(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘development

“Life is a whim of several billion cells to be you for a while”*…

An AI-designed xenobot (parent organism, C shape, red) sweeping up stem cells that have been compressed into a ball (incipient offspring, green)

The more we understand how cells produce shape and form, Philip Ball explains, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks…

Where in the embryo does the person reside? Morphogenesis – the formation of the body from an embryo – once seemed so mystifying that scholars presumed the body must somehow already exist in tiny form at conception. In the 17th century, the Dutch microscopist Nicolaas Hartsoeker illustrated this ‘preformationist’ theory by drawing a foetal homunculus tucked into the head of a sperm.

This idea finds modern expression in the notion that the body plan is encoded in our DNA. But the more we come to understand how cells produce shape and form, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks, too. What cells follow is not a blueprint; if they can be considered programmed at all, it’s not with a plan of what to make, but with a set of rules to guide construction. One implication is that humans and other complex organisms are not the unique result of cells’ behaviour, but only one of many possible outcomes.

This view of the cell as a contingent, constructional entity challenges our traditional idea of what a body is, and what it can be. It also opens up some remarkable and even disconcerting possibilities about the prospects of redirecting biology into new shapes and structures. Life suddenly seems more plastic and amenable to being reconfigured by design. Understanding the contingency and malleability of multicellular form also connects us to our deep evolutionary past, when single-celled organisms first discovered the potential benefits of becoming multicellular. ‘The cell may be the focus of evolution, more than genes or even than the organism,’ says Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Far from the pinnacle of the tree of life, humans become just one of the many things our cells are capable of doing.

In one of the most dramatic demonstrations to date that cells are capable of more than we had imagined, the biologist Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts and his colleagues have shown that frog cells liberated from their normal developmental path can organise themselves in distinctly un-froglike ways. The researchers separated cells from frog embryos that were developing into skin cells, and simply watched what the free cells did.

Culturing cells – growing them in a dish where they are fed the nutrients they need – is a mature technology. In general, such cells will form an expanding colony as they divide. But the frog skin cells had other plans. They clustered into roughly spherical clumps of up to several thousand cells each, and the surface cells developed little hairlike protrusions called cilia (also present on normal frog skin). The cilia waved in coordinated fashion to propel the clusters through the solution, much like rowing oars. These cell clumps behaved like tiny organisms in their own right, surviving for a week or more – sometimes several months – if supplied with food. The researchers called them xenobots, derived from Xenopus laevis, the Latin name of the African clawed frog from which the cells were taken.

Levin and colleagues have recently found a new type of behaviour that xenobots can exhibit. They discovered that these pseudo-organisms can even replicate, after a fashion. Xenobots placed in a dish of cells will move to marshal those loose cells into piles that, over the course of a few days, cluster into new xenobots that then take off through the liquid themselves. Left to their own devices, the xenobots typically manage to produce only a single generation of offspring. But the researchers wondered if they could do better. They made computer simulations to search for xenobot shapes that were better at making new xenobots, using an AI program devised by their team member Josh Bongard of the University of Vermont. The simulations suggested that structures like C-shaped half-doughnuts could sweep up cells more efficiently than the spheroidal xenobots could, making larger (spherical) clusters of ‘offspring’.

The work shows that, by combining biological xenobots with the exploratory power of AI, it’s possible to make a kind of ‘living machine’ devised for a purpose. ‘AI can be brought in to exaggerate an innate capability,’ says Bongard. ‘The AI can “program” new behaviours into organisms by rearranging their morphology rather than their genes.’ The researchers wonder if the simulations might identify other shapes that can assemble different structures, or perhaps perform other tasks entirely. ‘One of my primary interests in this project is exactly how ‘far’ from the wild type [the natural, spontaneously arising form of xenobots] an AI can push things,’ says Bongard. ‘We’re now working on incorporating several new behaviours into xenobots via AI-driven design.’

This perspective entails a new way of thinking about cells: not as building blocks assembled according to a blueprint, but as autonomous entities with skills that can be leveraged to make all manner of organisms and living structures. You might conceive of them as smart, reprogrammable, shapeshifting robots that can move, stick together, and signal to one another – and, by those means, build themselves into elaborate artifacts.

This might also be a better way to conceptualise how our own bodies are built during embryogenesis…

The generative potential of cells equipped for multicellular construction was evident almost as soon as this became a lifestyle option, in evolutionary terms. In the Cambrian explosion around 540 million years ago, all manner of strange body shapes appeared, many of which are no longer exhibited by any creatures on Earth. Perhaps we should regard those forgotten ‘endless forms most beautiful’, to borrow Charles Darwin’s resonant phrase, as an illustration of the constructive potential of the metazoan cell – an exuberant expression of the palette of solutions to the problem of cell assembly, which natural selection then stringently pruned.

