(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Freeman Dyson

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…

 

dyson640

 

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)

###

As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source

 

Well that changes everything…

source: Imperial College, London

As all of one’s assumptions about the future (and thus the past) seem to be weakening, two dispatches from the world of science are genuinely foundation-shaking…

First, from New Scientist (and though NS doesn’t mention it, earlier from Freeman Dyson in NYRB):

Just suppose that Darwin’s ideas were only a part of the story of evolution. Suppose that a process he never wrote about, and never even imagined, has been controlling the evolution of life throughout most of the Earth’s history. It may sound preposterous, but this is exactly what microbiologist Carl Woese and physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believe. Darwin’s explanation of evolution, they argue, even in its sophisticated modern form, applies only to a recent phase of life on Earth.

At the root of this idea is overwhelming recent evidence for horizontal gene transfer – in which organisms acquire genetic material “horizontally” from other organisms around them, rather than vertically from their parents or ancestors. The donor organisms may not even be the same species. This mechanism is already known to play a huge role in the evolution of microbial genomes, but its consequences have hardly been explored. According to Woese and Goldenfeld, they are profound, and horizontal gene transfer alters the evolutionary process itself. Since micro-organisms represented most of life on Earth for most of the time that life has existed – billions of years, in fact – the most ancient and prevalent form of evolution probably wasn’t Darwinian at all, Woese and Goldenfeld say…

Woese can’t put a date on when the transition to Darwinian evolution happened, but he suspects it occurred at different times in each of the three main branches of the tree of life, with bacteria likely to have changed first…

As we remember that what has changed can change again, we can read the whole story here.

Second, from ArXiv and ITWire, a suggestion that we might not have as long to figure this out as we have been thinking:  entropy in the universe is much higher than previously expected; thus the “heat death” of existence as we’ve known it, much closer. As Tapecutter observes in Slashdot,

In a paper soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal [ArXiv link, above], Australian researchers have estimated the entropy of the universe is about 30 times higher than previous estimates. According to their research, super-massive black holes “are the largest contributor to the entropy of the observable universe, contributing at least an order of magnitude more entropy than previously estimated.” For those of us who like their science in the form of a car analogy, Dr. Lineweaver compared their results to a car’s gas tank. He states, ‘It’s a bit like looking at your gas gauge and saying “I thought I had half a gas tank, but I only have a quarter of a tank.”

Happily a quarter of a tank should be good for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years.

As we regain our bearings, we might note that this was a bad day for revolutionaries of another stripe:  it was on this date in 1606 that Guy Fawkes was executed for his role in the Catholic Restorationist “Gunpowder Plot.”

Guy Fawkes

%d bloggers like this: