You should combine reading “The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World” with “Uninhabitable earth” and “Falter“. One is about the horrors of climate change, one is about combining that with other potential horrors, such as AI and genetics and “Synthetic” is a book to help you think about that further and where this is going, including more horrors. Synthetic ones.
Recreate the world
We now have the power to create the earth in our image. We have enough technologies to recreate the world and make it indeed synthetic. Technologies such as:
- Synthetic biology
- Synthetic humanity
- Genetics (including bringing animals back from extinction)
- Geoengineering (including cooling the earth, remixing the atmosphere or manage reflection)
Nature does not need to be left to its own devices; it needs to be shaped. Just as it was with synthetic biology and DNA, nature need not be preserved in its historic form but should be reconstructed along better lines. The Synthetic Age presents an opportunity for humans to dramatically improve the biological and ecological world they inherited. In this new epoch, nature protection starts to mean something entirely different. It is now up to humans to decide what nature is and shall be.
The end of nature
Active earth or nature management. We would shape our plant confidently, deliberately, and sometimes ruthlessly, all according to the best abilities of our technical experts. Nothing would be off-limits. Reconstructing our world, from the ground up, by molecular biologists and engineers, marking the beginning of the planet’s first Synthetic Age. Digital nature replaces biological nature. It is estimated that 39 million of the planet’s nearly 50 million square miles of ice-free land has been turned over to various forms of human use. We are nearly there anyway. Nature might paradoxically need considerable human manipulation in order to survive as nature in the new epoch. We live not only in a post-wild age but in a world that is increasingly the product of countless human choices. The postnatural environments we create will not be pristine or untouched, but they might have many qualities similar to those that were previously valued in what used to be called “the natural world”—only this time it will be nature version 2.0. We have no choice but to make the earth into a well-designed artefact.
Homo sapiens has become Homo Urbanus
A potent example of such a phenomenon is urbanization. Sometime in 2007, a person was born in a city somewhere on the globe who tipped the proportion of Homo sapiens that lives in cities over the 50% mark. Despite the fact that cities cover only 2 to 3% of the terrestrial surface area, more than half of humanity is now urban-dwelling. The human condition is now inevitably and increasingly that of a city dweller. Urban living is progressively becoming the species norm.
- In 1800, only 2% of the human population lived in cities.
- By 1900, that portion grew to 15%.
- By 2050, the number will reach 80%.
More than 500 billion metric tons of concrete now coat the surface of the earth, more than two pounds for every square meter of the planet’s land and sea. The places we spend the bulk of our time are constructed by urban designers and corporate decision makers rather than by evolutionary forces.
A related agent of evolutionary change is the progressive banishment of darkness from the world at the hands of electric light. This lack of night comes with sizable biological consequences. Human bodies have natural circadian rhythms. These rhythms are adjustments to the waxing and waning of light during the earth’s daily rotations. Evolution lodged such patterns deeply inside of us. The circadian rhythm has an influence on hormone production, body temperature regulation, blood pressure, and other key functions. Plants, animals, cyanobacteria, and fungi all have similar rhythms that are their own evolutionary adaptations to the rising and setting of the sun.
Price to pay
When patterns of light and darkness change, organisms must rapidly adapt or pay the price. Consider that more than a fifth of all mammal species are bats. 60% of invertebrates and 30% of vertebrates are nocturnal. That means that a large number of the living forms that share the planet with us have evolved so that darkness is an essential factor in their well-being. Sea turtles emerging from the surf and no longer able to navigate by the moon due to beachfront floodlights
In addition to growing cities and glowing night skies, other subtle shifts are in the wind. The very air surrounding us now bumps with electromagnetic waves carrying the information that sparks cell phone calls, internet searches, and evenings spent with streaming media. The apparent stillness of the air is increasingly an illusion. The intangible medium that fills a raptor’s wings and surrounds our skin hums with the energy of millions of anthropogenic memos being processed by the nearly billion transistors manufactured each day.
As marine waters acidify due to their absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the ability of the oceans to mute low-frequency sounds decreases. This means that noise travels farther underwater as a direct consequence of the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, the oceans are increasingly percolated by a growing mélange of sounds.
The first consumer products containing nanomaterials entered commercial markets in 1999. One nanometer is about one hundred thousandths of the thickness of a sheet of paper. There are more than 25 million of them in an inch. Fingernails grow by roughly one nanometer every second. A typical bacterium, on the other hand, is a massive 2,500 nanometers wide, while basketball player LeBron James is an epic 2.03 billion nanometers tall. Graphene, for example, is a lattice of carbon that is never more than one atom thick.
