Thursday, August 23, 2007

Artificial Life and ....Debates

The Times of India carries a weekly debate called view and counterview. This week (Aug 23 2007) it was about the possibility that scientists may be able to create artificial life in the next decade or so. The very nature of the format means that the debate takes a predictable path of presenting two extreme points of view. In this case, either artificial life is great or it is the ultimate evil, either "synthetic life is going to be man's crowning achievement, his greatest work of art, or " renegade super bugs could, like locusts , destroy everything they come in contact with". Is this really the point of view of the reporters? Have they clarified their personal positions on this issue, and does the public know whether these reporters have held consistent views in the past. Without this knowledge, I as a reader feel this debate on artificial life is ....just a bit too artificial. Instead of having a contrived debate with two people shouting past each other, why not invite a biology ethics expert to write on this immensely complex issue?

Then there are the inevitable bloopers about evolution. Narayani Ganesh who wrote against artificial life writes " recent outbreaks of diseases caused by viruses like West Nile flu', AIDS, avian flu', and SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome) are very likely the outcome of unnatural or artificially created mutations that have manifested as contagious and life-threatening diseases with no tested cure". This is a very strange point of view. Pathogens like any other life forms mutate at a natural rate and may occasionally evolve a life strategy that may harm humans. There is no evidence that human activities are inducing mutations in viruses and making them more harmful than they otherwise would be. A large body of empirical work has disproved such notions of directed mutations. It is true that in the modern era, diseases which previously may have been restricted to isolated communities are finding their way into the global population, but that simply means that more people are in danger of being exposed to a naturally evolving pathogen.

Later in his article Mr. Ganesh says" maverick attempts to leapfrog evolution- bypassing natural checks and balances- could well prove to be our nemesis". These kind of statements are inspired by thinking of the earth as some kind of self-regulating entity, a concept made famous by James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis. But evolution does not necessarily lead to any natural checks and balances. A virus may simple decimate a population of humans or some other creature not because nature has some kind of self-regulating population control measure that returns it to an "equilibrium" state, but because the virus has locally evolved a successful strategy of reproducing itself. The reporting on evolution continues to be uninformed.


  1. Hello,

    This is really interesting stuff for me, to see that some of the debates that I encounter locally are also happening around the world.

    I came here via your comment on Genomicron, the blog of my PhD advisor Dr. Gregory. I'm sure he'll be thrilled to know that his writings have indirectly contributed to my procrastination tendencies. :)

    Anyway, what I'm trying to say is I look forward to reading more here. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. thanks for the comments. I guess science reporting on evolution suffers from problems everywhere.

    blogging instead of working on your Ph.D. Man, you are in trouble!

  3. blogging instead of working on your Ph.D. Man, you are in trouble!

    Ack! I've been found out! Must...produce...confusing...figure...