Acknowledging that the human form is a contingent outcome of the way our cells are programmed for construction raises some mind-bending questions. Are there, for example, human xenobots (perhaps we might call them anthrobots)? If so, are they truly ‘human’? Might there be a kind of organ or tissue that our cells could make but don’t normally get the chance to? Might our still cells ‘remember’ older evolutionary body shapes?…

How our understanding of genetics is changing– a fascinating dispatch from the frontiers of experimental biology: “What on earth is a xenobot?,” from @philipcball in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Groucho Marx


As we ponder possibility, we might spare a thought for Hans Spemann; he died on this date in 1941. An embryologist, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1935 for his discovery of embryonic induction, an effect involving several parts of the embryo in directing the development of the early group of cells into specific tissues and organs.

In a way that can be said to have foreshadowed the work described above, Spemann showed that the in the earliest stage, tissue may be transplanted to different areas of the embryo, where it then develops based on the new location and not from where it came. (For example, early tissue cut from an area of nervous tissue might be moved to an area of skin tissue where it then grows into the same form as the surrounding skin.)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”*…

Earlier (Roughly) Daily posts have looked at “Progress Studies” and at its relationship to the Rationalism community. Garrison Lovely takes a deeper look at this growing and influential intellectual movement that aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up…

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

Find out at: “Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?,” from @GarrisonLovely at @BBC_Future.

Then judge for yourself: was Adorno right? “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.” Or can–should– we be more purposively, systemically ambitious?

* C. S. Lewis


As we get better at getting better, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the United States paid tribute to a man instrumental in the progress that Progress Studies is anxious to sustain, Alexander Graham Bell…

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell’s funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau “as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.



“A great sound is given forth from the empty vessel”*…

Pakistan’s economy appears to be in pretty bad shape. Riffing on a provocative thread from Atif Mian, the redoubtable Noah Smith compares the economic condition of Indian’s nuclear-armed antagonist with its island neighbor (and current basket case) Sri Lanka…

Many of the particular root causes of Pakistan’s situation are different than in Sri Lanka — they didn’t ban synthetic fertilizer or engage in sweeping tax cuts. The political situations of the two countries, though both dysfunctional, are also different (here is a primer on Pakistan’s troubles). But there are enough similarities at the macroeconomic level that I think it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two.

In my post about Sri Lanka, I made a checklist of eight features that made that country’s crisis so “textbook”:

• An import-dependent country

• A persistent trade deficit

• A pegged exchange rate

• Lots of foreign-currency borrowing

• Capital flight

• An exchange rate crash (balance-of-payments crisis)

• A sovereign default

• Accelerating inflation

[He then examines each as it pertains to Pakistan]

… Pakistan shares a lot in common with Sri Lanka. It doesn’t have a pegged exchange rate, it’s not as dependent on imported food, and it doesn’t have quite as much foreign-currency debt. But the basic ingredients for a slightly more drawn-out version of the classic emerging-markets crisis are there, and there are some indications that the crisis has already begun.

Because Pakistan didn’t peg its exchange rate and didn’t borrow quite as much in foreign currencies as Sri Lanka, it made fewer macroeconomic mistakes than its island counterpart. But in terms of long-term economic mismanagement, it has done much worse than Sri Lanka. No, it didn’t ban synthetic fertilizers — that was an especially bizarre and boneheaded move. But one glance at the income levels of Sri Lanka and Pakistan clearly shows how much the development of the latter has lagged:

Pakistan went from 3/4 as rich as Sri Lanka in 1990 to only about 1/3 as rich today. That’s an incredibly bad performance on Pakistan’s part…

Another emerging-market crisis looms: “Pakistan is in big trouble,” from @Noahpinion.

Oh, and the weather’s not helping either.

For a consideration of the interesting (that’s to say, challenging) questions that Pakistan’s predicament (and the travails of other debtor nations) pose for China, which is an increasingly large lender across the developing world, see the first set of items here.

* Pakistani proverb


As we batten the hatches, we might spare a thought for Fazlur Rahman Malik; he died on this date in 1988. A scholar and philosopher, he was a prominent reformer in Pakistan, who devoted himself to educational reform and the revival of independent reasoning (ijtihad). While his work was widely-respected by other reformers, it drew strong criticism from conservative forces– who eventually forced him into exile. He left Pakistan in 1968 for the United States where he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Almost everybody today believes that nothing in economic history has ever moved as fast as, or had a greater impact than, the Information Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution moved at least as fast in the same time span, and had probably an equal impact if not a greater one.”*…

Actors pretend to be in the Industrial Revolution as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012

Dylan Matthews talks with Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama, the authors of an ambitious new economic history…

You can crudely tell the story of our species in three stages. In the first, which lasted for the vast majority of our time on Earth, from the emergence of Homo sapiens over 300,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago, humans lived largely nomadic lifestyles, subsisting through hunting and foraging for food. In the second, lasting from about 10,000 BC to around 1750 AD, humans adopted agriculture, allowing for a more secure supply of food and leading to the establishment of towns, cities, even empires.

The third period, in which we all live, is characterized by an unprecedented phenomenon: sustained economic growth. Quality of life went from improving very gradually if at all for the vast majority of human history to improving very, very quickly. In the United Kingdom, whose Industrial Revolution kicked off this transformation, GDP per capita grew about 40 percent between 1700 and 1800. It more than doubled between 1800 and 1900. And between 1900 and 2000, it grew more than fourfold.

