Creating Life?

Artificial Life?Geneticist Craig Venter is at it again.  Not content with shotgun-sequencing the human genome, Venter has recently speculated that designer bacteria might be the first wave in a process of converting other planets into human habitations.  This speculation of course, piggybacks on Venter’s recent fame as the creator of the first synthetic life-formA recent video by the New York Times, however, raises a pertinent question: ‘What exactly is life?’  Did Venter and his team actually create ‘artificial-life’? –or is his bacterial cell more of a Frankenstein’s monster than anything truly living?

This question has a long history in biology and philosophy.  It’s inexorably tied up with questions about the essence of life, and indeed of humanity.  Lucky for us though, we can skip tricky metaphysical questions about souls, élan vitals, and the like, and focus on something far more specific and parochial.  Just what is needed – what are the nuts and bolts required – for life?

Continue reading “Creating Life?”

Let’s Go to Mars!

MarsDreams of colonizing Mars (and beyond) came into the spotlight this week when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced their 100-year Starship Study.  The study, a joint effort between DARPA and NASA Ames Research Center, will evaluate the feasibility of colonizing Mars and possibly (eventually) even other solar systems.  This announcement has come with concrete proposals including plans to introduce synthetic life for terraforming, build robots that can be launched from Mars’s moons, develop one-way missions to send a few humans to settle permanently on Mars, and of course, Continue reading “Let’s Go to Mars!”

Astronomers find ET habitability, but only for the biological.

Gliese 581The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has made a business of looking for signs of intelligence in the universe.  Recent data from a team of astronomers at UC Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institute for Science have given SETI a promising place to focus their attention: Gliese-581 g, a planet 20 light-years away, in the ‘habitable zone’ around the red dwarf star Gliese-581.  Many factors determine whether a planet is habitable or not, ranging from the obvious variables, such as distance to the star and the star’s luminosity, to the less obvious variables, such as whether or not the planet has a large enough moon to keep its rotation stable or a giant neighbor (such as Jupiter) to sweep away dangerous incoming asteroids.

This discovery, made with the help of the new Kepler spacecraft, suggests that Gliese-581g may have the right conditions for liquid water, considered by many exobiologists (or astrobiologists: those who theorize about extra-terrestrial life) to be essential for life.

However, some have argued that since it’s not life but intelligence that we’re really after, the habitable zone may be the wrong place to look. Continue reading “Astronomers find ET habitability, but only for the biological.”

Genes, memes, and…

First there were genes. Then there were memes. But is there a third kind of replicator? In this week’s New Scientist meme theorist Susan Blackmore boldly proposes, “[w]e’re close. We’re right on the cusp.”

A replicator is an entity that makes hi-fidelity copies of itself. Genes do this and it is due to the different extents to which genes enable their hosts to survive that we get biological evolution. The origin and continued existence of life and intelligence was famously explained by this process one hundred and fifty years ago. Meme theorists propose that the same process underlies cultural evolution, where (on some accounts) the replicator of that process is the so-called ‘meme.’

In her article Blackmore warns us that “electronically processed binary information” is coming to exhibit the same characteristics as genes and memes, and so is coming to be a new kind of replicator. As a selection process this may not be so unlikely: a form of selection on the servers that sustain the internet…why not? But Blackmore goes much further: “The temptation is to think that since we designed search engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new replicator is involved we must think again.”

For Blackmore’s article follow this link.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small The levels of selection debate: philosophical issues
By Samir Okasha, University of Bristol
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass