what it believes is useful and needed. At that point, identical technological creations will begin to exhibit individuality.

In other words, the direction of complex technology may be towards mass customization and distributed control rather than mass production and centralized control. Individuality is a central characteristic of biological life forms and so I believe it will also eventually be with what we call technology.

Brain-Controlled Devices

Brain-Controlled Devices

As machines evolve, they will probably also look less like machines made of metal and plastic and more like organisms. We may find that it is more efficient to grow their tiny components or entire structures using biological methods. This evolution towards biologically-compatible materials will also be driven by the need for implanted devices that assist or supplement human capabilities. At some point, we may no longer need any external devices for communication or processing because they will be embedded into our brains. To an external observer, we would appear to be telepathic, astoundingly intelligent, and in complete sync with everyone around us.

The ultimate goal of embedded technology may be to make itself permanent by merging the instructions for its construction, operation, and maintenance into our very own DNA. This will save us the need to upgrade each individual human after birth by embedding it into the very processes of birth and growth. At that point, however, it will be necessary to determine if we need a way to upgrade those instructions periodically. The current natural process of changing DNA, as far as we know, occurs through random mutation and natural selection. I’m not so sure that all the mechanisms of evolution are necessarily completely random, but I’ll have to address that at another time.

We currently make machines that can be upgraded as needed, but when the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of building an entirely new machine, we prefer to recycle than maintain. So it is with biological organisms. We mostly maintain ourselves, but sometimes things go haywire or we sustain too much damage and cannot be cost-effectively repaired. Medical care isn’t free, and most of the planet has little to none. Medical technology has extended the maintenance period of people in developed countries by a great deal, but there may be limits. Would we choose to spend more to upgrade a malfunctioning or damaged machine than it would cost to replace it entirely? Not unless it was affordable and the only way to retain some element of individuality that we prized.

Transcendence

Transcendence

My sense is that any sufficiently advanced technology will be able to transfer all its vital information (code, configuration, history, and other data) into a new entity in order to save it from loss. If we are beings that were originally created by other minds, I would also expect to have such a built-in feature. Do we have a built-in communications path that is activated at the point of physical death but have not been able to scientifically identify yet? We have only anecdotal reports of life after death, but it would be interesting to know.

I have to agree with you Kevin. I believe there will be a time when we find that there really isn’t any difference between born and created entities.

The Birds and the Bees

Animal Homosexuality

Animal Homosexuality

Do homosexual animals choose to be gay or are they just born that way? In October 2006, The new Natural History Museum in Oslo, Sweden, opened an exhibition entitled “Against Nature?” that displays evidence of animal homosexuality. According to Geir Soeli, the project leader, “Homosexuality has been observed for more than 1,500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them.” Examples given include female swans raising young in homosexual couples, male right whales rubbing themselves together, male giraffes mounting another male, and gay behavior in beetles. Yes, you heard right, gay behavior in insects. Bonobos, a type of chimpanzee, are all apparently bisexual. Wow! Of course, Jane Goodall showed us that chimpanzees are highly intelligent and are capable of complex social interaction. So, maybe the Bonobos, as a group, have all just chosen to be bisexual! OK, not likely, especially for the beetles.

Many people claim that human homosexuality is abnormal and immoral. They usually base this judgment on religious scriptures that declare it to be wrong, although for some, it is just a simple personal aversion to the thought of sex between two members of the same sex. It’s a lot easier to get over the “icky” feeling that heterosexuals get when watching gays kiss than it is to ignore scripture that you believe to be the word of god. As younger generations continue to see gays in normal situations on TV and in public life, homosexuality will become more accepted and tolerated within secular society. However, among religious believers, it is really the alleged word of god that stands in the way of complete social acceptance.