What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day. Over the next two centuries, extreme poverty fell dramatically; in 2018, the World Bank estimated that 8.6 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day. And the gains were not solely economic. Before 1800, average lifespans didn’t exceed 40 years anywhere in the world. Today, the average human life expectancy is more like 73. Deaths in childhood have plunged, and adult heights have surged as malnutrition decreased.

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries…

Two economic historians explain what made the Industrial Revolution, and modern life, possible: “About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?,” from @dylanmatt @jaredcrubin @MarkKoyama in @voxdotcom.

* Peter Drucker


As we contemplate change and its causes, we might spare a thought for Charles Francis Jenkins; he died on this date in 1934. An engineer and inventor, he is rightly remembered for his contributions to film and television: he invented a film projector and sold the rights to Thomas Edison, who marketed it as the Vitascope, the projector that Edison used in paid, public screenings in vaudeville theaters; and he opened the first television broadcasting station in the U.S. (W3XK in Washington, D.C.).

But Jenkins also pioneered in other areas. He was the first to move an automobile engine from under the seat to the front of the car; he invented the automotive self starter (replacing the crank) and an improved altimeter for aviation; and he created the cone-shaped drinking cup.


“The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve.”*…

Jeff VanderMeer is a master of teasing out the weird in the service of critiquing our relationship with nature; his novels– e.g., Annihilation, Hummingbird Salamander— are entertaining, illuminating cautionary tales. In a recent essay, he turned his attention to his native Florida…

About the size of Greece, Florida is the jewel in the crown of the amazingly biodiverse Atlantic Coastal Plain. The state has 1,300 miles of shoreline, 600 clear-water springs, 1,700 ravines and streams, and over 8,000 lakes. More than 3,000 native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants are native to Florida, many unique to our peninsula and also endangered due to development. Our 100 species of orchid (compared to Hawai’i’s three native orchids) and 150 fern species speak to the moist and subtropical climate across many parts of the state. Florida has more wetlands than any other conterminous state—11 million acres—including seepage wetlands, interior marshes, and interior swamp land. Prior to the 1800s, Florida had over 20 million acres of wetlands.

As Jen Lomberk of Matanzas Riverkeeper describes it, Florida’s aquifer is unique because it is “so inextricably connected both underground and to surface waters. Florida’s limestone geology means that pollutants can readily move through groundwater and from groundwater to surface water (and vice versa).” In a sense, the very water we drink in Florida lays bare the connections between the often-invisible systems that sustain life on Earth and reveals both the strength of these systems and their vulnerability.

[But Floridians aren’t stewarding these unique resources…]

Most of this harm has been inflicted in the service of unlimited and poorly planned growth, sparked by greed and short-term profit. This murder of the natural world has accelerated in the last decade to depths unheard of. The process has been deliberate, often systemic, and conducted from on-high to down-low, with special interests flooding the state with dark money, given to both state and local politicians in support of projects that bear no relationship to best management of natural resources. These projects typically reinforce income inequality and divert attention and money away from traditionally disadvantaged communities.

Consider this: several football fields-worth of forest and other valuable habitat is cleared per day in Florida, with 26 percent of our canopy cut down in the past twenty years.  According to one study, an average of 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation worldwide.

The ecocide happening here is comparable for our size to the destruction of the Amazon, but much less remarked upon. Few of the perpetrators understand how they hurt the quality of life for people living in Florida and hamstring any possibility of climate crisis resiliency. Prodevelopment flacks like to pull out the estimates of the millions who will continue to flock to Florida by 2030 or 2040 to justify rampant development. Even some Florida economists ignore the effects of the climate crisis in their projects for 2049, expecting continued economic growth. but these estimates are just a grim joke, and some of those regurgitating them know that. By 2050, the world likely will be grappling with the fallout from 1.5- to 2-degree temperature rise and it’s unlikely people will be flocking to a state quickly dissolving around all of its edges

An accelerating race to destroy Florida’s wilderness shows what we value and previews our collective future during the climate crisis: “The Annihilation of Florida: An Overlooked National Tragedy,” from @jeffvandermeer in @curaffairs. Eminently worth reading in full.

* “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.” – VanderMeer’s fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen


As we contemplate consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1626 that Peter Minuit, the new director of “New Netherland” for the Dutch West India Company, in what we now know as Manhattan, “purchased” the island from the the Canarsee tribe of Native Americans for a parcel of goods worth 60 guilders: roughly $24 dollars at the time, now roughly $1,000. 

In the event, Native Americans in the area were unfamiliar with the European notions and definitions of ownership rights. As they understood it, water, air and land could not be traded. So scholars are convinced that both parties probably went home with totally different interpretations of the sales agreement. In any case, the Carnarsees were happy to take payment in any meaningful amount pertaining to land that was mostly controlled by their rivals, the Weckquaesgeeks.


1626 letter from Pieter Schaghen (a colleague of Minuit) reporting the purchase of Manhattan for 60 guilders [source]

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