Life In The Fast Lane

Here’s Richard Dawkins, opening a conversation with J. Craig Venter at a recent conference in Germany:

I thought I’d begin by reading a quotation from a famous philosopher and historian of science from the 1930s, Charles Singer, to give an idea of exactly how much things have changed. And Craig Venter is a leader, perhaps the leader, in making that change today. So, this is a quote from 1930, Charles Singer:

“Despite interpretations to the contrary, the theory of the gene is not a mechanist theory. The gene is no more comprehensible as a chemical or physical entity than is the cell or, for that matter, the organism itself. If I ask for a living chromosome, that is, for the only effective kind of chromosome, no one can give it to me, except in its living surroundings, any more than he can give me a living arm or leg. The doctrine of the relativity of functions is as true for the gene as it is for any of the organs of the body. They exist and function only in relation to other organs. Thus, the last of the biological theories leaves us where the first started in the presence of a power called life, or Psyche, which is not only of its own kind but unique in each and all of its exhibitions.”

You couldn’t ask for a more comprehensive destruction of a conventional view than that. That is not just wrong. It is catastrophically, utterly, stupefyingly wrong. It’s wrong in an interesting way, and Craig is the best person to tell us what’s wrong with all that.

Thanks to Edge.org, a video of this hourlong discussion is available online, and it’s well worth your time. A new era of digital biotechnology is dawning, and nobody has done more to usher it in than the brilliant Venter, who offers a fascinating look at the road ahead. An excerpt:

DAWKINS: There are people who are very uneasy about this kind of science. They sometimes call it scientism. And there’s a certain suspicion of arrogance. The phrase, “playing god” has been brought up. I don’t think I have a problem with that, but I think it’s something we ought to take seriously. What I do have a problem with is the possible unforeseen practical consequence of some of the sorts of things that not just you are doing, but many other people are doing. I suspect that the phrase “playing god” is actually a kind of, it’s a bit like the boy who cried ‘wolf’, because accusing a scientist of playing god is obviously stupid. But what is not obviously stupid is accusing a scientist of endangering the future of the planet by doing something that could be irreversible. And what I mean by the boy who cried wolf is that we may become so used to fending off idiotic accusations of playing god, and, thereby, humanity might overlook the real dangers. Do you think that’s a possible danger?

VENTER: It’s a real-life danger that we’re facing now. I’ve argued that we are 100 percent now dependent on science for survival of our species. In part, science of today has to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of previous years because we’ve advanced internal combustion engines, because we’re so good at burning carbon that we take out of the ground, we did it blindly without any consequences of, that it might totally affect the future of the planet.

Now, the numbers—and I’ve had to change my slides three times last year of the amount of carbon that’s going into the atmosphere and staying there—that number is now 4.2 billion tons of carbon. It’s accelerating faster than anybody projected. My slide at the start of 2007 was 3.5 billion tons of carbon. It’s expected perhaps with increasing industrialization of China and India, within 20 to 40 years, that number could be on the order of 20 billion tons of CO2. There are several environmental scientists that have argued that there is almost nothing we can do to reverse that, though. We may be fixed in our destiny regardless of whether we have new approaches. I don’t like that scenario. We have to try and do something. I hope those people are wrong with their projections.

If we can do two things—number one: replace using the carbon we’re taking out of the ground by using renewable sources, and the best renewable source we have is energy from the sun. Over 100 million terawatts a day hit the earth. We have cells that capture carbon back from the environment. And it turns out, chemically and biologically in the lab we can make anything in the lab that come out of the ground in terms of carbon. We can make octane. We can make diesel fuel. We can make jet fuel. We can make butanol. Ethanol, humanity’s been that forever through simple fermentation.

And another:

VENTER: All evolution is based on selection. We as species have been affecting the direction of evolution whether we wanted to or not for some time by changing the environment. Now we can do it in a deliberate, hopefully thoughtful, fashion by deliberate design. But that deliberate design still has to be followed by selection. But looking back at how even the early processes of evolution that Richard’s been writing about for so many years, when we look at that same experiment we did with transplanting a genome from one species to another, so many people that tried to argue against evolution on a religious basis try to stick to this point mutation and selection mode, the most limited version of Darwinian evolution, to point out how complexity couldn’t occur from that. What we see with chromosome transplantation is, we can get a million changes in a species in an instant.

