Biotechnology

Evolving Door

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Evolution Isn't What It Used to Be, by Walter Truett Anderson, New York: W.H. Freeman, 223 pages, $23.00

Does the convergence of biological and computer technology promise a radically different age? Yes, says futurist Walter Truett Anderson–but the synergistic convergence of these two, remaking ourselves, matters even more.

He sees a growing bio-info complex wrapping itself around our planet, beginning with gene banks, satellite monitoring of ecosystems, and "smart maps"; he envisions nothing less than a wired bio-world. Our current focus on the Internet forgets that the next century's premier emergent technology will be biological. Policy mavens looking only at information density and flow are missing a crucial element, says Anderson.

Enzymes–plainly the most important biotechnology of our era–already permeate many industrial processes. Unlike fossil fuels, they carry chemical programming which drives complex reactions, are renewable, and work at ordinary pressures and temperatures. But many biotech wonders to come will be surprises. Reminding us that "Bell Labs hesitated to apply for a patent on the laser because they couldn't see how it had any relevance to telephones," Anderson notes that even many of those driving the biotech industry do not see that there is no longer a clear boundary between biotech and plain biology.

Without much better handling of the rising tide of bio-info, we cannot possibly manage our world, warns Anderson, neatly extracting the principal lessons policy managers must grasp.

First, all information–defined as facts organized until they have relevance and purpose–is incomplete. Hoping that more data will resolve an issue and force a decision is just wrong: Information always widens the range of choices, rather than narrowing them.

Worse, bio-info won't be enough. It must be ramified into knowledge (information internalized, integrated) and brewed into wisdom (knowledge made super-useful by theory).

Finally, says Anderson, we should recognize that most people aren't policy wonks, and won't see the world as the info-suppliers do. Most see wilderness as the home of Bambi, not as a complex weave where bugs are as vital as beautiful mammals.

Hence, public controversies frequently pit people talking statistics against those talking myth. The result: "Rationalists with their hard disks full of economic or scientific information bump against invocations of Frankenstein and Gaia."

Once created (and contrary to conspiracy theorists), information both leaks and cannot be called back. This is especially true of bio-info. Vaccination, whereby "we routinely have our immune systems remodeled," has transformed population profiles, letting most of us reach old age. Nobody could halt its use, once known, though "it was opposed by Thomas Malthus who–correctly–foresaw that it would remove a control on population growth." Similarly, the use of antibiotics quickly became global, and their ready application now has accelerated devolution of resistant strains–a foreseeable backlash, in retrospect. Such ordinary augmentations we are used to, and those coming–vaccines against male baldness, say, or tooth decay–seem to promise easy rewards. This century has been the blithe honeymoon period between biotech and humanity, with benefits far outweighing hazards.

The old treatment modes–preventive, palliative, and curative–are giving way to a powerful fourth: substitutive. I have an artificial left shoulder, wired back together after a softball accident. Soon I may need a pacemaker, or even some of the odder additions people accept: artificial sphincters, prostheses, cochlear implants to restore hearing. Mechanical, they seem as natural to us now as eyeglasses and tooth fillings.

Anderson predicts that the next major augmentation will probably be a wholly "new chapter in the history of animal husbandry–and indeed in the history of life on Earth–because there has never been an animal able to exchange entire organs with those of other species."

Human-human transplants are commonplace, with new anti-rejection drugs and better surgery spurring their survival. In the last five years costs have been cut nearly in half, so that a kidney transplant now costs $50,000, and a liver $200,000. But with transplant numbers rising by 50 percent in six years, donors are scarce. Pigs have organs the right size for humans, and such "transgenic" animals will be used instead, possibly this year. Genetically engineered with human proteins to cloak offending pig molecules, pig organs will fend off our defenses, reducing the rejection problems. The key development is information at the molecular level.

Predictably, animal rights advocates oppose this approach. Yet transgenic transplants confront these views with an uncomfortably clear issue. Plainly, people will die immediately without the organs, as they do now. This is unlike diseases such as AIDS, which impose a heavy toll on lab animals in pursuit of a future cure. Transgenics presents us with concrete either/or decisions, right now. As our command of bio-info increases, such choices will get more stark, and rancor will rise.

"Precision farming" will be an outcome of the bio-info web. Satellite data will tell a farmer how much fertilizer to disperse in real time, conveyed to him on his tractor (air conditioned, computerized, cellular to the max). Back in the barn, "geneware" installed in cows can yield medicinal milk, rich in proteins like insulin which we now must laboriously manufacture.

Even the usual farm waste, such as corn husks and stalks, wood chips and pulp, may be used as a base to brew up food directly, using suitably engineered "smart bacteria." Such tight networks can perhaps leapfrog the heavy-chemical, heavy-machinery phase of agriculture to a smart-farming mode.

This savvy farmer is most needed in the undeveloped world, where the great population crush of the next century will arise. The common liberal orthodoxy that living close to the land leads to eco-awareness is historically naive, considering that Mesopotamia, northern Africa, and the Mayan civilization were ruined by people who had lived there quite a long while. "Then there's also the embarrassing matter of the tendency of rural people to hate environmentalists," says Anderson.

