GENE/SOC: Playing Devil's Advocate

From: Robert J. Bradbury (
Date: Sat Apr 29 2000 - 14:32:15 MDT

While reviewing a recent paper by Robert Freitas in which he
is exploring the limits to global ecophagy by nanotech
(i.e. what are the real limits to the grey goo problem),
I realized that we *already* have a green goo problem
driven by the planetary biomass. This green goo has already
has spread across our entire planet, mutating as it goes,
depleting the atmosphere of the once abundant CO2. Convienently
for us it has created an O2 rich atmosphere and an environmental
niche in which we have developed.

However(!), it is important to remember that this epidemic
is in no way controlled or constrained. Joshua Lederberg,
the nobel prize winner, has observed frequently that if
HIV had been an airborne virus, the human race would probably
be toast by now. The viral/bacterial epidemic breakout
books, written as "scare" novels, do contain a core
element of something that should concern humanity --
namely that the selfish genes of the biomass do not
care whether we survive. In microbiology it is frequently
thought that pathogens evolve to coexist with the host,
since killing the host destroys the environmental niches
that they require to survive. That does not however
imply that pathogens are "intelligent" enough to self-evolve
as harmless parasites in the beginning. They might as
easily evolve as rapidly spreading killing machines
before they become attenuated.

As Lederberg pointed out in the April 14, 2000 Science
in his article on "The Microbial World Wide Web",
the biomass of this planet is conducting an unregulated,
largely unmonitored, "experiment" in information exchange and the
evolution of self-replicating machines, some of which have the
ability to kill humans, on a scale that staggers the imagination.

So, the question I would pose for humanity is:
Should we create a long term goal the neutering of all rapidly
replicating biomass species, especially bacteria, and modify
them so they cannot support rapidly mutating viruses, so as to
reduce our long term risks of extinction?

This implies to a large degree creating a completely artificial
biomass environment. We would need to develop, grow, test for safety,
neuter and release all supporting biomass elements. Only conscious
programming of the bioenvironment, perhaps with extensive
simulations for effects we cannot anticipate would allow
us to engineer a world safe for long-term human habitation.
Failing to do this would clearly be playing Russian roulette
with our species.

Greg, you might want to post this question to some of the lists
you are part of since it forces the individuals to confront the
long term question of whether or not they have an interest in
the survival of the human race.

Also, for those of you who are curious, the aforementioned paper
is *very* interesting and will likely be available for comment
and discussion at the Foresight SA meeting.


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