Banner
    Interplanetary Colonization: I Don't Think So
    By Gerhard Adam | April 6th 2012 04:51 PM | 98 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Gerhard

    I'm not big on writing things about myself so a friend on this site (Brian Taylor) opted to put a few sentences together: Hopefully I'll be able...

    View Gerhard's Profile
    Periodically it seems that the subject comes up regarding human colonization of space and then all manner of problems and difficulties are discussed with various people taking their respective sides on the physics that's possible and what isn't.

    However, I would offer a different perspective on this and argue that it isn't a physics problem.  This isn't about speed, about time, or about energy, although these are problems.  The problem is about biology.

    More specifically, the problem is about the passengers we have to take.  Not humans, not embryos, or not some cryogenically preserved individuals.  The problem is bacteria.

    We often hear about transporting the human genome, as if that's all that is needed for human life, but this overlooks the reality that our bodies are populated by an a whole order of magnitude more life than is accounted for by our cells.  We are unequivocally dependent on this life and where we go, it goes.

    More importantly, the same relationship exists for anything we might consider to be a food source, whether it be plant or animal that is supposed to accompany us on this trip.  In short, we would have to construct a completely self-contained, viable biosphere to engage in any colonization efforts, at any level.

    The simplistic comparisons to the exploration of North America overlook that aspect of things, since that occurred within the same biosphere, despite some rather significant, and unexpected consequences for some of the inhabitants [i.e. smallpox].

    The real unknown aspect of this problem is that it must also take natural selection into account, since we are not in control of this biosphere and its inhabitants. While we may entertain notions about genetically controlling plants, animals, and even ourselves, we can do nothing about the millions and billions of microbes that will tag along.  More importantly, we can't even begin to speculate what would happen if any should die off because of the trip, or if some should mutate or even become pathogenic.

    Basically we are clueless as to the effect of natural selection on this significant part of the biosphere and the role it would have in determining the future relationship we have with this entourage.

    More to the point, we have no idea what would happen if we simply unleashed this biosphere onto a new planet.  If there was already life present, the consequences likely would be catastrophic [probably to the colonists].  If no life is present, then we would be attempting to duplicate a particular ecology, which is something that has never played out the same way twice in a row [again, probably catastrophic for the colonists].  We simply can't assume that commensual or symbiotic relationships hold in a new habitat.  

    In my view, I think these particular problems are intractable, however for those that might have a more optimistic take, consider then that we don't need to focus on solving the energy problems of transportation or the effect on humans.  Those problems are trivial compared to the accommodations we will have to reach to support our microbial partners.  Without them, there is no trip and there is no future.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Some references to consider:

    "Bacteria are needed for life"
    http://bacteriamuseum.org/cms/Evolution/bacteria-are-needed-for-life.html

    "Humans Have Ten Times More Bacteria than Human Cells:  How Do Microbial Communities Affect Human Health?"
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080603085914.htm

    "DNA of Good Bacteria Drives Intestinal Response to Infection"
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081002172540.htm

    Comments

    That's a good slant on a rather common theme, Gerhard.

    First, I have to say that I'm skeptical that the current human race will get to the point of interplanetary colonization.

    However, I am much in favor of extra-terra exploration and exploitation. From my rather limited point of view, any colonization within the Sol system would necessarily be within a closed environment. Even Mars, the most likely first attempted colony, has such a hostile environment that humans would need complete protection from the atmosphere to survive. You won't be running barefoot in your speedo on the sands of Mars.

    I suspect that if humans do make it long enough to try for space colonization that they will likely live and work in orbiting platforms. Perhaps like a scaled up version of our space station. It is also likely that the first several colonies will consist of relatively few members. Those members will be charged with the task of not only surviving, but of testing to see if the whole subject of space colonization is viable.

    You can bet that they will wipe their boots well before they come in from the barnyard too!

    Gerhard Adam
    You can bet that they will wipe their boots well before they come in from the barnyard too!
    I expect they will.  However, the problem is that they'll need to wipe them before they go into the barnyard as well.  It's a two-way street and even if there's no life on Mars to contaminate, there's no telling what the introduction of Earth microbes would do.

    BTW, I agree with the scenario you've portrayed, but [in my view] this would still be categorized as exploration rather than colonization.  It may seem like its splitting hairs, but until we get to that stage of actually going to another planet and attempting to live there, we won't really encounter all the attendant problems I'm concerned about.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Yup. I think you are right on both counts.

    We don't even know for sure that we could haul stuff from one of the planets (exposed to the vacuum and cold of space) and be sure that any tiny critters would be good and dead.

    vongehr
    This started so well; I was like - yeah Gerhard - you go show them, but then it crashed so badly. Here is what you wrote in my eyes:
    all manner of problems and difficulties are discussed with various people taking their respective sides on the technology that's possible and what isn't. However, I would offer a different perspective on this and argue that it isn't a technology problem.  This isn't about speed, about time, or about energy, although these are problems.  The problem is about technology.
    I have no interest in your now defending the here especially irrelevant distinction between technology and biology. The issue is that a system potentially capable of doing any such thing would not desire such. This is why we do not have signs of such colonizations, which otherwise would have gone on already, regardless how great the practical difficulties seem to us.
    Oh Gerhard, you naughty, naughty, naughty boy!

    Fancy not realising that a self-contained biosphere trundling to a distant galaxy would lose heart half-way, realise that life wasn't worth living and blow itself up.

    Next time you blog, please make sure that everything you say is compatible with Sascha's Law. 

    vongehr
    Thanks for mocking me. Anyway, the main point was that Gerhard is on the right way, namely on to a level above looking at issues like these (or "time travel", you know) like a boy that didn't yet outgrow the "cars and power tools are awesome" stage. Whether particular proposals on that level, like the one you just constructed (who ever claimed such), are valid is another question.
    Thanks for mocking me.
    You are very welcome.
    Anyway, the main point was that Gerhard is on the right way, namely on to a level above looking at issues like these (or "time travel", you know) like a boy that didn't yet outgrow the "cars and power tools are awesome" stage.
    Yet you lose interest because he failed to acknowledge that "The issue is that a system potentially capable of doing any such thing would not desire such."  This is why I mock you. You came up with a rather silly bit of futurology a while back which speculated about "Evolution of Deadly Rationality" and "Global Suicide", apparently oblivious to the fact that you are imposing your limited intellect and imagination onto transhuman intelligence and presuming to know exactly what it would think and decide. Fun idea or possibly something to worry about, but hardly a theorem that every blogger should conform his own ideas to. 
    Whether particular proposals on that level, like the one you just constructed (who ever claimed such), are valid is another question.
    Made the point though, didn't it?