Whatever you want, you can have
Nanotechnology has potential application in almost any domain that Homo Faber fabricates:
- Nanotreatments that modify surface behaviours make numerous household items more water-repellent, antireflective, ultraviolet-filtering, antifogging, and antimicrobial.
- Food packaging that includes nanosilver can resist harmful microbes and increase shelf life. Nanostructures embedded in packaging also can better seal in desirable features such as the carbonation in fizzy drinks.
- Nano treated fridges and freezers stay cleaner.
- Smartphone screens using nanostructured polymers produce sharper images with less glare.
- Nanosensors are being designed that will be able to detect molecular changes in cells.
- Nanostructures are already playing a role in bone and tooth implants by providing better surfaces for improved integration of prosthetic materials with the patient’s jawbone.
- Nanosized fat particles laced with toxic drugs can be delivered to tumours and then, on excitation with a gentle heat, can be made to release the drug in the desired location without harming neighbouring cells. These “thermal nano grenades” currently under development have been tagged by medical experts as “the holy grail.
Ecologically conscious doubters have to concede that nanotechnology could make massive contributions to environmental sustainability. Nanotechnology allows our species to insert itself into the very nature of matter in a way that humanity has not done before.
If one could rearrange atoms by picking them up and moving them about, it should be possible to build pretty much anything you wanted, one atom at a time. We are talking about molecular manufacturing. By controlling where every atom goes, you theoretically could gain the potential to construct anything you could imagine. A bucket of water is thought to contain more hydrogen and oxygen atoms than the Atlantic Ocean contains buckets of water. A pile of household garbage would contain trillions of atoms from a wide range of existing elements all potentially available for repositioning. This repurposing signals not only a rethinking of what counts as waste but also a vastly different sense of what counts as material limits. The idea of doing something with “atomic precision” has virtually become a synonym for doing something as effectively as it can be done.
- Nanobots could be designed to find and destroy lymph-born cancer cells or to obliterate harmful viruses.
- Nanites could eat smog or clean up spilled chemicals.
- Rather like a 3-D printer but on a much smaller scale, the machines represented in these animations build things layer by layer—literally, atom by atom.
The current state of the art of molecular manufacturing looks less like building robots using the principles of mechanical engineering and more like building biological structures using the principles of biochemistry. All of these advances are in a field colloquially known as wet or biomimetic nanotechnology, a name chosen because it copies the water-based operation of the structures found in the living organisms studied by molecular biologists.
DNA on demand
For one thing, in addition to the DNA found within the cell’s nucleus that the genome project mapped, there is also DNA in the cytoplasm outside the cell’s nucleus that has a significant influence on how humans develop. Individuals appear to be able to pass on to future generations, through their genome, the consequences of something that was experienced during their lifetime. However, genetically, we are more microbe than human. It is impossible to become our fully human selves without the right mix of microbes accompanying us on each stage of the journey. Although the human genome contains only 24,000 genes, the epigenome includes millions of factors that influence human development.
Synthetic biology rests on the idea that biology should become more like engineering. A genome is ultimately no more than a particularly interesting chemical structure with a certain arrangement of phosphorous, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms. Organisms never before seen in nature could be created entirely to serve us. It would be a remarkable, if slightly Frankensteinian, achievement.
In this dream, it is possible to detect a certain overlap with the dream of molecular manufacturing in nanotechnology. The overlap is real: the rungs of the DNA ladder are about two nanometers across, so by definition DNA synthesis would be an activity that takes place at the nanoscale. In other words, the whole endeavour would be a form of wet nanotechnology. If humans could design organisms to execute operations that overlapped with human interests, then they would quite possibly have at their disposal the most effective and low-maintenance machines imaginable. This promised to create an industrialist’s nirvana.
Metabolic engineering essentially sites a biological factory inside the body of another organism. Using these methods, other useful medicines (such as synthetic antibiotics and synthetic vaccines) are also within the realm of possibility. These parts have become known as bio bricks. Each biological brick is known to perform a certain useful function. An international bio brick registry administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is available to any researcher in the world. This registry contains over three thousand useful gene sequences in standardized formats, any of which can be ordered online (as if through Amazon). The bio brick registry is essentially synthetic biology’s digital warehouse, which manufacturers can call up when they need something for the biological machine they are building.
