8 Aug 2000 mojotoad   » (Journeyer)

Hiatus maximus.

Went on vacation, recently, mountain biking in Colorado. Fun was had by all, and Susan certainly expanded her biking envelope.

My friends Than and Chris recently embarked on their globe circling year-long tour. I'm green with envy...I've been wanting to do something similar in spirit for around 10 years now, and I'm pretty sure that it was a conversation on the very topic that was the catalyst for Chris to strike up the deal with Than. I was invited, but always felt my own year-long wanderlust was best stomped alone, so I declined. They will have a great time, I'm certain.

As a small concession, I decided I'd at least start in the opposite direction. Perhaps we can say hello along the way.

I noticed some interesting commentary in Paul's diary regarding genetic engineering. Most of his concerns seem to be centered around the interaction of genetically enhanced species with the "natural" world. This is certainly a valid concern, and experimental tweakers should always keep that in mind.

However, I believe evolution is not, by definition, perfect. Evolution has blind spots. Perhaps divergent paths is a better description. Certain paths, once embarked upon by evoloution within a particular species branch, will likely not switch to a new branch after a certain degree of complexity has evolved. A great example of this is the retina. Mammals have blind spots over the optic nerve since the nerve bundle distributes on the inner surface of the retina. Squid, on the other hand, have no blind spot since their optic nerve splays on the outer surface of the orb, achieving full coverage over that portion of the retina.

Obviously, mammalian brains are great at compensating for their blind spots, but it is clear that there is a better solution that, at least in this case, has been demonstrated by another branch of evolution. The odds of any mammal leaping to that branch of occular evolution via mutation are slim to non-existant, because a) complexity has defined the bounds of the problem, and b) compensation in other areas (the mammalian visual cortex) have largely negated any evolutionary advantage such a radical mutation would produce.

Of course I realize that 'b' offers endless speculation on whether nature ever produces anything "truly superior" between isolated branches of evolution. This is of course dependent on context. Using this same example, nobody would feel the disadvantage during the day. Night, however, is an entirely different story -- probably everyone here is familiar with the superiority of peripheral vision when staring into the darkness.

This is of course expounded upon in great and wondrous detail in Godel, Escher, and Bach, where Douglas Hofstadter quite dramatically illustrates the phenomenon using natural number theory, courtesty of Godel's brilliant work.

In the Godel nutshell, your derivable truths are limited by your axioms. In a sufficiently complex truth system, there are provable truths that are underivable...by definition. And that, of course, assumes you've defined the right axioms to properly approach the problem.

Anyway, fascinating topic of conversation. My personal take is that genetic engineering should be approached with caution and wisdom. There are potentially enormous benefits to be gained. I believe the radical ones will be through this "branch hopping" type of modification; a modification that properly lives somewhere between natural evolution and contact with alien flora.

The expanded argument could benefit from the nanotech analogy: somebody will figure it out, so it would be best to figure it out first if for no other reason than to be able to properly understand the problem and defend yourself.

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