     

    vongehr
    Yet you lose interest because he failed to acknowledge that "The issue is that a system potentially capable of doing any such thing would not desire such." 
    No - I wrote that I lost interest because his objection turned out to be on a similar engineering-technicality level that he started out to criticize (at least that is how it sounded like to me).
    About the rest: You simply did not understand the argument.
    Thor Russell
    I don't agree that talking about the desires of such a system is "next level" compared to the technology. I think that technology influences desire and vice versa. I don't think that rationality will inevitably lead all systems to the same desires. I can't see how you think this given you talk about consciousness as a vestigal organ in one post then say that suffering and hence conscious experience will be all important in another. Surely if tech evolves to make consciousness obsolete that would have a huge effect on the desires/values of such a system. Discarding consciousness, then regarding it as all important seems to me like us being the most concerned about our lost tails.

    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    While I appreciate your point about such systems not having the desire to achieve such objectives, isn't it equally plausible that lesser systems may have made the attempts but also failed [even at rudimentary levels]?  In other words, the Fermi Paradox is also explainable by the condition that such basic biological problems are, in fact, intractable and that our evolutionary history is an anchor which links us irrevocably to our planet of origin.

    So while you're correct that systems that might have the potential to succeed would also lose the desire to do so, isn't is equally plausible to argue that there is no system which is capable of succeeding given these conditions. 

    I know you're not considering a distinction between future human evolution, technology and biology, and I agree with your point there.  However, regardless of what our technology has the potential to achieve, we are still stuck with ancestral lifeforms which are not on the same trajectory as we are.  So regardless of what happens to humans, if we are inextricably linked to more "primitive" organisms, then that also has ramifications in terms of what our future holds.  In effect, it becomes a type of biological inertia that the more rapidly we evolve at the upper substrates, the stronger the hold of the lower substrates becomes.
    Mundus vult decipi
    In effect, it becomes a type of biological inertia that the more rapidly we evolve at the upper substrates, the stronger the hold of the lower substrates becomes.

    Nicely worded....Your article also reminds me of sci-fi future scenarios when the sun becomes unstable a few billions years from now, and it's imagined that we will have to move beyond our solar system in order to survive. What's unrealistic is that a few billion years is far beyond the average expectancy of any species. Meanwhile we have better odds of surviving with the life forms we have coevolved with on this planet.
    Gerhard Adam
    I also find it interesting that we tend to ignore the most prevalent form of life on this planet and focus only on ourselves, or those that are readily visible to us. 

    In fact, I'm of the mind that even we [humans] are little more than a rarity regarding life where a conglomeration of single celled organisms have congregated together, while still dependent on unicellular assistance.  While evolution and natural selection may be "wasteful" [which is open to debate], these processes are not arbitrarily tolerant.  As a result, it does raise the question on why "higher" life forms should've evolved to support such a large entourage of microbial passengers.    It just seems that at too many levels we find that not only are microbes present, but without them various lifeforms [including ourselves] couldn't even live.

    This is a basic attribute of biology that has been ignored for far too long.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    I am also not convinced anymore that we would have any idea what such a system would desire. As me and Derek have discussed it is not at all clear what increasing rationality would do or if such a thing would even happen. Complete rationality is just undefined as there is nothing to care about, rationality leading to just one single desire rather than several competing ones leads to apparently pathological behavior as far as I can see. What can rationality ever be but a way of advancing irrational goals?Name me one goal that doesn't have an irrational starting assumption/value.

    While I acknowledge entrapment is happening, I also think it is dependent on how technology progresses and not inevitable in the way you say. If we had the ability to make human level intelligent AI, then they would be made with a wide variety of goals and could be so different to us that they would not be interested/entrapped in our culture/society. Ones that decided not to exist would just not play a part. I think our desires are determined by who we are/evolution etc they are both changed by technology and influence the course of technology making a feedback system of increasingly advanced technology, changing desires and probably fragmentation of such desires depending on the entity in question which it is pretty much impossible to predict the consequences of. Yes there are many plausible scenarios out there, yours is just one of them until you provide a lot more to back it up with.
    Thor Russell
    Name me one goal that doesn't have an irrational starting assumption/value.
    Actually although I agree with the thrust of your argument, most people actually believe it is rational to regard some things as good and right and worthwhile.  A really smart system may very well realize that there is a point to human life even though "point" cannot be derived from "non-point" by pure logic. The question is, could a rational system have such intuitions?  


    Gerhard Adam
    I think you have a problem here in conflating the "point" of human lives versus the "point" of the system's existence.  The two are not synonymous.  If societal evolution continues down the path we are currently on, it's entirely plausible that humans will be effectively, "legacy systems" that will simply fulfill their role in maintain the societal mega-organism.

    At that point, human ambition or desire becomes irrelevant.  It would be like imagining that a skin cell has ambitions to be a heart cell at some point.  They are inextricably linked in the body they support, but they have no means by which they can do anything independent of that body.  In the same way, we fulfill our role in our society, but we cannot operate outside that society.  We are also inextricably linked and can maneuver only within the constraints that our particular place in life/society offers.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think you have a problem here in conflating the "point" of human lives versus the "point" of the system's existence.
    No I'm not. 

    I'm talking about whether "rationality" could discover values all on its little ownsome or whether it is the austere sterile void that Thor seems to think.
    In the same way... 
    No.
     

     
    Gerhard Adam
    No.
    Sometimes you're just a bit too verbose.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    I think some kind of intuition is necessary and the values would come from life experiences and how such a system was designed. Its a bit ironic as scientists we are supposed to put rationality at the pinnacle of all totality but I don't think that is justified. I'm also not 100% convinced that a very alien intelligence would even have exactly the same concepts as us regards intent, good etc. If that was the case it wouldn't necessarily agree with us about what were the steps in a rational process.Also does rationality have an "arrow of time" I mean if you take a starting position and apply rationality to it and reach an end point, then follow it is that "good" but if you then take what may be considered an end point and work backwards to where you want to end up, does this then become more like the "evil" rationalization?
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    While I don't mean to throw a monkey wrench into this discussion about rationality, it is my contention that there can be no rationality without an emotional connection.  Rationality must have a context, and that context must be a result of something that matters to us.