Rather than invoke such fantasies, and the parallel image of a pristine, steady-state nature, Anderson believes that genuinely progressive thinking should embrace chaos theory. Naive, old-style "bio-regionalism" that tries to get us all to settle down and be virtuous ignores that nature alters across time and place, hovering in states bordering on instability.

Indeed, "nature" can't be restored to its immaculate historic state because it is ever-changing, even without us. Any reclaiming we do installs a kind of virtual nature, not a mythical absolute state. This sobering fact at least consoles us for our meddlesome temper. "No matter how much we liked Pocahontas," notes Anderson wryly, "we really don't know how to leave nature alone."

Anderson sees human destiny coming out of three information systems: genetic, cultural, and "exosomatic"–information gathered beyond our bodies, but linked firmly to us, like the bio-info gathered globally. Each of these three "lineages" advances our evolution, with the exosomatic rate now accelerating beyond view.

Where should we let it drive us? No moral anchors here seem trusty. Invoking nature with its implied supremacy ignores that many cultures have fundamentally differing ideas of even what nature is, much less how it should work. Other cultural guidelines–religious doctrine, scientific objectivity, fashion–are similarly mutable and local, necessary perhaps but not sufficient as guides. The "blessing and scourge of our time," says Anderson, is the dizzying multitude of our options. And mere cultural relativism won't work; cultures must clash when the questions are greater than regional.

It is no easy task predicting who or what will win in this future. Wrenching perspectives beckon: Perhaps the quick, easy info flow means that biotech won't operate by the old rules of resource scarcity. What happens to patent rights in this whirl? Should better seeds be immediately distributed to the tropics, say, without worrying about paying their development costs in the north? Who will decide such matters?

Alternatively, will info-savvy groups "skip merrily onward into the bio-information society while the unenlightened masses remain mired in polluted and overcrowded misery"? The traditional right frets over harm to commerce, while the left worries over damage to cultural and social structures. Some think "information wants to be free," and others fear the gusher will swamp frail Third World institutions, leaving them naked in a storm of change.

An insightful example is the potential super-drug, interleukin-12. If it proves effective against Third World scourges such as malaria and leishmaniasis, pressures to develop and deliver it to the World Health Organization will mount. Almost certainly, international agencies will want to give it away, providing little return revenue stream to the company that developed it–and thereby destroying the basic incentive structure of pharmaceutical innovation. So who will create new drugs under such a system?

A deeper issue is how we should value the needs of future generations, as exalted in the sustainable-development model, against the wealth and welfare of those living now. Anderson raises the question but provides no answer. Some, like Kevin Kelly in Out of Control, take refuge in the moral free market of self-organization. Overall governance then must arise from humble, interdependent acts done locally in parallel.

Anderson is skeptical that such decisions will necessarily play well in a highly political arena. He meditates upon an "information standard" like the old gold standard, replacing the state-centered visions of the last few centuries, skirting the world-centered visions of the one-worlders, ending with a multi-centric model, a "polyarchy." Within this interactive soup will float old-fashioned voices like the Roman Catholic Church, autocrats, multinationals, wealthy hackers, and media moguls. Meanwhile, the pot stirs and bubbles, fed by media circuses which fixate upon "contests, conquests and coronations" more than the lofty imperial views of usual ruling elites. Insights can compete with each other, Darwinnowed until they command a price. Since they can come from anywhere, a multicentric world should be more efficient, delivering hot ideas and criticisms, sharpening the survival skills of institutions which can porously use the flow. Still, hard assets will grow in value, too. Competition between gold and information needs more attention before we embrace information as the new standard.

Anderson has an admirable grip on the broad view, describing the process of change and how it can affect our perspectives on ourselves and the world. Most of his examples stem from the present or the near past. Using glossy generalizations, the book is long on rhetoric, short on specific visions. Precision of prediction is impossible, or at least a misleading goal, but working out ideas aloud can give a feel for the fragility of prediction itself, and thus why we can only know so much.

One example he does mention is the MIT Media Lab notion of a "body net," with people meshed thoroughly with their computers. I got a feel for how this might evolve several years ago at MIT, at lunch with a young man wearing a heavy set of glasses. His left eye sported a see-through computer screen. After looking through them a few minutes I could navigate through the restaurant while calling up data into my left eye, using a touch pad in my left hand. I could access data, answer e-mail, or take notes while talking or walking–paradise for Type A personalities.

Will such augmentations be more than odd gadgets? Divining the future doesn't demand that we guess, but Anderson's case–that biology and data, tightly coupled, will drive change more profoundly than any other forces afoot in our time–seems sound. Answers will come slowly, and as he remarks, we will have to learn our way, sometimes painfully, through the experience.

Gregory Benford (molsen@uci.edu) is a professor of physics at the University of alifornia, Irvine, and the author of Timescape.