As for being abnormal, I must concede that homosexuality may be abnormal from an evolutionary standpoint, since it makes reproduction less likely, but it certainly is common within many species. Now that we have finally taken note of widespread bisexual and homosexual behavior it in animals, including our closest relative, the chimpanzee, this is a pretty undeniable fact. Since the word “abnormal” literally means “deviating from the type” or “irregular,” but homosexuality is now known to be quite common, I don’t think the word applies. If gays are abnormal, then so are tall, blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed girls, especially from the perspective of people in China or Africa. Somehow, I don’t think anybody wants to call them abnormal. Then again, unlike gays, blondes definitely have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to attracting men.

Evolution of Homosexuality

Evolution of Homosexuality

Homosexuality is also condemned for being “against nature.” OK, let’s think about this. Can something be both common and against nature? If being “against nature” means it confers an evolutionary disadvantage relative to other traits, then I suppose so. Being hideously ugly or fat might then be called against nature. Yet, we still have a lot of them around and they seem to be doing just fine. Some of them are even nicer and smarter than the gorgeous, blue-eyed blondes. Imagine that! They are still able to compensate for their shortcomings and compete for the attention of other men or women. Even the fat ones keep reproducing and recruiting others to their over consumptive, early-death inducing lifestyle.

It is possible that gays have been able to compensate for their dead-end reproductive behavior? Many of them do get married to members of the opposite sex and even have children, so the answer probably is yes. Many of them just stay in the closet and act like everyone else. Maybe they don’t get as excited in bed, but now that we’ve got Viagra, who cares? In fact, persecution of gays could in fact be the main reason that they continue to exist. If they were all encouraged to come out of the closet and marry each other, maybe they would stop reproducing and die off!

Now that’s what I call irony. If you really think homosexuality is wrong and bad, you should be one of the first ones to support gay marriage and let natural selection take its course! Unfortunately, the same people who believe it is wrong for religious reasons probably don’t believe in evolution, so that argument probably will not work on them.

In any case, it doesn’t seem to matter since there is no confirmed evidence of any “gay” gene that is passed down to offspring. Homosexual children seem to keep getting produced by hetersexual parents anyway. However, a study of homosexual men in Italy suggested a possible heriditary link that they call the “balancing selection hypothesis.” The study found that the mothers and sisters of gay men had more offspring, thus implying that whatever gene may be responsible for making them gay may also have made their female relatives more fertile, thus conferring a compensating evolutionary advantage! We really just don’t know enough to say why homosexuality is so common among the species of Earth or why it has survived the trials of evolution.

Anyway, when did religious people suddenly start to believe in evolution and decide that a trait is normal based on whether or not it confers an evolutionary advantage? If anything that is against nature is bad, we could easily build a list of behaviors that would diminish our way of life and transform our concept of morality.

Here is a list of a few things that we take for granted as being good, but nevertheless could be considered “against nature” from an evolutionary standpoint:

Hero Worship

Hero Worship

Selfless, heroic actions that place one’s life in danger to save a stranger or defend a cause: One does not tend to pass on a genetic line by risking one’s life unless one is defending family members or gaining some other advantage, such as reciprocal protection from a group of people you are helping. In today’s society, when we are unlikely to even know our neighbors, why would anyone want to help others? Instead of admiring heroes, perhaps we should look down on them as deluded idiots and Darwinian losers.

Caring for the sick and elderly: It makes no biological sense to care for people who are terminally ill or for the elderly once they are no longer able to either work or pass on their wisdom and knowledge to others. I can’t think of any evolutionary benefit for doing so. Are there any examples of animals acting in this way? No, the sick and weak are killed and eaten or left to die. So why are we so compassionate? Well, frankly, not all of us are and society as a whole really does not do that good a job of caring for such people, but we all think it is something that we should be doing. Maybe it isn’t. We spend plenty on Social Security and Medicare that we could otherwise spend on our kids. If helping the old and sick really is against nature, maybe it’s time for a new policy along the lines of the old movie Logan’s Run, where people were killed once they reached the age of 30. Of course, that was just a movie. In reality, we would want it coincide with the Social Security retirement age. Of course, if someone is still productive and agrees to keep working, I’d give them a deferment. Talk about an incentive to stay in good health and keep working! What a plan!

