Tuesday , October 27 2020

The postnatural era that can be strangely beautiful and disturbing

At 4913 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, operates an unusual institution.

Center for Postnatural History is a small museum with an eclectic and weird mix of specimens: you can find a mousetrap without ribs; a sterile male mask a sample of E. coli x1776 (designed to be harmless and incapable of survival in a laboratory); and a dissected transgenic BioSteel gene called Freckles, genetically modified to produce spider silk proteins in the milk.

The theme of the museum, Natural mail Ismo, is the study of the origin, habitat and evolution of organisms that have been intentionally and inherently changed through genetic engineering and the influence of human culture and biotechnology on evolution.

Your motto "That was then. This is now"complements the logo, an evolutionary tree with an arrow joining two different branches. Visitors are invited to consider that each sample has a natural evolutionary history, as well as a postnatural history that is cultural.

Because people are there, we have influenced our planet's flora and fauna. So, if humanity continues to evolve in the future, how will nature change? And how can this genetic manipulation affect our own biology and evolutionary path?

The short answer: It will be weird, potentially beautiful and different than anything we know so far.

Perhaps in a romantic way, we still see everything that has not been selectively grown, industrialized or genetically modified in a deliberate way, as something natural and "untouched".

However, there is very little of nature that does not in any way carry fingerprints of humanity.

A radical change

Since our ancestors spread out of Africa about 50-70,000 years ago, all megafauna eat on the road and therefore, radically change the landscape, our species has configured and transformed nature.

About 10,000 years ago, we began to selectively reproduce the organisms we considered most desirable, which altered the genetic composition of the species.

Today, the technology has only accelerated this practice. the semen of a bull Of the first quality, it can be collected to impregnate thousands of cows of that male, an impossible achievement even for the most determined Casanova cattle.

From cattle to dogs, we have spread these organisms around the world and created a great biomass that would not exist without us, and we introduced cosmopolitan breeds that test the boundaries of physiology for aesthetic or agricultural benefits.

For millennia, our influence on many taxonomic groups has been profound. Our demand for food has meant that 70% of all birds that live today, regardless of chickens or other birds, are sufficient to create their own geological layers.

At the same time, human hunting, competition, and food destruction have killed so much wildlife that the average size of mammals has decreased, according to the paleobiologist Felisa Smith of the University of New Mexico. It has already existed irreversible losses of biodiversity and species.

But Our impact on nature so far can only be the beginning. The new genetic tools promise a radical change in our ability to manipulate organisms.

Completely synthetic organisms

We enter a future where it will no longer be necessary to choose positive traits in crops or animals that arise from natural variation, a process that is still laborious and slow.

With increasingly precise genomic editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, We can move sets of genes between species, drive certain genes, preferably through natural populations and even create completely synthetic organisms.

As such, bioengineering represents a new form of transmission of genetic information, creation and heritage.

The modification of organisms also extends irreversible extinction of some species. Although humans have been warring against Anophele's mosquitoes for hundreds of years (through chemical, mechanical, and other means), they are still one of humanity's greatest natural enemies.

Biotechnology has made it possible to create and release hordes of sterile men who are designed to reduce the population when they meet with females and now mosquitoes that contain "sets of genes", which accelerates the passage of a sterility mutation to the next generation, has also been developed.

Ecosystem manipulation

As climate change really takes speed, scientists and politicians have begun to prioritize "ecosystem services" necessary for humans, such as the stocking and replenishment of fish stocks, and are considering how they can be released into nature's biological engineering organisms or mechanical means.

Walmart has patented pollinating drones mechanics, which seems to be looking for their business to be resilient to future challenges.

And the United States Defense Research Project Agency (Darpa) has also recently granted grants to develop genetically engineered insects that transmit viruses to genetic editing of plants, apparently to alter crops in the field.

Although these techniques may be extended to ecosystem.

If we focus our lens on a distant future, how will these techniques change our relationship with the rest of life on earth? Several possible paths open in front of us, from the holistic to the really strange.

First and foremost, we can decide to reduce our manipulation of nature and wild. After all, there is great concern about what can go wrong: for example genetic damage What can happen if the molecular "scissors" used to cut and insert pieces of DNA produce accidental effects, or if the receptor ecosystems become unstable in unpredictable ways.

Back to the wild

In this potential future path, people can collectively decide that they want to restore the wildness of nature and allow the non-human to exist on a well-functioning planet, and acknowledge that the biosphere (although already strongly influenced by humans) represents Still a relatively complete form of adaptive complexity has been proven for 1 billion years.

This would probably be the most effective way to protect ecosystems and ensure survival man on planet earth in the long term.

We could return the wild to a large part of the planet and concentrate food in urban places on several floors. It would be an act, it could be argued, that respects all forms (deer, wolves, bellflowers, giraffes, even people) that life takes in the present, knowing that things will develop slowly and eventually change without explicit involvement.

But as much as I want it, I am not sure that this future path is very likely.

What we will probably see is a national and market-based weapon race to develop and implement technology that, among other things, continues to change nature, not just to protect or patent services essential ecosystems in the anthropocene or in the defense name, but also because the forces and man's curiosity to manipulate the raw materials of life are seductive and increasing

At the same time, we are increasingly distinguishing ourselves from other organisms and ecosystems. In such a state of separation, it is easier to make the radical change of nature's fabric to fully support human interests.