    Without emotion there is nothing to draw our interest.  There is nothing that motivates us.  After all, what does it even mean to be rational?  It isn't just simple logic.  It must be something that "makes sense" for the individual doing the thinking.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Wow I actually agree with you here!
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    I knew you'd eventually come around :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Ah, on that particular philosophical issue about rationality not anything to do with robotics. If you can't see the difference you obviously don't understand my position. I've tried long enough now however.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Relax.  I was kidding you.
    Mundus vult decipi
    hey sacha,
    try to replace any occurrence of the word "technology" by "economy". I once read a comment by a geologist/mining engineer who explained how hard it is to convince his company to exploit a wonderful mother lode explored in the deep sea or in Lybia. They want to know everything, cost of transportation, permits, loans, everything. Even if the moon were made of diamonds, no bank would finance a mining enterprice there. Too expensive. So why try to grow strawberries on Mars?
    Or even your own potatoes? You'll die of homesickness to your potatoes from Minnesota. No profit there.

    I've got to say, Gerhard, I'm unconvinced.

    First of all, the bacteria within us would be brought with us. The question then is about whether they can survive. The fact that our species has survived it's rather unpleasant early history (packed with starvation, struggle and so on...) seems to suggest that the fauna within are pretty stable to a variety of diets. Heck, these days about a quarter of the planet's humans live on little other than rice! The Inuit used to live on a diet of almost pure meat and fish. Some tribes in the Amazon live on mostly starch paste from trees. Why assume that our bacteria would have a hard time surviving?

    If this follows for us, then it doesn't seem unreasonable that similar logic would follow for plants and foodstuffs. In genetic studies, plants are grown on very sterile and relatively pure compounds for repeatability. Although, yes, there are some micronutrients and minerals required for a plant's long term viability, the size of planets all but guarantees availability somewhere. In short, the biosphere does not have to be complex to be viable, and life has already proven itself to be pretty stable.

    Finally, the point about evolution. The bacteria in our bodies are evolving all the time! It's not like that process is on hold merely because we are on our native planet! They mutate all the time, and, yes, sometimes become pathogenic. I can buy that there would be far more ecological niches unfilled on another planet, but I'd appreciate a bit more on why you think this would be a problem we aren't facing right now.

    Gerhard Adam
    Why assume that our bacteria would have a hard time surviving?
    I don't recall arguing that bacteria are at risk because of diet.  My point is that without a clear understanding of how bacteria interact with us on an ongoing basis [i.e. new bacteria introduced, replenished, etc.] there is a potential problem in not understanding how the relationship actually operates.
    In short, the biosphere does not have to be complex to be viable, and life has already proven itself to be pretty stable.
    Based on what?  We can barely manage an ecosystem with a few large species on it and explain why they experience difficulties [i.e. consider the wolves on Isle Royale].  We know next to nothing about the ecosystem regarding bacteria.
    The bacteria in our bodies are evolving all the time!
    Agreed.  However, the selection pressures would be vastly different and we have no means by which we can predict how things would go.  A trip to a distant star where a pathogenic bacteria would suddenly "appear" would likely be catastrophic.  Similarly we don't really understand how any of the bacterial populations balance each other between "good" and "bad" [from the human perspective]. 

    I think a key point to remember is that we aren't just talking about exploration but rather colonization.  This effectively means moving an entire biosphere, intact, to another planet.  I simply consider the problem intractable.  Could such a thing be successful?  Perhaps, but it would be successful largely by luck rather than planning or knowledge.

    Previously you indicated that a biosphere doesn't need to be complex in order for it to be viable, but such a statement is easy to make on Earth.  When various niches change and the dynamics change, we have no concept of the evolutionary trajectories we may be launching different species on.  Hence my point about commensuals and symbionts potentially changing in completely unanticipated directions because they may no longer be dependent on us for their own survival. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    ...life has already proven itself to be pretty stable.
    I had to come back and respond to this particular statement.  I have a problem with it, because it's so non-specific.  What life has proven itself to be stable? 

    Human life has not demonstrated any such thing [and ultimately that's what colonization is about].  Humans like to think that they're on an infinitely positive trajectory towards the future, but there's absolutely nothing to indicate that this is anything except unwarranted optimism.  So if you want to consider life, generically, as being stable, then you certainly have a point, although I'm not sure how that benefits "us" in any way.

    We enjoy telling ourselves stories about how tough we are, and how resilient the species is, and to a limited extent this is somewhat true.  However, we are also a very sensitive system that is subject to all manner of disruptions and if conditions aren't absolutely right, we will readily break down.  Again, it's important to bear in mind that we are talking about colonization here, and not simply the survival of one or two individuals.  As a result, when we evaluate the species in general, we must also consider our reproductive abilities and future mating opportunities.  A colony that only survives a few generations isn't much to brag about.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Life in general has proven itself to be stable. I say this because we have strong evidence from cellular organelles like mitochondria that eukaryotic life has a common ancestor. That means that it's overwhelmingly likely to have been created once, then spread and diversified - because it was adaptable and successful. If it appeared once, then survived for billions of years, then that to me is quite good evidence for stability.

    Seeing as the planet has lived through meteorite impacts, global warming, drastic atmosphere composition changes, and mass extinctions the likes of which we can't imagine, and still that life thrives, I think there is some reason to be slightly more optimistic about colonisation's success probability than perhaps you are.

    Your point about the fact that humans are to colonise, rather than some general life (after all, what use is colonising a planet with just some bacteria which happen to be able to thrive there?), is well received. However, I tend to agree with Thor below - just because we can't model exactly what the outcome will be, doesn't mean that we can't do it. The point about enclosed habitats being essentially identical whether they are sited on Earth or elsewhere is particularly compelling for me - and the spread to the outside world can happen gradually and in small steps.

    Finally, about modelling and unpredicted outcomes, things like rabbits in Australia, or cane toads - this for me is evidence that is it actually quite easy to thrive somewhere new, especially somewhere which is sparsely populated with regards to the newcomer's particular ecological niche. Other examples, think of disease in South America when the Spanish and Portuguese came. The densely populated area tends to infect the sparsely populated area. It would have to be, almost by definition, as there is more competition for resources/food for all organisms concerned. Taken to the extreme, the same principle holds for bacteria in a test tube of agar solution. Any new planet will almost certainly be sparsely populated, and thus likely to enable new life to thrive, as long as the raw materials are available.

    Why take the pessimistic viewpoint when there is such evidence to the contrary? After all, life colonised this planet from simple beginnings.

