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John Derbyshire on the Quintessence of Dust

John Derbyshire has just written an interesting article over at NRO on Genomics and Humanity’s Future. I’d heard a few things about new developments in Craig Venter’s research into the genome, but Derbyshire is a great writer on matters mathamatic (He’s the author of (Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics) and scientific, and he is a very able communicator of his own enthusiams.

He begins with a few questions about our early homonoid ancestors:

“Were we and they separate species — Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis? Or two distant breeds of the same species — Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis?

Good question. Whatever the answer, it is apparently settled business that we are now mostly the former, but not entirely: “The base populations of Homo sap. outside Africa have genomes with 1 to 4 percent of Neanderthal genes.” So there may be something to those Geico ads after all.

In other big human genome news, scientists have apparently cooked up a living genome from scratch. As Derbyshire summarizes the controversy, there isn’t much that’s really controversial:

There has been much quibbling about whether Venter and Co. have actually “created life.” The quibblers are fighting a rear-guard action, though — one they actually began fighting eight years ago, when a different group synthesized a virus. The quibblers had a good case then — viruses are more like non-life than life — but they have a much weaker case now, and after another milestone or two along this path, they will have no case at all.

He then quotes The Economist on an essential scientific point:

Life’s essence is information. Heretofore that information has been passed from one living thing to another. Now it does not have to be.

And then – as if a little tired, it seemed to me – he proclaims:

The first of these stories addresses humanity’s past; the second, our future. Both constitute further dethronements of our species. Small, incremental dethronements in both cases; but we can expect many more of the same. Before a few more years have passed, the “folk metaphysics” that most of us carry around in our minds, as our ancestors have done for centuries, will be completely untenable. Following the discovery of our Neanderthal admixture, it is clear that we are even more of a kluge than we thought. What evolution generally delivers is a terrible mess.

Come again?

Derbyshire has just explained that human beings – not baboons, not Martians, not gods – that human beings have succeeded in doing something that hasn’t been done for three or four billion years: “created life,” and this is amounts to an incremental dethronement. And this wasn’t accomplished with the usual ingredients (vodka, Chanel No. 5) in the usual place (parking lot or maybe the parents’ basement), but with “off-the-shelf chemicals” in a very unmysterious laboratory.

Even granting Derbyshire his agnosticism (or atheism, or whatever); yielding on the question of whether ethics or morality has or should have any bearing on this latest development, and admitting from the outset that the specialists know much, much more about all this than we can ever hope to learn and that we need to defer to them on the important scientific points … granting all that, and probably a lot more … Derbyshire’s conclusions make no sense whatsoever.

How does another great scientific achievement by men lead to the “dethronement” of man? Couldn’t it just as easily be said that the throne just got a little bit higher? I will say it!

How is the “terrible mess” delivered by evolution substantially different from what mankind has been saying about itself well-nigh from the beginning? Jews, Greeks, Hindi … whoever; they (we) have all been saying just that from before the beginning of recorded history. Human beings have never not claimed human beings to be a terrible mess.

The terribly messy state of humankind is directly related to its “enthronement,” just as Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” is part and parcel to being such a piece of work.

Maybe it should be qualified as “folk metaphysics”, but in the story of the golem Judah Loew ben Bezalel is a human being. He is an extraordinary human being, as perhaps Craig Venter is an extraordinary publicity hound, but neither the good rabbi nor the good egomaniac necessarily brought about a “dethronement” for the rest of the species.

This is off-the-shelf knowledge and old news.

Speaking of which, that the essence of life is “information” seems to me a liitle like saying that fire is hot, or that water is wet, or that bread is made from grain. It doesn’t seem like such an important observation. A more important distinction, I think, is between information that is a piece of knowledge, and information that is a piece of news.

And that is the subject of a much different article.

Comments

  1. Moe Szyslak says

    Man, you go through life, you try to be nice to people, you struggle to resist the urge to punch 'em in the face, and for what?! For some pimply little puke to treat you like dirt unless you're on a team. Well, I'm better than dirt–well, most kinds of dirt. I mean, not that fancy store-bought dirt. That stuff's loaded with nutrients. I–I can't compete with that stuff.

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