E.O. Wilson: Synthetic Biology Will Radically Change the World
The legendary biologist talks about ultimate biology breakthroughs we can expect in the next several decades and how the creation of artificial life, coupled with the advancement of artificial intelligence, will change the human race.
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.
A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
E.O. Wilson: I like to think that ultimate biology, ultimate biology is going to emerge within the next several decades and it's going to be in three domains. One has already begun. And that is the creation of artificial life. And scientists have just very recently put together, from chemicals off the shelf, a genome that is of the entire DNA of a bacterium, inserted it into a bacterial shell and created a functioning reproducing bacterium that way; chemicals off the shelf; a very simple organism. Now this is momentous because it means that as we develop this technology, we're going to eventually be able to produce multicellular organisms and new kinds of species. We'll have that capacity and it's going to raise all kinds of questions, certainly opportunities. And among the opportunities that it will present, if we don't let the excesses and the deviations and auxiliary consequences unforeseen overwhelm us, is that we're going to be able to produce improvements in the productivity of our food plants and organisms that are vital for the maintenance of human-dominated environments.
I say that in that way because I also believe it's going to be absolutely necessary for the welfare of planet Earth that we leave a large part of the planet to the 8 million other species that occupy Earth with us because that's the shield that already is in place to which we are exquisitely well adapted. But that's called, that creation of life is called synthetic biology and mark it well. Synthetic biology is just taking off and it means it's going to have an impact in a lot of ways. And it will segue in its consequences and what it reveals about the nature of life and humanity itself as it comes into the era of artificial intelligence and robotics in a big way.
There is ongoing at the present time, I know I just met with a number of them, something of a controversy between the artificial intelligence and humanoid robotic creators, a controversy over whether we're going to duplicate the brain digitally. Most think that that can be done. That's not exactly how neurons really work; they work en masse in creating waves of activities that then trigger other waves, hormonal release, and so on. But against that viewpoint also exists the analog robotic thinkers who believe the human brain is just so thoroughly analog and that it doesn't really work digitally, but it works on activation of masses of neurons, layers, loci, and web work that passes varying degrees subjectively felt through other pathways and centers until finally they reach decision points, mostly in the subconscious brain. So we have coming ahead in the development of these various fields the capacity, one, to immensely alter, once we know the full genomes and artificial intelligence, when synthetic biology is advanced, profoundly alter food plants and almost create new ones that can substantially increase the per capita food supply of the world with enormous consequences.
And then on the other hand we have the capacity in time of producing robots that can think like humans and on much lower wattage than our present robots. The human body and the human brain works incidentally at something like 1000th the energy input of an advanced robot. So that's another direction that’s going to be taken. And what's running through your mind, if you're listening to me or seeing me now is, "Uh-oh, if we keep on going can the robots with their artificial organisms around them and their intelligence and ability to make decisions then replace us?" No way. That's great for Hollywood, but since we're going to be approaching robot capacity and genome modification of other organisms, and then even ourselves, we can change our own genomes in some respects, we're going to see the risk of giving control to any other intelligent agent and make sure that it's just not going to happen.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Legendary biologist Edward O. Wilson explores three realms of ultimate biology from which we should expect major breakthroughs over the next several decades. Each is rooted in synthetic biology, which makes the creation of artificial life possible. Wilson's latest book is titled "The Meaning of Human Existence."
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
When someone is lying to you personally, you may be able to see what they're doing.
- A study uses motion-capture to assess the physical interaction between a liar and their victim.
- Liars unconsciously coordinate their movements to their listener.
- The more difficult the lie, the more the coordination occurs.
The tell<p>Someone who is lying to your face is likely to copy your motions. The trickier the lie, the truer this is, according to experiments described in the study.</p><p>The researchers offer two possible explanations, both of which have to do with cognitive load. In a <a href="https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/telling-a-really-big-lie-turns-us-into-copycats" target="_blank">press release</a>, the authors note that "Lying, especially when fabricating accounts, can be more cognitively demanding than truth telling."</p><p>The first hypothesis is that when someone is lying, their brain is simply too occupied with the subterfuge to pay any attention to the control of physical movements. As a result, the unconscious part of the liar's brain controlling movements defaults to the easiest course of action available: It simply imitates the motions of the person they're lying to.</p><p>The second possibility is that the liar's cognitive load deprives a liar of sufficient bandwidth to devise a clever, effective physical strategy. Instead, while lying, their attention is so laser-focused on their listener's reaction that the liar unconsciously parrots it.</p>
Experimental whoppers<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUxMTc5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTgwOTY0NX0.3GYcJFPaeUrPE_NXYkadkUKi66IGLLH4wdTk2oo0AiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="77e98" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8f9cd644cf3362f49ba9ad7c96939153" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="954" />
Credit: Niels/Adobe Stock<p>The phenomenon is referred to as "nonverbal coordination," and there is some existing evidence in deception research that it does occur when someone is under a heavy cognitive load. However, that evidence is based on observations of specific body parts and doesn't comprehensively capture whole-body behavior, and little research has mutually tracked both parties' movements in a lying scenario.</p><p>Nonetheless, say the authors, "Nonverbal coordination is an especially interesting cue to deceit because its occurrence relies on automatic processes and is therefore more difficult to deliberately control."</p><p>To track nonverbal coordination, pairs of participants in the study's two experiments were outfitted with motion-capture devices Velcroed to their wrists, heads, and torsos before being seated facing each other across a low table.</p><p>In the first experiment, a dynamic time-warping algorithm analyzed participants movements as they ran through exercises in which one individual told the truth, and then told increasingly difficult lies. In the second experiment, listeners were given instructions that influenced the amount of attention they paid to the liar's movements.</p><p>The researchers found "nonverbal coordination increased with lie difficulty." They also saw that this increase "was not influenced by the degree to which interviewees paid attention to their nonverbal behavior, nor by the degree of interviewer's suspicion. Our findings are consistent with the broader proposition that people rely on automated processes such as mimicry when under cognitive load."</p>