    Gerhard Adam
    After all, life colonised this planet from simple beginnings.
    I have to keep going back to the main point.  This isn't about "life", in general, it's specifically about human life and colonies.
    The point about enclosed habitats being essentially identical whether they are sited on Earth or elsewhere is particularly compelling for me - and the spread to the outside world can happen gradually and in small steps.
    That's precisely what you can't do.  Any "small step" shifts the ecological balance in favor of one or more organisms that are no longer "earth-normal".  It's precisely these kinds of shifts that change the selection pressures experienced by the organism and can result in a wildly different evolutionary trajectory.
    However, I tend to agree with Thor below - just because we can't model exactly what the outcome will be, doesn't mean that we can't do it.
    I know Thor related it to chemistry, but the problem with that comparison is that chemistry can't die.  If an important bacteria  become compromised or die or have some other difficulty, you can't just replace them. 

    It truly is about the inter-relatedness of all these organisms that is so problematic.  I'm not being pessimistic.  I'm simply indicating that it is an intractable problem and the only responses I've gotten involve a lot of "gee-whiz', "whiz-bang" technology speculations that we aren't remotely close to being able to achieve or understand. 

    Bear in mind that this isn't simply arguing about what we might be capable of doing thousands of years from now.  These types of colonies are being proposed for the near-term and I find it the height of naivete that it is being seriously discussed.
    http://www.nss.org/settlement/mars/zubrin-colonize.html

    Let's put it this way.  I'll take it more seriously the first time I see a real, functioning biodome standing in Antarctica.  Until then, it's "Star Trek" fantasies.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    I think everyone would also take it a lot more seriously if there was a functioning biodome in Antarctica. Its a logical step in the process.
    Thor Russell
    BDOA
    With interstellar transport being a realistically in the hundred of years, your would be right in thinking
    we'd need a complete Noah's ark carrying a stable biosphere that could both surviving in space, and grow on the new planet. Quite what bacteria and plants we would need are unknown both for the long time in space, and for the new world. Its likely we would have to significantly teraform the new planet taking thousands of years. We'd need practice in our own solar system for many years before we could
    attempt such a feet.
    BDOA Adams, Axitronics
    Gerhard Adam
    I agree.  However, we should be clear that while we can use terms like "terraform", what we actually mean is replicate earth-like conditions.  Since we don't actually know what constitutes such "earth-like" conditions, we're already beginning at a deficit.

    In effect, to succeed we would almost have to close the book on biology by having all the knowledge and the means to control it.  After all, it wouldn't do any good to "terraform" a planet and produce an environment that might be "alive" but hostile to humans and what they wish to bring.
    ...teraform the new planet taking thousands of years.
    Can you imagine trying to determine what the selection pressures are thousands of organisms and how to orchestrate them to produce a desired outcome?  All this, while the organisms themselves would continue to evolve.  As I said, in my view the problem is intractable.

    Of course, this also doesn't address all the other myriad issues that would surface in terms of societal commitment to such a project, economics, politics, etc. etc. etc. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    You may be right about the technologies being mature enough to make star-ships practical in a few hundred years. However, in that time, ecology will not have stood still. Look how far we have come. We have had three centuries of powered machines but only 66 years of computing theory and perhaps 40 years of theoretical ecology. Scale those up to a "few hundred years" and it is inconceivable that we will be unable to model the entire biosphere by the time we have the ability to go and mess up another planet by ignoring everything we've learned.
     
    Gerhard Adam
    ...it is inconceivable that we will be unable to model the entire biosphere...
    I have to disagree.  All the evidence suggests that there is literally no way to replicate an ecosystem.  No matter what you do, the dynamics will play out differently each time. 

    That's why I think the problem is intractable.  There are simply too many variables to ever successfully model anything except a small subset of what occurs.


    Mundus vult decipi
    All the evidence suggests that there is literally no way to replicate an ecosystem. No matter what you do, the dynamics will play out differently each time.
    All what evidence?
     
    Mathematical modelling is quite successful in predicting chaotic behaviour and while specific outcomes may be not be predictable, average statistics are. The fact that "the dynamics will play out differently each time" does not mean we cannot estimate the probability of survival. 
    That's why I think the problem is intractable. There are simply too many variables to ever successfully model anything except a small subset of what occurs.
    There are a number of mathematical theorems about what can and what cannot be computed. To apply them one has to provide an estimate of the number of variables and quantify their interdependence. Without such calculations you have no basis for saying whether the problem is intractable or otherwise.

     
    Gerhard Adam
    To apply them one has to provide an estimate of the number of variables and quantify their interdependence.
    Which we don't have.  While we may be able to approach the number of variables, the question of their interdependence is the part I feel is intractable.  As you know, something as fundamentally simple as weather has proven to be horrendously difficult to predict over any kind of time interval.  Biology is literally millions of times more complex.
    All what evidence?
    I'm basing that on the attempts at restoring ecosystems to their former states.  Since these are dynamic systems, it becomes relevant to ask, "restore them to what state"?  The point being that these things change continuously and outcomes are always indeterminate.  As a simple example consider the wolves at Isle Royale [in Michigan] which have been extensively studied.
    http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2012/03/20/what-if-the-isle-royale-wolves-go-extinct/

    http://www.fws.gov/filedownloads/ftp_region6_upload/FOIA%20READING%20ROOM/FOIA%202008/Wolverine/Literature%20used%20wolverine/Smith%20et%20al.%202003.pdf
    ...does not mean we cannot estimate the probability of survival.
    Perhaps, but, as I said, I believe the problems are significantly more complex than people are willing to acknowledge.  Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but judging by what I see regarding our ability to use that knowledge today, I'd bet that we are and will remain largely clueless to the larger biosphere in which we exist. 

    We barely understand the ecosystem of microbes on our own bodies.  More importantly, whatever we do learn, isn't guaranteed to hold for any length of time since these organisms are also affected by natural selection and changes in the environment.  We don't even know what kinds of changes our internal flora/fauna undergo during a single human life. 

    I'm not suggesting that these things shouldn't be studied.  I would love to see more information and research in these areas, and perhaps one day we will understand it.  I just don't think so. 