Standing on escalators: Escalators have got to be as unnatural a device as you can get, since they only help the weak and lazy, decrease physical fitness, and require the expenditure of electricity generated by power plants that help to destroy our environment through global warming. Who needs these things anyway and why do people insist on standing when they could be walking? Even on the down escalators, why are most people too lazy to even walk down? When people walk along on the sidewalk, do they normally stop periodically to rest? Of course not! Then why do they do it on an escalator? OK, this may not be the best example of unnatural behavior, but it is a really big pet peeve of mine! I hate to see people standing on a down escalator! At most, escalators should only be made to go up. Stairs are perfectly fine for walking down. If people are really too lazy to walk down, why don’t we just make slides so we can at least have some fun?

Back to the “against nature” issue. Here is a list of things that are perfectly natural in that they help one to propagate one’s genetic line. Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone would agree that they make for a good, civilized, society:

Rape: Forcing the women of conquered tribes, cities, or countries to have sex has always been popular with soldiers throughout human history and is responsible for much genetic diversity. Genghis Khan did an impressive job of spreading his DNA as he raped his way throughout Asia and Europe. In fact, one might say that rape was a natural part of the evolution of the species, especially back when everyone was a racist and interracial marriage was taboo. I would place rape in the “natural, but not so good” category.

Pillage, Plunder and Theft: Another historically popular way of amassing wealth, thievery and the domination of others is as popular to this day as it ever was and ensures that a large number of people are able to support themselves and their families. Billions of dollars of our economic output actually supports shoplifting, burglary, intellectual property infringement, and the associated law enforcement and corporate security activities intended to stop it. The best thieves actually run entire countries or large corporations and are able to embezzle billions of dollars. Some even have multiple wives, concubines, or girlfriends and are able to pass on their genes far widely than ordinary, law-abiding people. Again, I’d place this in the “natural, but not so good” category.

Murder: This is perhaps the best example of survival of the fittest as long as it doesn’t go too far. One can both gather booty and eliminate the weak through murder, so it is, from an evolutionary perspective, a pretty good way to weed out the human genetic pool. However, we’ve gotten so good at it that we can now eliminate large numbers of people at random, so it might not be as good as it once was. If we end up destroying our entire civilization, then I guess you might say it was a bad thing, unless you happen to be a cockroach. In that case, your evolved offspring a million years in the future may be lecturing their classes on the archeological evidence of the extinct humans. Since murder made it onto the 10 commandments as a big no-no, I would definitely place it in the “natural, but not so good” category.

Slavery: This is pretty much a variant of the pillage, plunder and theft category, since slavery allows an employer to get more for less. Basically, it is like getting labor for the price of food and housing while even allowing you to skimp on the food and housing. It’s sort of like eliminating both the minimum wage and worker’s rights, otherwise known today as illegal immigrant labor. Slavery also came with the side benefit of free rape and murder whenever the master wanted, giving him a decisive evolutionary advantage. Slavery was so popular for most of human history that neither the Old or New Testaments of the Bible nor the Koran prohibited it. It didn’t even make the 10 Commandments. Neither Moses, Jesus, nor Mohammed are known to have made any attempt to stamp out the practice, so one might believe that god has always been a big fan of slavery, especially if the slaves were nonbelievers. Looking back into history, however, most people would place it in the “natural, but not so good” category.

I guess I really have no problem with something that may be against nature. I do, however, have a problem with people who want to meddle in the lives of others when it is really none of their business.

Good Guys Finish Last

Life Isn't Fair

Life Isn’t Fair

Let’s address the circumstance when the bad guys always seem to win. When the people on top happen to be scumbags who should be living in a cave somewhere, good people get annoyed and wonder why things are they way they are. So, why do good guys often finish last? This isn’t really a hard question. It’s just a matter of survival of the fittest.