The announcement of the fabrication of the Mycoplasma genitalium genome took synthetic biology across a new threshold. This was the first time the whole genome of an independent organism had been built from its constituent chemicals in a lab. Unlike viruses, bacteria can make and store energy. They also can replicate independently of any host. As with nanotechnology, ecologically minded observers have to concede that these biological mini-machines could perform a number of extremely desirable tasks. In addition to synthetic fuel, microbes could be designed to consume carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If synthetic microbes can dial back global warming and provide abundant carbon-neutral fuel to boot, how can environmentalists object? The ecological risks posed by synthetic microbial organisms could yet turn out to be significant. After they are set free in the environment, it is unclear whether they would ever be able to be brought back in. For the first time, humans will become creators of nonhuman life. This would not just be in vitro fertilization. It would be in vitro creation.
CRISPR is an acronym that stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. An agricultural crop, for example, could have its genome edited to resist blight. Researchers could stay home and use genomic technologies to manipulate existing pines in the lab. Bull trout struggling to adapt to elevated temperatures in high-altitude mountain streams could potentially have a gene for heat tolerance inserted into them. Highly endangered black-footed ferrets suffering from generations of inbreeding could have their genetic diversity increased by the insertion of genes from specimens in museums and frozen repositories.
Honeybees subject to colony collapse disorder could be genetically enhanced by the addition of genes for the fastidious hygiene traits found in some colonies that have proven successful in keeping hives free from parasites.
The end of extinction
It turns out that the same techniques now available in synthetic biology for building genomes can be put to use reconstructing the DNA of extinct animals. Extinction, these biologists propose, need not be forever after all. The technology for doing this, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, has already been developed and employed successfully to clone sheep, cats, deer, oxen, rabbits, horses, and dogs.
Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, assisted migration, and de-extinction all promise to impress human designs onto the natural order of things at ever deeper levels. These technologies provide some of the most startling illustrations of what a Synthetic Age might bring. They reach deep into the planet’s metabolism and substantially reconfigure its workings according to our designs.
Technology and transition
In recent years, even in the most foot-dragging parts of the world, most leaders have acknowledged that redirecting natural history by slow-cooking the planet with atmospheric carbon levels unseen for at least three million years—and perhaps as many as fifteen or twenty-five million—is probably not a good idea. Cheaper and more efficient solar panels, wind turbines, and alternative transportation methods are all technological innovations that will be necessary to make a serious dent in carbon emissions. More effective batteries for energy storage, breakthroughs in building and urban design, and the development of smarter power grids are also part of the package of technical innovations that will be required if the world is to successfully transition to clean energy.
Nature as a construct
Deep technologies promise the ability to recalibrate basic planetary characteristics, including the nature of matter, the arrangement of DNA, the composition of ecosystems, and the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth from the sun. Our descendants would be born into a world that the generation ahead of them had deliberately chosen to construct rather than one bestowed on them by geologic time.
Among the more reflective of the researchers working in molecular manufacturing, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence, there is a growing sense that something fundamentally different is now at stake. The technologies fast approaching mark a different sort of change to the world. Science would be much more self-consciously directed toward the public interest. It would not be driven by hovering commercial interests, and it would reject any attempt at secrecy enforced by patents or alliances with big companies and their market intentions.
Climate, ecology, and molecular biology may increasingly be replaced with synthetic versions of themselves. Through a suite of new technologies, we might now have the potential to repair some of the damage, even if this means recalibrating several of the earth’s most essential metabolic functions. Despite assuming godlike powers, we should recognize that omnipotence and omniscience have never been our strong suit. Biosphere 2 might be considered a cautionary parable for the Synthetic Age. At the dawn of a Synthetic Age, the future of nature should not be determined simply by what is possible. Can has never automatically entailed should.
Setting self-nourishing and self-replicating machines or organisms free in the environment to perform work for us seems inadvisable. Designing genomes that have the chance to mutate on us is a mighty gamble, especially when conceding the ignorance we still possess about the relationship between the genome and the microbiome. Attempting to manage physical systems as large and as chaotic as the planet’s climate not only is inherently hazardous but also smacks of overconfidence.
Wildness and nature
Nature is (was?) wild. Wildness is, in fact, the riddle that will inhabit every element of a synthetic future. Every technology and practice will contain important traces of wildness that will remain callously indifferent to our plans and our desires. If artefacts are built to roam free and self-replicate, then this inherent wildness becomes a rapidly escalating concern. The butterfly effect suggests that tiny perturbations in one part of the system can create dramatic unforeseen disruptions in another. Trying to manipulate a complex, chaotic system on a global scale sounds like it could be a fool’s game.