    As with any such view, I can't offer a solid scientific basis for it ... it's more of a "gut" feel that says that there isn't nearly enough time in humanity's future to resolve those difficulties.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Have to say that I disagree with the title and the view of Mr Gerhard. For one, it will be only so long when Earth will become too small for the ever growing population. Mars is our first big bet. Will it succeed, who knows. Will probably have to struggle, but we will go there. And yes, it will be inside the biodomes. The fact that we don't know how the new enviroment will affect the microbes is a weak argument against human behavior. When has our ignorance ever stopped us from doing something? Did we know exactly to the smallest detail how the outer space would affect the astronauts? No. But we've sent them anyways. Throughout our history we've had more "blind" bets than carefully thought out ones. That's our nature for better or worse. We aren't enlightened, calculating, logic driven species we like to sometimes think we are. We are monkeys. Pure and simple. We will depart Earth one day (if we get to survive that long) and we will see what the space has to offer. Some will die for sure, others will survive. We might as well mutate on the way, not much.. but slight, and so will the bacteria and microbes with us for better or worse. I would like to think of the scenario of "prime directive" where we wouldn't interfere with planets/moons that might already have some form of life (i.e. Titan or Europa). But we aren't like that, we will interfere, will will mess it up, then try to mend. We will do more harm then good, but we will spread. And we will take the microbes with us. As they change, so will we.

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't have a problem with your disagreement and you're certainly entitled to your optimism.  I simply indicated that I don't think the problems are solvable.

    This isn't about ambition, or "dreams". 
    Some will die for sure, others will survive.
    As I said, you're certainly entitled to your optimism, but a simple argument against your claim is simply this;  Antarctica.  There's an environment, ripe for exploitation, that would be infinitely easier to deal with than another planet.  Yet, what do we observe? 
    Did we know exactly to the smallest detail how the outer space would affect the astronauts? No. But we've sent them anyways.
    ... and we haven't been back.  BTW, the initial efforts were not supposed to include astronauts. 
    For one, it will be only so long when Earth will become too small for the ever growing population.
    By then it will be too late for colonization.  If that's supposed to be the driving force then I will guarantee that it will never happen.

    As I said, you're certainly entitled to your optimism, but I find it interesting how easily we use terms like "terraform", "biodomes", etc. as if we know even the rudimentary elements necessary to make or do such things. 
    As they change, so will we.
    On that point I have to disagree.  There is no possibility that humans can evolve nearly fast enough to accommodate microbial changes.  That's simply not an option.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    BTW, population growth is often cited as a basis for driving colonization.  However, we need to be a bit more realistic in this.  If we take our current birth rate of 134 million/year and an estimated death rate (2040 projection) of 80 million, that leaves us a net of 54 million new people every year.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

    This translates into almost 148,000 people every day.  Therefore if colonization is supposed to be a solution to human population growth, then this represents the number of people that would have to leave Earth EVERY DAY in order to maintain the population at a steady state. 

    That isn't even remotely possible.  So, the idea that interplanetary colonization is going to offer some sort of offset to human population growth ... well, that's just a fantasy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Firstly Im not sure that the problem is about biology rather than physics and would say that they would end being very linked, with physics/construction obviously having the potential to make the biology easier. Also technology applies equally to biology and physics. 

    If you can solve some incredibly difficult physics/construction problems then you can pretty much just build hydroponics on mars without earth based organisms even coming into contact with the outside world. You can make factories in space to make mirrors pointing the sun to the right places on mars, have as much energy as you need to construct as large enclosed structures as you like, get oxygen from red rocks and chemically process the soil to make it suitable. There is no way that the earth based life is even going to "know" that it is on mars. With this kind of tech you can run the thing on earth in isoalation and get it right first.

    Yes a lot more research should go into gut baceria but given a forseeable ion engine can get to mars in 39 days I see no reason for them to play up in that amount of time. On mars people would probably eat better than the junk some people eat today so I don't see why the gut bacteria should be any different. And with advanced chemistry you can prop up an simple ecosystem, compartmentalise it, and wipe parts clean if things really go wrong. I think the physics/chemistry/construction/non-biological systems challenges would be much greater.








    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    It always amazes me how simply people can wipe away a complexity that they don't even understand.  It is currently estimated that there are almost 500 species of bacteria that live just on our skin.  We have no idea whether they are necessary or simply passengers.  We have no idea what the nature of the bacterial ecosystem is.  We have no idea how that may change over a person's lifetime. 

    In short, we know next to nothing about the entire process and yet, you're prepared to argue that the bacteria wouldn't "know" the difference between being on Earth versus being on Mars?  Of course, they would "know".  The environmental selection pressures are completely different and since we can't even begin to approach an understanding of the interactions, there's absolutely no way to tell whether such selection pressures would be beneficial or detrimental.

    We don't even know what all organisms are necessary for a successful colony.  Which insects, etc.  How would it be to live on a planet where nothing decomposes?  or where such decomposition results in pathogenic bacteria being produced because of higher mutation rates?

    This has nothing to do with what we may or may not eat, although even that is glossed over as another seemingly trivial problem.
    With this kind of tech you can run the thing on earth in isoalation and get it right first.
    What kind of tech?  We aren't remotely close to being able to achieve any such thing.  That's just pure speculation, just like "terraforming".  We can glibly toss around the terms, despite having no clue as to what is involved.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    It doesn't matter how complex our skin bacteria are, it would make more sense just to define them as part of us, as an essential part of being human. Then your argument is the same as saying that because we don't understand every chemical reaction in our body we cant survive in a different environment. You have completely missed my point about an enclosed structure. Such a structure is the same on earth as mars because it is completely insulated! If its not possible on mars its not possible on earth, and could be tested on earth first. We do have a pretty good idea what macro organisms are necessary for a successful colony because we have hydroponics etc. We don't need to know the bacteria because we can take them from earth. Obviously if its an enclosed structure, things will decompose the same way and of course with technology you can shut out radiation hence the whole point about advanced tech making the biological problem easier. Yes we don't have the tech but your entire argument was that it wouldn't matter, it clearly would help.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    I still maintain that it wouldn't matter, because (1) we don't have the tech and (2) we don't have the biological knowledge to know what we need and (3) we can't control natural selection when we do attempt to move things [if].

    You seem to think that we can cobble something together without understanding any of the species dynamics.   Just like no one anticipated the effects of the cane toad in Australia, so it is with bacteria [and every other organism]. 

    We've got ample evidence of what happens on Earth when an ecosystem gets out of an equilibrium state. 