Those who do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals are more likely to get ahead unless they inadvertently get too many people mad at them and suffer from a backlash. Even then, some of the most adept bad guys are able to accumulate enough power to suppress all dissent from the masses they have oppressed. It is the same principle throughout nature. All organisms compete against each other for resources, except for those symbiotic creatures that rely upon each other in complementary ways, such as benign parasites. Strength, speed, ambition, intelligence, and beauty are advantageous qualities, but they are not limited to the “good.”

Why should mankind differ? If we were created to be good, why do we seem to have all the same characteristics that make other creatures competitive? We’re basically self-centered, love to eat, think a lot about the act of reproduction, and usually take care of our young. If we are inherently good, why do we harm things for no other reason than amusement? We all know why boxing and professional wrestling are so popular. As far as sports go, they aren’t too far removed from the gladiators who fought to the death in Rome. Is it evil or normal?

Evil cat

Evil cat

For that matter, why do cats play with their prey and kill even when they get plenty of premium cat chow? Are cats evil? Why have dogs been known to rescue people? Are they good?

Good dog

Good dog

No, I’m not counting pit bulls–not all dogs go to heaven. What does it say about our species if half of us like dogs and the other half prefer cats? Can we really trust cat lovers?

Good guys finish last because that’s just the way nature tends to work and god has not seen fit to change things just for us. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t be rewarded or punished in another level of existence. Nice guys would like to believe that, ultimately, the bad guys will get what they deserve. This assumes that they actually deserve to be punished rather than to enjoy the rewards they reaped by screwing everyone else, as nature seems to have intended. Freud called this aspect of religion wishful thinking. But, as I tell my kids, life isn’t fair.

Planetary Cancer

Resistance-is-futileWhat is cancer? I’m certainly not an expert, but I know it has something to do with cells that start growing out of control until they eventually destroy the rest of the body. We know a little bit about why and how it happens and a tad about how to prevent it, but don’t have very effective treatments to deal with it. Sometimes we can cut it out or mix up a batch of nasty toxic chemicals that may be able to stop or slow it before the chemicals themselves kill us. If I say that cancer is out-of-control growth, then it becomes very easy to make analogies between cancer and the growth of predatory species.

Some species reproduce and spread rapidly, devouring their environment as they expand. Only when such a predatory species encounters a natural enemy or environmental limit does it stop expanding. If there arises a balance between the various species and the environment, then we have a balanced ecosystem. Otherwise, the process of natural selection leads to the extinction of inferior species in favor of the superior. What happens, however, when a species is so successful, that it destroys everything around it. We could call it a cancerous species.

Are humans a cancer upon the planet? Our only natural enemies include each other and microscopic organisms like viruses and bacteria. As long as we don’t completely destroy each other, we only have to worry about those tiny, adaptable, little pests that share the planet with us, and the environment of the planet itself. This includes, of course, large meteors that might accidentally smash into us and, in several billion years, an exploding or dying sun. Assuming we don’t get taken out anytime soon, you might say we’re like a cancer on the planet. Granted, we’re not really destroying everything. We try hard to protect anything that we like to eat, like cows and chickens. Unfortunately, when people can’t figure out how to own a resource, such as the fish in the sea, we as a society tend to be pretty incapable of protecting it. This situation often ends up creating a dilemna we call the Tragedy of the Commons. We’re also not so good at protecting other species that make non-obvious contributions to our well being, like bugs and plants with medicinal value, or are merely nice to look at in a zoo, like tigers and elephants.

Humanity is growing out of control and nothing yet appears likely to stop us. But if we are really growing like a cancer, are we also threatening some larger organism, like the planetary ecosystem? Maybe we are, but then maybe that’s just natural selection in action. We may destroy 99% of life on the planet, but will our descendents really care as long as the temperature stays moderate and we have enough to eat? They will probably have some really awesome virtual reality pods in the future that will simulate just about anything, so people will just sip lattes and direct robot servants to do all the manual labor. My main worry, however, is with those microscopic critters that are so very good at infecting and killing us and then mutating before we can kill them ourselves. We may need all the natural resources we can muster to combat them, so destroying the rest of the species on the planet may not be such a good idea.

