exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
evolutionary theory, transgenic organisms

Natural Chimeras: Speciation through Horizontal Genome Transfer

A while back I posted about a crackpot scientist who speculates that humans could be hybrids of chimpanzees [sic] and pigs. What a crock! Everyone knows that the barriers to reproduction between such remotely related species are way too high at the chromosomal level for such a hybrid, even were it ever so briefly conceived, to be viable.

Except it turns out plants do just that—and in more ways than one. Not only does sexual hybridization happen between plant species; now it turns out that plants of different species exchange not just genes, but whole genomes, at graft sites, creating new species that are “allopolyploid” without the need for sex.

This was just published in no less than Nature, so it is not heresy. It has received science’s rabbinical kosher stamp.

Did you know grafting was a spontaneous natural process? I didn’t, but it makes perfect sense. If a growing tree trunk can incorporate a fence or an abandoned bicycle, plants could surely merge with each other where their trunks press together or their stems or branches intertwine. (Humans may well have gotten the idea of grafting from observing this natural occurrence.) It turns out they don’t just physically surround one another’s substance, but get promiscuous on the organelle and molecular scales. Like sexual alloploidy in plants, or even more so, this process might enable the formation of new species “from more distantly related progenitor species belonging to different genera or even different tribes.”

Polyploidy is far rarer in animals than in plants, but some evolutionary theorists have hypothesized that it may have played a pivotal role at key points in the evolution of vertebrates. In prokaryotes, horizontal gene transfer, at least, is accepted as a mechanism of speciation, and I found at least one paper that ends with the speculation that eukaryotes, up to and including yours truly, could have diversified in part with the help of this mechanism:

It can therefore be concluded that eukaryotes possess the same capacity and similar mechanisms for effective HGT as prokaryotes do, and laboratory experiments have shown that these mechanisms are functional. Given the instruments and the opportunities, is it possible that they are not being extensively used? It is only 98% true that the genomes of humans and other primates are 98% identical – they are almost 100% identical in almost every gene, and the process of speciation probably consisted of the acquisition of one or several sets of new genes by HGT. To mention just a single example, Alu sequences are very successful transposable elements that entered the ancestral primate germ line ~60 million years ago (by HGT?). They might have played a pivotal role in the speciation of primates. Which are the ‘human-specific’ genes? Are there humanization gene islands? Our prediction is that they will be found.

It’s an impossibly big jump to pigs and apes. Vertebrate animals have much higher barriers to genome-mingling—skins, immune systems, membranes—and now we’re talking about not just different tribes but different orders, a taxonomic gulf that (as far as I know) not even plants are known to cross. And at first glance, no asexual mechanism comparable to grafting exists that could ever bring mammalian genomes into such close contact with each other.

Except possibly . . .


I’m not arguing for porcine ancestry. Just pondering the increasing evidence that no species, and no individual, is an island, and that boundaries—lines drawn in the cytoplasm—are more provisional and permeable than we supposed.

biotech, GMO, transgenic organisms

Splice the Rice.

In case you hadn’t heard, human genes that code for three proteins—lactoferrin (an iron-binding antibacterial found in breast milk), lysozyme (an antibacterial saliva component), and serum albumin—have been inserted into rice. The three transgenic rice strains, unlike golden rice or the various strains of detoxified, fortified cassava, are not intended as food crops, but as factory crops (like vats of E. coli, but much cheaper) to produce the proteins for antidiarrheal medicine in developing countries and potential health-food additives in developed ones. (Lactoferrin in your yogurt, lysozyme in your granola bar?) The biotech that holds the patents, Ventria, wants to grow more than 3,000 acres of the rice in the open in Kansas, “reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods,” wrote the Washington Post in 2007. The company countered:

Because no other rice is grown in Kansas and because rice can grow only in flooded areas, the risk of escape or cross-fertilization with other rice plants is nil there, Deeter said. The company will mill virtually all the seeds on site — using dedicated equipment — to minimize the risk of seeds getting mistakenly released or sold.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department published its draft environmental assessment, which concluded that the project posed no undue risks. The public can comment until March 30.

However, the WaPo article undermined all this reassurance by pointing out that

Also on Wednesday, the agency revealed that a type of rice seed in Arkansas had become contaminated with a different variety of genetically engineered rice, LL62, that was never released for marketing. The error was discovered in the course of an ongoing investigation into the widespread contamination of U.S. rice by yet another gene-altered variety, LL601, which has seriously disrupted rice exports.

Those problems, along with the previous discovery of unapproved, gene-altered StarLink corn in food and the accidental release of crops that had been engineered to make a vaccine for pig diarrhea, undermine the USDA’s credibility, critics said.

2012 update here.

In case you wondered how the accidental ingestion of a human protein in your vegetable chow mein could be harmful, a friend of mine responded to my posting this link on Facebook, “I am deathly allergic to mammalian protein, as is everyone infected with Alpha Gal (a tickborne illness).” No, she’s not making that up.

If this kind of story haunts you with visions of anthropogenic plagues (of pig diarrhea!) killing billions—our very own smallpox-infected security blankets coming home to roost—be soothed by looking at it from a higher perspective. We humans are finally rivaling lowly bacteriophage viruses as scramblers of the genetic code. Like our effect on climate—whatever that is—it simply makes us another factor in nature’s ongoing creative destruction, along with asteroids, volcanoes, ice ages, and the like. Why should we feel guilty about being just another wild card in nature’s ceaseless self-revision? Perhaps we should be proud to be so useful. The broad-spectrum suffering the process entails is simply the price living organisms have always paid and will always pay for the misfortune of being born in one of the eras of instability and transformation, or, viewed differently, the noble sacrifice of being raw material. The world that will result will certainly be new and different, and may even contain some astounding prodigies. If only we could be around to see it.