    No, I haven't missed your point about an enclosed structure.  My point is that you don't know what you need within that structure and the knowledge doesn't exist to establish that.  In addition, you're making huge assumptions about the ability to construct such a structure and making even wilder assumptions about how all these organisms will interact in such a confined area.
    Obviously if its an enclosed structure, things will decompose the same way...
    What do you mean obviously?  They won't decompose unless you have the bacteria, insects, etc. there to do it. 
    Then your argument is the same as saying that because we don't understand every chemical reaction in our body we cant survive in a different environment.
    What do you mean by different environment?  We've never encountered an environment where our chemistry would operate differently.  We  have encountered environments where the biology behaves differently and it usually has consequences [often fatal].  We've also encountered changes in the environment due to some natural disaster or disruption.  These have also introduced all manner of difficulties [often fatal].  However, we've never experienced a truly "different environment".  So, no, the argument is not the same.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    What do you not understand? You make the system work on earth with all the soil bacteria in an enclosed environment, gain that knowledge, work stuff out then take it to mars. Unless you are going to say that its impossible to make the enclosed environment on mars the same as earth then if you get it working on earth it works on mars. Pointing out that we have a lot to learn and claiming such learning is impossible are obviously not the same thing.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    It is impossible to make it the same.  It doesn't even stay the same while it is in transit.

    http://science.discovery.com/stories/week/astronaut-risk.html

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=3720538&page=1

    http://www.stanford.edu/~amatin/MatinLabHomePage/PDF/SMG-BiologistLynch%202005.pdf

    http://aem.asm.org/content/26/5/804.short

    This isn't a mechanical or electronics problem.  In fact, what I find interesting is the persistence of the belief that humans have "control" and that this can simply be converted into an "act of will".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    "It's impossible to make it the same" It is absolutely a technology problem now because you are claiming something is technologically impossible. Ridiculous articles about micro-gravity prove nothing unless you are claiming its impossible to make a spacecraft spin! 
    I think now you are going to head down the "intent" path and insist that a bio-sphere on mars is different from on earth even though its enclosed because it doesn't "belong" there, physics be damned.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Ridiculous articles?  Are you not paying attention?  Your comments are simply "faith-based" assumptions that somewhere along the line a miracle will occur and the problems will disappear.  It's one thing to be optimistic, but when you simply assume solutions will manifest, that's "faith".

    You can criticize the "intent" element all you like, but it's the only way you're ever going to understand what happens in biology.  Without that, it's little wonder you think everything is an engineering problem.

    Perhaps it's time to invoke Orgel's second rule:

    "Evolution is cleverer than you are."

    Let me ask you, do you believe that given enough time, money, and resources that all problems are solvable?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    I don't think everything is an engineering problem, I think anthropomorphising human concepts all the way down to barely alive organisms leads to confusion and pretty much vitalism. You are forced to make a clear life/non-life boundary where none exists, and ask all sorts of questions about "intent" of the chemistry on one side of the line, but none on the other. In one place you asked something along the lines of "but why did the first single cell organism need to divide?" Once something satisfies your definition of alive, obeying the laws of chemistry/physics is no longer a good enough reason to explain its actions. This position is something similar to vitalism and wrap it up with whatever words you like its incompatible with modern science. 
    There is no way I am making faith based assumptions, gradually building up experience with bio-domes in ever more difficult environments has nothing to do with miracles. We are nowhere there yet but there is a clear path with ever increasing difficulty if we choose to take it.

     



    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    You've obviously chosen to ignore the link to Dennett's "Intentional Systems Theory", so it appears that you aren't actually interested in what the thinking is on these points.
    Once something satisfies your definition of alive, obeying the laws of chemistry/physics is no longer a good enough reason to explain its actions.
    ... and there isn't a single law of chemistry or physics you can articulate that explains why living systems behave as they do.  You simply want to reduce them down to automatons and mechanistic processes and yet somehow they behave in ways that are unpredictable according to the laws you think are all that is necessary.

    What is the law of chemistry or physics that defines bacterial quorum sensing?  Not the mechanisms by which the bacteria recognize the presence of others, but the reason for modifying their behavior when sufficient numbers exist?  What is the law of chemistry or physics that enables a virus to hijack the nucleus of a host cell to reproduce itself?  What are the laws of chemistry or physics that give rise to bacterial cannibalism?  How about programmed cell death?

    The fact, is that you can explain none of these things, because they aren't subject to those laws in such a simplistic fashion.  However, if you wish to simply engage in idle reductionism, I'm sure you can argue that human thought doesn't exist either, since it also must be subject to exactly the same laws of chemistry and physics.

    You invoke "vitalism" despite nothing of the sort having been suggested.  Your problem appears to be that you can't abide a system that isn't subject to control.  So you want to argue that everything is anthropomorphic, despite an obvious failure to recognize that everything that exists within humans must have precursors.  So, like it or not, it's not anthropomorphizing when those systems actually exist.  I'm not interpreting bacteria from a human perspective, nor have I assigned them cognitive facilities.  I've been quite clear that they are rudimentary systems that are chemically based.  However, they clearly demonstrate behavior that you can't account for or else, you're simply choosing to ignore.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    But the link to the Dennet article doesn't say at all what you make it out to. For a start it repeatably makes little distinction between intent in our existing comptuers and simple biological systems so how can you possibly claim it supports your point of view regarding machine intelligence?
    You can explain bacterial behavior with physics/chemistry the same way you can explain how a car works with it. You explain the working of a car in terms of motors/wheels etc which are still physics without intent. Just on a different level. You can assign intent to a cars engine or not, same as a bacteria.  The intentional stance is a  shortcut.  Yes a useful shortcut, and an ever more useful one as complexity of any kind increases however if you overdo it like you do, then it leads you astray.  This attitude leads you to reject essential and useful concepts you shouldn't for example unsupervised learning.  


    No way would Dennet cliam that if you copied something molecule for molecule it would behave differently because the "intent" was not copied. This claim you do make, and it defies the laws of physics.




    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    No way would Dennet cliam that if you copied something molecule for molecule it would behave differently because the "intent" was not copied. This claim you do make, and it defies the laws of physics.
    Don't know about Dennet, but that's precisely what CAN happen in biology.  Since you brought up "Evolution in Four Dimensions" [an excellent book] you might consider re-reading Chapter 4 "The Epigenetic Inheritance Systems" since that illustrates quite clearly [Evolution on Jaynus] that this is precisely one of the difficulties.

    I never indicated that "intent" was a "thing" to be copied.  I'm simply saying [and have always said] that organisms display an "intent" as the only means to describe their behavior. 

    You don't explain anything with your mechanistic approach unless you're prepared to accept that you also don't operate with intent.  If that's the case, then there's no quarrel it's just a descriptive difference.  However, if you want to assign intent to yourself but nothing else, then you're left with the burden of explaining where such a boundary is crossed.  When is it that causes "intent" to come into existence.