The companies that own the genetic material

In the film Blade Runner, the authors portrayed a world of humanoids and manufactured animals owned by the companies that created them. This dystopian future may have some truth, since even today manipulated organisms, such as the BioSteel goat, exhibited at the Center for Postnatural History, have intellectual property rights.

It is conceivable that the complete services in an ecosystem, such as pollination, are property of some companies.

It is likely that these bioengineering agents are more "appropriate" than their predecessors and become competitors, as they will deliberately be designed to satisfy human endeavors (and therefore will preferably be under our protection) or to survive in a world changed anthropically.

As such, it is likely that modified organisms replace nature as it stands, or that companies seek in an open or secret way to completely eliminate unreliable biological entities and to the advantage of synthesized agents. It is a future that would probably be delicate and full of complications, except that there is no biophilia (an innate tendency to seek connection with nature and other forms of life).

Looking to the distant future, a path to genetic engineering for nature, can even change our sense of what it means to be human.

Over the past few decades, many have wondered how we could merge with silicon technology. This technophile transhumanist vision suggests that we can ultimately integrate with artificial intelligence to improve human sensory or intellectual ability, orto join a digital kingdom after death to achieve a kind of immortality.

But, if our path was, instead, merging with nature? This is what eco-feminist literature at the end of the 20th century, like Donna Haraway's writings, advocated "green" transhumanism, where man is integrated with the animal and vegetable in such a way that it transforms itself.

Perhaps the real tool for artificial intelligence is to help us reuse genes and organisms in a process of mutually beneficial hybridization with humans, as Haraway says, a "sympopoisis".

This post-natural future goes far beyond the comfort zone of many people. It was explored in the novel Annihilation (part of the Brave New Weird genre) by Jeff VanderMeer, who became a Netflix movie with Natalie Portman.

In the story, a mysterious one glittering area in a rural area of ​​the United States, which breaks and divides the DNA between the organisms contained within it, including what soldiers and scientists sent to investigate.

Although some parts of the novel and film are related to the concepts of abandonment and acceptance of this fundamental fusion and co-creation with other life forms, the change and multiplication of the genetic material often occurs as a corporal fear, and the motivation of the volunteers entering the area. it is explained as self destructive.

The radical change of the genomes interferes with the idea that human identity is completely lost, even though the results of plant and animal transformations in the area are sometimes inconceivably charming.

Human symbiosis with other creatures

In the distant future, adults who agree may receive one symbiosis with other creatures, as photosynthetic organisms that can be stored in our skin in the same way as moss, instead of joining the information of these organisms with our own genome.

Or we could bottom out and incorporate genetic data on some animals at risk of extinction in our family forever, becoming their defenders and carriers of information in the future, as an intimate and protective act.

All this potential genetic manipulation can be uncomfortable and weird for many people today.

The philosophers, however, have proposed two ways of thinking about transferring information that would include these future paths, which I believe will be increasingly important in the postnatural era.

Philosopher Timothy Morton of Rice University argues that we must face not only beauty but also the darkness and the odd nature of nature, an approach describing how "dark ecology".

Morton opposes separating us from nature by telling it and thereby making us a strange, separate and increasingly corrupt influence.

From this point of view, ecosystems are constantly changing, and climate change is considered a form of "global rarity" that mutates and changes nature.

"Dark Ecology" is a way to explore and accept both the beauty and the horror of human manipulation of the natural world, as VanderMeer has described in the Holocaust.

In the same way, "Process philosophy" He believes that there are no real boundaries between people and the environment, that there is no individual, and that everything, including the gene, flows into the future and their routes are in a constant flow position.

A great evolutionary transition

For example, the cells in our own bodies are the result of the symbiosis of two separate microbial lines in the past, a major evolutionary transition discovered by the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis.

In addition, ours is tormented by genome genetic traces and extracellular viruses and other parasites, and in adulthood we have more cells in our bodies that belong to other species (mainly bacterial) than ours.

The philosophy of the process indicates that we are inevitably associated with everything and in constant exchange of materials and information.

In the distant future, where biotechnology has matured and restrictions on genetic transmission have been removed, we could see a radical change in evolutionary processes from process philosophy or dark ecological perspective. In short, a new form of genetic information transfer has evolved, as well as in the great evolutionary transitions of the past.

the return to the wildAlthough it currently seems unlikely, it is still the safest and most moral way for the future. But if we assume that biotechnology is widespread, it is not clear how exactly we should exist in the postnatural era.

Much will depend on how we navigate the threat in the evolution of climate change, but if humanity's long-term path to nature manipulation continues, it is likely that the future will be a strange country.

Genetically engineered mouse embryos, the BioSteel goat and fluorescent fish at PostNatural History Center can be just the beginning.

At the end, as evidenced by Gail Davies, interdisciplinary researcher at the University of Exeter, this museum is off strange creatures "It does not offer a celebration of the technical exploitation of the immanence of life, nor is it a simple rejection, but it is a careful examination of how life can be shared."

Lauren Holtshe is a researcher Center for studies of existential risk of the university in Cambridge.

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