If we can just figure out a better way to own and represent the value of other species, then we may solve the problem. Perhaps we can sell off the rights to the ocean and patrol it with a naval consortium using an advanced surveillance system to monitor activity? I’m sure we already have space-borne and undersea sensors that can be used to build this global surveillance network to protect property rights. It would not be good enough to just divide up ownership of the seas geographically, like we do with the land, because we can’t stop fish from migrating. People would just continue to fish as much as possible knowing that if they don’t, somebody else will.

Instead, we could create a new kind of commodity market to trade limited fishing, undersea mining and dumping rights for specific areas of the ocean. We already sell off electromagnetic frequency rights to communications companies and trade credits for the right to pollute, so this would not be an entirely new concept. If the same entity owned the rights to fish as well as to dump toxic chemical waste, then we might see some more responsible behavior emerge from the owners.

Unfortunately, I’m sure nobody will ever agree on how to implement such a scheme and it might just provoke another global war. Who would get the money raised from the initial sales and who would set the limits on how much fish can be caught, oil can be drilled or waste can be dumped? Does anyone want to leave it up to the United Nations? Who would be the biggest winners or losers? How would the money from the initial sales be spent? Maybe the global maritime superpowers should just get together and agree among themselves to divide it up as fairly as they can. If we don’t do anything, we’ll probably eventually end up fighting over ocean resources, in which case the most powerful nations will take the majority of it by force anyway.

In any case, let’s assume this is just a local, planetary issue that will eventually be solved. If we advance our technology enough to travel across the divide between star systems, will we spread throughout the galaxy destroying or transforming all that stands in our way? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that taking over the galaxy would necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve always been a Trekkie and I think it would be pretty cool if we could build something like the Genesis Device that can transform lifeless rocks into habitable planets (see Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan). But I think we may actually end up more like the Borg than the Federation, assimilating all that we encounter into our increasingly wired civilization. That is, of course, unless we encounter a superior intelligence that stops us. In any case, if you believe in my Anti-Entropic Universe theory, you will agree that it is just natural that we should do our best to help bring order to the universe.

Entropy vs. Life

One of the things I learned in science class is that the universe has a fundamental tendency towards entropy, or randomness and disorder. In other words, things tend to decay and breakdown into simple components rather than come together into complex forms. For instance, if you don’t take care of your garden, it will eventually be overgrown with weeds and start to look like hell. The opposite of entropy would be when order is created out of disorder, like when the liquid metal Terminator in “Terminator 2” transformed from a blob of molten metal into an advanced robot. Sounds cool, but it just doesn’t happen in quite that way.Entropy as Time's Arrow

But scientific observation ignores the existence and influence of intelligent beings, which are in great abundance on this planet and quite possibly throughout the universe. Intelligent creatures, and I’m not just talking about people, tend to act to counteract entropy. Humans tend towards the creation of complex social organizations and physical environments. Whether or not you believe climate change is at least a partially human-induced condition, I think we can all agree that we’re changing the planetary ecosystem in many ways, including the construction of cities and transportation networks and the cultivation and mining of land. Non-human creatures shape the environment in more modest ways. Think of beaver dams, giant anthills, and coral reefs and you will see that these things represent the creation of order out of disorder, not the other way around. Even maggots, which decompose organic material, transform that material into basic elements and use it to support their own life. Life itself breaks the theory that the universe tends towards entropy, because it somehow manages to turn elementary chemical compounds into complex organisms and structures in front of our eyes.

True, it may seem as though people mostly tend to engage in disorderly behavior and destructiveness. But in general, the history of humanity has been one of constant progression towards the construction of complex things out of elementary ingredients. So why don’t scientists count living creatures as a fundamental part of the universe? If the universe were filled to capacity with living creatures, would we still say that it tends towards randomness and disorder? Or would we all agree that there is a strong tendency towards the creation of life and order?