    In other words, how would you differentiate your going to a restaurant with a bacteria eating?  Your intent is driven every bit as much by your biochemical need for nutrients as is the bacteria.  So unless you're prepared to accept that you also have no intent, then you're the one invoking something extra.  Namely that somehow YOU manage to avoid the laws of chemistry and physics.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Ok you claim that can happen in biology. That is impossible and contradicts the laws of physics.Your example of a clone is not relevant because it is not atom for atom physically identical.If you copy something atom for atom exactly and claim it will behave differently then there is no way that can happen unless you invoke something non-physical such as a vital force, soul, or "intent" as you have defined it. Its as simple as that. It doesn't matter whether it has or hasn't been done the prediction you make requires the existence of something non-physical to accompany living molecules that is not explainable by the laws of physics as we know them and is logically equivalent to a vital force/soul/whatever.


    This is how you mis-represent the intentional systems theory. It is meant to be more in the eye of the beholder, but you take it to an illogical extreme that supports the meta-physical world view of the very people you so often argue against.


    I havn't backed down from anything about intelligence. In your article 
    http://www.science20.com/gerhard_adam/what_life_part_1-81311

    According to your definition of intelligence here a robot that records info about it environment and changes its behavior i.e. learns would be intelligent but a bacteria isn't because it doesn't have a memory and can't learn. So you have either not made it at all clear, or changed your definition since.


    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    That is impossible and contradicts the laws of physics.Your example of a clone is not relevant because it is not atom for atom physically identical.
    Now you're just being silly.  In the first place, you already know that you can't copy something EXACTLY atom for atom, so that's just a foolish position (1).  In the second place, you also know that if you did, you still would not have a mechanistic creature.  You also know that it would NOT behave in lock-step with its twin no matter how much atomic material you had in common.  To suggest otherwise, is to reduce all of biology to simple automatons, including yourself.  If you believe this, then I'm sorry.

    The simplest example to demonstrate that you're wrong is to allow your assumption to stand.  Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that an atom by atom duplicate would behave the same because of the laws of physics.  In reality we would still see different behaviors, because for your conditions to hold true, the environment would also have to be atom for atom identical.  Even their position in space/time would have to be identical.  In short, you've created an impossible scenario.

    So, no matter the degree of replication, short of having an identical atom for atom universe to make your comparison in, there is no way to extrapolate identical behaviors.

    More to the point, you still haven't indicated what the laws of physics are that you're claiming are being violated.  You also know this isn't true, since it is impossible to deduce or derive biology from physics.  Perhaps someday it will be possible, but at this point you're making up the laws of physics.
    It is meant to be more in the eye of the beholder...
    ,,,and who's eye did you think it was in?  The bacteria?  My point remains.  There is no way to explain behavior according to the laws of physics or chemistry.  If you wish to demonstrate otherwise, then give a solid example.  Your example of the car doesn't work, since [as I already pointed out] you can't deduce a car from the laws of physics.  You can certainly claim that it operates according to the laws of physics, just like bacteria, and just like your brain.

    Are you arguing that you also are deterministically bound to the laws of physics?  If so, then you're simply claiming that you have no intent either.  I'm fine with that.  If however you want to argue that you are materially different from the bacteria in terms of your motivation to survive or to perform actions in your own best interests [beyond the obvious cognitive differences] then you're the one introducing magical properties. 

    But enough of this dancing around.  Here's the question.  Describe for me the physics necessary for a stem cell to differentiate into a heart cell or a skin cell or a nerve cell.  Better yet, describe for me the physics that leads to cell differentiation in the first place.

    Here's a current one for you.
    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2012/04/massive-superorganism-with-social-intelligence-is-devouring-the-titanic-the-100-year-anniversary-a-g.html

    Describe the laws of physics and chemistry that gave rise to this cooperative super-organism.

    Pick any of the above, but stop telling me they exist unless you can articulate them.

    (1) You need to catch up on quantum mechanics to realize the impossibility of your proposition or even the notion that an atomic duplicate could be behaviorally identical.  You're using a naive deterministic argument which isn't valid at the atomic level.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    No I'm not being silly, it doesn't matter if you can actually copy something or not. You don't get my argument. Saying there is no way to explain behavior according to physics is to argue that it breaks it. 
    I don't have to give you the details on how a stem cell differentiates, you need to show some step or combination of steps that violates the laws of physics/chemistry. If you are claiming that the laws of physics cannot explain them, then what particular can't be explained. This is still like vitalism. 

    Your argument is no different to saying "explain lightening" or any other phenomena and saying that because I can't give you complete details then the effect cannot be explained by physics and must be God's work. Science does not assume that every phenomena not yet fully explained violates the laws of physics. That is what you do here.

    It is more difficult to predict next years weather (probably impossible) than how a cell divides, so by your logic it doesn't obey the laws of physics.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    No I'm not being silly, it doesn't matter if you can actually copy something or not.
    Actually it does.  From Dennett's paper:
    ...intentional system, like most sane definitions, has the tacit rider that the entity in question must be physically possible.

    If we are allowed to postulate miraculous (physics-defying) properties to things, it is no wonder we can generate counterintuitive ‘possibilities.’
    http://files.meetup.com/12763/intentionalsystems.pdf
    ...I can't give you complete details then the effect cannot be explained by physics and must be God's work.
    Now you are just getting silly.  I've obviously never claimed "God's work" or any such thing.  However if you insist that physical laws are being broken then I expect you to articulate how that is.  If you can't then you have no basis for making such a claim since you don't know.
    If you are claiming that the laws of physics cannot explain them, then what particular can't be explained.
    You're confusing the physical phenomenon between the behavioral phenomenon.  Again, as I've said before.  Are you prepared to consider that even the process of your posting this message is simply a result of physical laws governing the operation of your neurons or are you going to argue that you are a conscious organism capable of directing their actions?  If the latter, then YOU are one invoking magical properties.  I'm simply saying that the bacteria behave in the same "intentional" manner towards their need to survive as you do. 

    However, you've never answered as to whether you believe you are different.
    ...so by your logic it doesn't obey the laws of physics.
    Where do you come up with this stuff?  When have I ever claimed that the laws of physics would be violated?  When have I ever claimed that they are not obeyed?  I've simply said and continue to say that you cannot describe these behaviors according to the laws of physics and clearly you cannot.  So to claim otherwise is simply wishful thinking and my position stands.  Intentional Systems Theory is as good a means of explaining their behavior as anything.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Well I can see this isn't going anywhere anymore. On one hand you seem to say that the laws of physics are not obeyed, then other they are. If you are just saying that they are obeyed but you cannot make sense of things without the intentional stance, yes fair enough, but that sure doesn't sound like what you are saying other times. 
    I don't believe I am different.
    You can explain things on the level of atoms, molecules, and ever more complicated systems. On one level my posting is physical laws, but I can also use the intentional stance and higher levels to explain it. The intentional stance is a mental shortcut, a heuristic that is usually very effective at explaining things however when you take it too literally, it can lead you astray in novel situations like any heuristic or shortcut. This has happened with you and AI, where you insist on applying a shortcut/heuristic where you shouldn't.