And not only does this happen just by our work in the lab, looking back in history, we see major species evolution was from species taking on new chromosomes. When they take on a new chromosome, it’s like adding a new DVD full of software to your computer. It instantly changes the capabilities and the robustness of what you can do. Our cells can do that. I guess it’s by definition Open Source because it happens in the environment almost on a daily basis. We have real-time Darwinian evolution taking place in our lungs. Everybody in this room has a different species of bacteria in their lungs because, as your immune system attacks these organisms, there’s built-in mechanisms to the genetic code where they’re constantly making minor variations, making different proteins to fool our immune system.

Selection—this is case selection by our antibodies, and our physiology is changing those—we’re changing selection of the species, perhaps ones that will survive in a higher CO2 environment. As we sailed around the world, one of the most disturbing things was we could barely go a mile in the ocean without seeing plastic trash. We’d go to beaches that—we did not anywhere in a complete circumnavigation see a pristine beach without it being covered with trash. But talk about a new environment, after the major tsunami, as we sailed across the Indian Ocean, all the beaches were covered with flipflops. But they turned into rafts for crabs. So we have a new habitat for crabs as they float around the ocean on people’s flipflops. We are very much affecting evolution on our planet. My contention is, we need to start doing it in a very deliberate fashion.

Edge has a transcript of the conversation (moderated by Edge founder John Brockman) here, and a link to the complete video is here.

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6 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – As usual, my problem with Dawkins is his inability to resist the temptation to read others in an uncharitable way, apparently so he can assume an air of intellectual superiority. To wit, his talk of the “comprehensive destruction of a conventional view,” which, on closer reading is, rather, a description of the “state of theory” around 1930. And guess what… At the time Singer wrote that passage it was a pretty accurate assessment of the theory of the gene. The most advanced accounts of genes at the time portrayed them as “factors” defined in terms of their effects, residing “somewhere” on/in chromosomes. And, on the basis of associated or disassociated patterns of inheritance, their relative “distances” could be estimated. That ain’t a mechanist theory by any stretch.

    Posted February 7, 2008 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Bob, I quite agree. Dawkins has done important creative work — and I admire him a great deal for it, and for his many excellent books — but he does seem to exhibit considerable intellectual and rhetorical narcissism. One thing I was struck by in this video is how much more intellectually virile the younger Venter seemed in this chat.

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    What struck me, without reading further in the transcript, was what Dawkins chose to attack. He made his first big splash with his “Selfish Gene” thesis, the scientific fate of which, if you will, lives or dies on the identity of genes. That is, on genes being entities with independent identities. I read the book more than 30 years ago, so my recollection is a bit hazy, but I know that some of what he built his “Selfish Gene” thesis on has since been disproved (the existence of vast quantities of “junk” DNA. The DNA in question has since been found to have important regulatory roles.) And now he chooses to attack an idea from before we knew anything about DNA, an idea diametrically opposed to his own most important scientific work. Hmm.

    (As you might infer, I haven’t the admiration for Dawkins that you do.)

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    I think the central ideas — that genes are stable enough entitites to be trackable over geological time, and that selection can be seen as operating at the gene level — are still valid enough.

    I do admire Dawkins; The Selfish Gene was an important piece of work, and he has written many fine books (in particular, I thought The Ancestor’s Tale was outstanding). He has also been a strong voice for the secular, Darwinian viewpoint. But he often comes across as rather narrow-mindedly bullying and vindictive, and he needn’t be. I don’t admire him for that at all.

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    I usually try to focus on issues rather than personalities, but sometimes it’s just beyond me. Dawkins was a superb popularizer of evolutionary theory. When he has ventured outside his own area of expertise, however, he hasn’t been superbly anything. Makes the amateur psychologist in me wonder if his nastiness is a form of defensiveness — bluster behind which lurks intellectual insecurity… Regardless, I wish he’d stick to what he’s really, really good at.

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Spot on, Bob.

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink