Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pilgrims' Progress

For hundreds of years science fiction has predicted future technological developments. Leonardo de Vinci envisioned the submarine and the helicopter 400 years before scientific advancement made them a reality. Writers in the 1940s predicted cloning and sixty years later it too became a reality. The truth is that many things once thought impossible have become real. It seems that if some person dreams it someone else makes it real.

Is it possible to genetically engineer the Druid Tree of Life form; is it possible to create a human plant. While it hasn’t actually been done, the theoretical process necessary to create a human plant is well understood.

Three Steps to a Human Tree

The major difference between plants and animals is that plants contain chloroplasts and animals do not. Chloroplasts allow a plant to conduct photosynthesis—change light into food. So the first major step is injecting a chloroplast into an embryo and coaxing it to divide as the cell divides. This would give a human ability to generate energy from the sun.

The next task is creating a means to turn the energy created by photosynthesis into a form usable by the human cell. Plants produce the enzyme rubisco which converts carbon dioxide into sugar. Because animals and plants diverged so long ago human DNA does not have the gene necessary for this conversion to take place. The second step to creating a human plant is to splice the necessary chromosomes into human DNA.

The final hurdle is caused by the diffuse nature of light. Plants have a large surface area relative to their volume because they need a lot of light for photosynthesis to take place. Plants, such as cacti, which have a relatively small proportion of surface area to volume live in direct sunlight and even then grow very slowly. In order to create enough energy for basic life functions (like walking) human DNA would need to be engineered to grow long chloroplast filled hair, essentially fur.

A human plant would actually look much like a yeti.

Space Seed

In the well-known Star-Trek episode genetically modified human beings were cryogenically frozen and launched into space. Much coy sexual innuendo, heated violence, and hundreds of millions of dollars in profit later this resulted in the death of Spock.

Human plants offer several advantages for interstellar space travel. First, with a minimum of food plants can live an extraordinarily long time. The oldest living plant in the world is a Bristlecone pine tree in Nevada nearing its
5000 birthday. If genetically engineering humans slows the aging process in the same way the need for inter-generational space travel disappears.

Second, the hardiest species we know on earth are plants. They are called extremophiles and they live in conditions inconceivable to human flesh. NASA is
already investigating how to genetically modify earth plants to survive on Mars. If we can modify plants to survive on Mars and we can modify humans to be plants its logical we can genetically engineer humans to survive on Mars.

But the biggest advantage of human plants for space travel lies in embryonic or seed dormancy. A dormant seed requires almost no life support whatsoever. The oldest living seed that has been successfully germinated is 1300 years old. Forget menstruation and pregnancy; in the future human babies might simply sprout from the ground on some alien planet.

Flesh: The Final Frontier

The major long-term implication of the Copernican Revolution was to remove earth (and hence it’s inhabitants) from the center of the cosmos. The major long-term implication of the Darwinian revolution is that human beings are not even the center of the evolutionary process of life on earth. People often justify pleas for biodiversity on the benefits that this diversity brings or can bring to human beings. Evolution could care less such about anthropomorphism. It’s not the case that we need life so much as it is that life needs us if it ever intends to expand past this planet.

The tagline of the Star Trek series is that space is the final frontier. Yet interestingly there is very little focus on either stars or space in Star Trek; its focus is mostly on the life forms that inhabit the stars. Kirk and crew represent one vision of pilgrims' progress; a vision where genetic advancements are shockingly taboo.

Spiritual leaders often tell us that our human form is just one temporary step in an infinite or eternal pilgrim’s progress; heaven or hell or nirvana or Jannah awaits us. So why shouldn’t this be true in physical evolution too. One vision of that physical future is on display at Fizzcrank Airstrip in the gnome robots saved from with the Curse of the Flesh. Another vision of that future is in the Druid Tree of Life form where the very plasticity of flesh is not a curse but the ultimate salve.

In one of my favorite poems the poet T.S Eliot calls incarnation “the gift half understood”. For what is the point of having flesh anyway; what is the progress we are making as pilgrims. Where are we going to? Back to dust from which we have arisen? To a future of metal and stone? To plant life on some unimaginable planet some inconceivable distance away?

Where is humanity
boldly going?


Stabs said...

Genetic experimentation is a fascinating and deeply disturbing science ethics topic.

I recently watched all the Dark Angel episodes and, although the mutants are clearly the heroes, I was left very ambivalent about whether I really supported their quest for freedom and self-determination.

What if the government really made (or is making) monsters in labs? What rights do these creatures have? Are they "people"?

Reading your post I got an far as "the first major step is injecting a chloroplast into an embryo" and felt a chill of unease.

Is an embryo a person? If it isn't and you mutate it does it become a person wants it grows into an independent being or not?