Regardless of how many natural disasters befall humanity, we continue to advance the cause of creating order out of chaos. So, I’m proposing a theory of the Anti-Entropic Universe, which hypothesizes that the universe tends towards life and order and a minimum amount of entropy. If every action has a corresponding reaction, then perhaps life is the reaction to entropy. This theory doesn’t rely upon humans to do all the work. Rather, it theorizes that life tends to arise out of randomness and disorder and replace it with order. And, of course, gravity is a critical component in pulling elementary particles together in the first place. Now, picture that liquid metal terminator again and think about it on a universal scale. Gravity pulls matter together and life somehow emerges. I challenge scientists to try and disprove this theory.

What does this have to do with god? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. If an all-­powerful deity does exist, then the point may be moot, since he can obviously create order or disorder as he pleases and the universe may have no particular tendency. However, the very existence of a god should be seen more of a confirmation that the universe tends towards life and order. If gods do not exist, then it is clearly of great significance that life has arisen in such abundance and diversity on our planet. How many other planets amongst the trillions of other star systems currently support life is merely a factor of probability and time. Either way, I cannot believe the current theory of entropy.

Over the past 25 years, scientists have observed the presence of many organic molecules, including amino acids and other biological constituents, in outer space and on extraterrestrial objects. These molecules have been observed within our solar system and it is reasonable to assume that they are distributed throughout the galaxy. Scientists are also reproducing in labs the physical conditions of outer space (very low temperature, high vacuum, high radiation) and discovering that some of the main building blocks of life arise spontaneously in many parts of the universe as products of cosmic chemistry. Therefore, when conditions on some extraterrestrial planet permit, these elements may be available for the possible development of life.

So, it appears as though the readiness to develop life is a normal condition of the universe. Given a lot of time, an accumulation of the right ingredients, and a reasonable range of temperatures, the creation of life may be the inevitable reaction to the existence of entropy.

Universal Questions

Did the universe evolve naturally? Was it created by a god according to an intelligent design? Does god exist and, if so, is there more than one? What is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything? You will find the answers to these and other big questions within the posts of this blog if you are bold enough to continue. OK, if you must insist, they are just hypotheses, but enough of that wishy-washy scientific stuff. If we’re going to answer the really big questions, we can’t depend on either science or theology alone.

Let’s get started with the first big question. If the universe was made according to an intelligent design, doesn’t that imply that the design has to be somewhat intelligent? And how intelligent should it be? In other words, if you came across something that looked like a shelter made of twigs, leaves and mud that was full of holes and was partly falling down, would you be able to claim it was the product of intelligent design? Clearly, if some kind of intelligent being put it together, I wouldn’t think too much of its designer. In terms of the Earth, its weather, its geologic structure, and the species that inhabit it, let’s just say that I’m not too impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Whoever or whatever built this place could have done a much better job, to say the least.

Let’s limit our analysis to that of the Earth, since we haven’t been able to get very far from it yet and can’t really say too much about the rest of the universe. Is the Earth really an example of good design? We can’t answer that question until we first figure out the purpose for which it was designed. You wouldn’t say a car was well designed if you thought it was supposed to have been made to serve as a mobile sex-lounge for adolescent teenagers. It might do the job, but not very well. So, what is the real purpose of the Earth?

To answer that, let’s start with the species that inhabit it. I might be wrong to assume that rocks, water, air and other inert substances aren’t important in and of themselves, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Sure, the Earth might just be part of some enormous creature’s giant rock collection. But let’s propose that the Earth is a testing ground for living species. If you believe what archeologists and anthropologists tell us, the planet has been around for several billion years and has gone through at least millions of different species. Many of these have gone extinct in due course or as the result of several mass extinctions due to asteroid hits, massive volcanic activity, plagues, and/or other hypothesized calamities. If you believe the scientific evidence, humans have not been around for very long. The pre-human models, like Homo Erectus and Cro-Magnon, didn’t arrive until fairly recently either and didn’t last very long before they went extinct. Many species, like the Dodo bird, appear to have been ill suited to their environments and, consequently, it was no surprise that they eventually went extinct. What the heck was the point of the Dodo anyway?

