Biotech Evolution The Next Symbiosis

There are several indications that the evolution of technology will force another nonlinear acceleration in biological evolution which has dealt with crises such as toxic oxygen two billion years ago, utilized new energy sources, inhabited new environments, developed new forms, and spawned technologies which themselves have evolved. Many observers have been alarmed by technological evolution. Nineteenth century scientist/satirist Samuel Butler (Margulis and Sagan, 1986) considered the possibility of machines suppressing humans and assuming supremacy of earth:

man will become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man-he may continue to exist, even improve, and will probar bly be better off in a state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. After all we treat our horses, dogs, cattle, and sheep on the whole with great kindness. We give whatever experience teaches us to be best for them. In like manner it is reasonable to suppose that machines will treat us kindly for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon lower animals.

Of course we eat some animals, and experiment upon others. It seems every new technology is a double-edged sword with capacity for good or evil—the basic "Frankenstein" scenario. But reliance on new technology is probably necessary and inevitable for adaptation and survival in an ever crowding and progressively toxic world. Margulis and Sagan (1986) cite general systems theorist John Platt who is a student of evolutionary acceleration and believes that life on earth may be nearing an enormously important turning point. The global computing and communication that has emerged following World War Two has become, according to Platt: "a collective social nervous system for managing millions of our problems, and its importance for the long range future may be as great as that of the first learning nervous system."

New technologies may help biology to deal directly with current and future crises. In their book, Microcosmos: 4 Billion Years of Evolution from our Microbial Ancestors, Margulis and Sagan (1986) describe some surprising possibilities. They feel that current man is little more than communities of bacteria, modular manifestations of the nucleated cell, and that new "artificial" life forms will emerge from symbiotic fusion of biology and technology. They see this happening along three lines: genetic biotechnology, computer robotics, and biochips:

... one day soon entire suits of genes, proteins and hormones may be dovetailed in the laboratory to create new species of microbes. As we gain a greater understanding of embryology and immunology we will surely clone cells into progressively larger and more complex organisms sure to intervene in our own evolution.

As computer robotics evolve smallward to become nanotechnology, collective interactions with genetic biotechnology and natural biochips could precipitate the next evolutionary phase transition: mind/tech symbiosis.

Margulis and Sagan (1986):

Robotics and bacterium [may become] ... ultimately united in biochips based not on silicon, but on complex organic compounds. ... Manufactured molecules would exchange energy with their surroundings ... to turn it into information [and] open doors to 'cybersymbiosis,' the comingling of human and manufactured parts in new life forms and ultimately enable us to remake our species. ... Homo sapiens might survive only as a rudimentary organ, a delicately dissected nervous system attached to electronically driven plastic arms.

Hans Moravec (1986) of Carnegie-Mellon University's Robotics Laboratory and author of Mind Children has his own vision of mind/tech symbiosis in which ultra-precise robotic brain surgeons transfer the software of human consciousness to a supercomputer. He describes advantages of existing in silicon or gallium arsenide with robotic bodies. These include being impervious to harsh environments, electronic transportation across galaxies and immunity to disease. Max Headroom is a hypothetical television personality whose consciousness exists solely within computers and electronic equipment. The mind content of a head injured motocyclist ("Max. Headroom 2.3m" was his last image before the crash) is somehow transferred, collected, and actively existing in electronic circuitry. Somewhat of a video cult figure, Max Headroom may be the first of a breed of technocognitive entities.

Comingling of mind and technology would be a neat trick, fraught with potential benefits and dangers! Certainly it would depend on an understanding of the mechanism of consciousness which is not currently available. Perhaps imminently available nanosensors will be able to interact dynamically at the level of cytoskeletal protein lattices within all living cells. This interaction may lead to the next symbiosis, one which will have as profound effects on biology as did the conversion from prokaryote to eukaryote. If nanotechnology and biology become symbiotic, consciousness can be a commodity.

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