Some degree of genetic tampering is inevitable. What's more cross-breeding is inevitable once there are mutants that look like ordinary people in society (or exceptionally beautiful intelligent super strong people).

I'm not the first person to be worried by this: P K Dick in 1954 wrote a story which "implies that this golden mutant race will replace humanity."

I suppose on the bright side if our grandchildren photosynthesise it should mean they don't spend all their lives in basements playing MMOs.

Klepsacovic said...

We are a species which loves tools. We're constantly making new tools and changing them to better fit our bodies. Someday, someone will reverse that and make a body to fit a tool. Some people will be horrified by the first cyborgs. Others will point out that we've always been using tools as part of ourselves, we just took the logical step. Already our minds see tools as parts of us, extending our world when we pick them up.

@Stabs: They can just get those lamps for plants.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

@Stabs: What defines humanity is not our DNA but our actions. We describe child rapists as, INHUMAN MONSTERS. Therefore, these genetically altered embryos are still human, until they commit an atrocity.

@Elnia: I see civilization as a living entity. Our society is a living organism, and our brains are in tune with ourselves, and the truth of our universe. We write and imagine what will be or can be. And we've been making movies and write books about our future, so that when it gets here we'll know how to accept it. Frankenstein and his monster, the X-men, the Matrix and IRobot. These stories show us what will come, what our actions and decisions will bring, and what we need to do to prevent it.

We are evolving, our minds are making leaps and bounds in advancement. I think our minds are seeking ways to help us evolve. As it is our bodies are designed against over population.

A recent study (sorry lost the link) shows that a woman's body "attacks" a boy as he develops in her womb. Each subsequent boy that the woman has allows these attacks to get stronger, and it feminizes the boy. By the 5th child, the chance of having a homosexual boy is almost guaranteed, due to the damage the mother's body causes to the Y chromosome.

Stabs said...

@Stabs: What defines humanity is not our DNA but our actions. We describe child rapists as, INHUMAN MONSTERS.

Pangoria, that's terribly unscientific. If a monkey gives another monkey a banana is it a human?

What actions do we do that couldn't possibly be done by any other conceivable species? Klingons? Wookies? Apes?

Calling child rapists inhuman monsters is tabloid sensationalism not science. If we want to build a better world we need to recognise these people as humans and research into how we can encourage people to not victimise other people.

Stabs said...

@Stabs: They can just get those lamps for plants.

Ha ha, oh my, that's hilarious!

lonomonkey said...

You obviously do not watch enough movies. Any kind of genetic experiementation will result in a murderous monster wich will be taken down by a unshaved hero with a troubled past and his beautiful love interest.

It does make for entertaining action so I say go for it!

Tesh said...

Pfft, forget human Trees, I want to be a Druid that can shapeshift into a bear or a sabertooth cat.

Silliness aside, I suspect we'll see more openness to experimentation in the coming years. I also suspect we'll see some rather fascinating results... for better and worse.

Carra said...

Genetically engineering humans still scares the shit out of most people.

I can imagine a world where there's a new division. Those who can afford it are genetically engineered to have good health and thus long lives with no diseases. They'll be tall, muscular and never get fat. And they'll have a good set of brains with a naturally high intelligence.

Or I've probably seen the brilliant Gattaca too many times...

Elnia said...

@carra. Yeah, the problem with modern fiction is that it always sees the point of genetic engineering as the ability of human beings to control each other. But I tend to see it as a matter of survival. Even if humans could live forever our planet and sun will not. In the distant future the existence of life itself *may* depend on genetic engineering. I certainly think it's a plausible thesis.

Carra said...

It might be needed for survival. But it can also cause tons of problems in the near future.

In a country like China female babies are murdered there just because they all want a male kid. It's already causing a great oversupply of males.

Now, imagine that everyone can choose if they want a girl or a boy.

I have nothing against genetic engineering per se. But I still see a few problems (e.g. male/female ratio, a division between those who can afford genetic engineering and those who can't) which have to be solved first and I don't have the answer them.

Elnia said...

@carra. What's going on in China is a big problem in more ways than one. It's selective breeding. Is selective breeding a crude type of genetic engineering? Yeah, I guess so. But in that sense every time there is male/female mating there is genetic engineering because each partner has chosen to pass along one specific set of genes to the detriment of another set of genes.

I guess my point is this. Someone might shoot an animal because they need food to eat. Another person might shoot that same animal to hang it's head on the wall as a trophy. It seems foolish to ban guns in order to prevent a person from having a trophy with the result that people starve to death. I think the better approach is to work on creating a culture where animal heads aren't seen as trophies. That's the analogy I'd draw.

Carra said...

To go further on your analogy.

The guns aren't the problem. The question is: who decides who will get the guns? Can the average Joe make a choice which won't harm society? Or do we need heavy control?