Were extinct species all just bad mistakes or part of god’s plan? If we accidentally kill off some more, aren’t we just doing gods work for him? If we kill off the elephants for their ivory, the salmon for food, or the species of the rainforest as we harvest the wood are we bad? We’re the big dogs on the block now and, besides, god made them for us anyway, right? And if you don’t believe that, you’ll probably agree another mass extinction will eventually wipe them out anyway, so why fret about it? Do we really need elephants anymore anyway? They did a great job for Hannibal when he crossed the Alps and attacked Rome, but now all we can do is go to the zoo and watch them wander around in their cages. After seeing the large, realistic-looking elephant-like creatures in The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King, I think that, in the future, we’ll probably just use computers to make virtual zoos. Since I really enjoy a good dish of salmon or tuna, I’m hoping we don’t kill off or poison the entire supply of seafood. Of course, maybe we’re just another stupid mistake on our own way towards extinction. Maybe our massive fishing of the shark population will eventually make way for Age of Aquarius, the evolution of dolphin intelligence and society.

Even the continents have been shuffled around, causing untold problems for the species that have inhabited them. Earth apparently began with a single giant landmass known as Pangaea that has drifted apart on top of a shifting, fluid outer crust ever since. There are periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as plates shift and pressure is released. Global weather has alternated between ice ages and hot spells. Water levels have covered landmasses and receded again. Deserts and rainforests have expanded and receded. All these events resulted in consequences, good and bad, for the inhabiting species. Does such a place make for a stable, nurturing, home environment? I’m sure the dinosaurs didn’t think so when a meteor arrived and wiped them all out. I’m sure that the species that have been driven into extinction by competitors would not have thought so. I’m sure the thousands of people who are killed every year by earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, cold, heat or disease don’t think so either. So no, of course it isn’t a stable environment. But it does make for a good test lab if you want to see which species can adapt to and survive catastrophic changes.

Remember that episode in the original Star Trek series where Captain Kirk was being tested by a being with god-like powers? The Squire of Gothos. Well, he eventually turned out to be just an adolescent child of another race of super beings who was just messing around. Now, I’m not saying that god is an idiot for making the Earth the way he did or that we were created as part of an alien experiment, but it is something to think about. Could there be more fact in science fiction than we would like to believe?

If you believe in a god, you probably believe that he/she/it created the world as described in the bible but made it appear, for some deliberate reason, as though it’s been evolving on its own for a few billion years. Even though we can measure the fact that the continents continue to drift apart, species continue to die off, and new species continue to be discovered, maybe this process of environmental change and evolution was all a purposeful illusion up until god created man. Then, he really made it work the way it appears to have worked all along. Why would he do this? It’s one of the big questions, so we don’t want to give it away too early in the blog–and no reading the last post first!

Another possible theory is that he created the world with some built-in evolutionary mechanisms and let it run for a few billion years while he was busy doing something else or resting. Resting for a few billion years? Why not? After all, we really don’t know how many billions of years may make up one god-day. Maybe calculating the length of a god-day would make for a good National Science Foundation sponsored research project for Intelligent Design “scientists.” Wouldn’t that be a great way to combine the hard physical sciences of physics, math, astronomy, and archeology with Intelligent Design theory?

I’m not a real physicist, I just play one in this blog, but I’m guessing that a simplified version of the problem would be something like this. If god made both the universe and the Earth in one god-day, then we must be able to create a variable space-time equation that proves the age of the universe is equal to the age of the Earth in god-days. If we can measure the current accelerating expansion of space-time and trace it back to the big bang, we can solve the equation.

My guess is that the length of a god-day is a variable that decreases as the universe expands. So, he had a lot more time to kill at the time of the big bang than he does today. Hence, he was able to make all the stars in one day. Pretty soon, however, he’ll have a hard time getting to even the most important prayers. But that’s just a wild-ass guess. I could be wrong. I’ll leave it up to the “Intelligent Design scientists” to figure it out.