    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    My position on AI is also quite clear.  I've always maintained that one can obtain "intelligent behavior" without necessarily having "intelligence".  I've told you that my definition requires that (1) intelligence can only exist when an organism [or robot] is free to pursue its own line of inquiry or exploration and (2) capable of acting in its own best interests [specifically NOT the interests of the engineers and researchers].

    Until those two conditions are met, you simply have a simulation.  While intentional systems theory can be useful to explain its behavior, it doesn't possess the trait "intelligence" any more than bacteria do.  So, if you want to argue that Intentional Systems Theory is all you are implying with AI, then I would agree.  However, if you want to argue that they truly possess intelligence then I submit my criteria above as a counter-argument.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Its a counter definition, not a counter-argument.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    ...then there is no way that can happen unless you invoke something non-physical such as a vital force, soul, or "intent" as you have defined it.
    OK, pick any word you like to describe the follow behaviors.

    (1) Cell divides

    (2) Bacteria pursues food

    (3) You eat a meal

    (4) You recognize your parents

    (5) Bacteria recognizes others of same species

    (6) Bacteria initiates HGT (horizontal gene transfer)

    Define the physics for me.  What words would you use to describe what's taking place?

    However, just to be clear.  "Intent" is a word to describe the behaviors for all of these, but it is not a trait they actually possess.  In other words, you are no more capable of controlling your need for food than the bacteria is.  You should know that I do NOT accept the notion of "free will", so in that regard I agree with your point about physics and chemistry governing the ultimate operations of individual cellular components.  However, those laws do not help us understand the behavior we actually experience.  So, in that respect it is beneficial for me to consider you an "intentional system" in the same way I consider the bacteria to be one.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Well you sure make it seem like "intent" is a trait they possess. You argue like they do. I think you contradict yourself in this regard.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    I've been quite clear on the fact that I'm describing their behavior and that I'm not particularly thrilled with the words available, but it's clearly not mechanistic.

    I don't argue like it's a trait they possess.  I argue that this is how their behavior is and I did refer to it as an emergent property of being alive.  I've been very clear on the fact that there are no cognitive or metaphysical processes at work.  I've gone to great lengths to differentiate the definitions so that anyone can see that rationale behind using a word like "intent".

    Again, you've done nothing to indicate what alternative word choice you would make for the questions I posed.  If you find "intent" offensive, then give me another one.  Something that describes the ability for cells [or humans] to do the things they do.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    No way would Dennet cliam that if you copied something molecule for molecule it would behave differently because the "intent" was not copied. This claim you do make, and it defies the laws of physics.
    You should be thinking about "clones" right about now.  They are as identical as anything you're ever likely to get biologically but no one would claim that their behaviors would be identical.  When you observed them together you would recognize that each operates with their own "intent".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    This position is something similar to vitalism and wrap it up with whatever words you like its incompatible with modern science.
    The position is nothing at all like vitalism.  If it promotes an increased predictive ability then it can be a useful tool.  As I've repeatedly said, cognitive processes nor "magical" properties have never been assigned.  However, failure to recognize that organism's behavior is oriented towards their own best interests is to ignore reality.

    You have a simple choice in examining organisms.  Either everything is purely mechanistic [pure reductionism] in which case you'd have to assign exactly the same explanations to yourself.  Otherwise you have to recognize that there are behavioral aspects to life which cannot be reduced to such simplistic explanations.

    It should be intuitively obvious that the laws of chemistry and physics could never explain phenomenon like reproduction, feeding, respiration, etc.  While they can explain specific processes, they cannot never explain how such systems have come to behave as they do.  So, while you can claim that such a position is non-scientific, I find it curious that you can embrace a nonsensical position like "gene-centricism" as "useful" and yet deny the usefulness of "intentionality systems theory".  You apparently don't have a problem in assigning "selfishness" to genes, but it's somehow unscientific to assign "intent" to an organism's behavior.

    BTW, I found your characterization of microbes as "barely alive" humorous.  It does display a distinctly human bias.  While they can survive without you, you can't survive without them.  It's the largest biomass on the planet and you barely deign to acknowledge their existence.   Just remember, it's the principles that government micro-organisms that gave rise to your existence as a multicellular organism in the first place.  After all, what do you think you are if not a collection of single cells?

    So instead of recognizing that all living systems must have behavioral traits in common, you'd rather draw a magical dividing line where these traits suddenly appear from nowhere [undoubtedly by invoking the magical concept of "complexity"].
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    "It should be intuitively obvious that the laws of chemistry and physics could never explain phenomenon like reproduction"
    So do they break the laws of physics then? Because that's what it sounds like you are saying to me.
    You can explain them in terms of a hierarchy of systems of ever increasing complexity where the parts still obey the laws of physics. 



    I don't deny "intentional systems theory" you misrepresent it. 



    Gene centrism is not regarded as nonsense by at least 50% of evolutionary biologists with far more experience than you. They agree that it has obvious shortcomings but it is still useful. Your main objection is simplistic and obviously incorrect. If you think its such a genius and simple disproof, then why don't you run it past Eva Jablonka?


    I don't deny living systems have behavioral traits in common, you insist on different explanations for the same behavior if you consider the system to be "artificial". They don't suddenly appear from nowhere, different levels are better/worse at explaining different concepts. Just because one level yields insights, you don't reject the other levels. Complexity is obviously not a magical concept. 
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    So do they break the laws of physics then?
    You can't be serious?  How do you arrive at that?  It's like your example of the car.  What are you claiming?  While a car utilizes the laws of chemistry and physics, you cannot use those laws to deduce the existence of cars.  There is nothing in those laws that leads to the conclusion of a car's existence.
    If you think its such a genius and simple disproof, then why don't you run it past Eva Jablonka?
    Again, no need since she already says as much in her book "Evolution in Four Dimensions".  Again, Chapter 10, page 374

    "I noticed that you avoided using the words 'reductionism' or 'reductionist' when discussing the selfish gene and meme views of the world, which you obviously oppose."

    Not surprisingly, there are some who see that as heresy. "It means the demise of the selfish-gene theory," says Eva Jablonka at Tel Aviv University, Israel. "The whole discourse about heredity and evolution will change"
    http://www.science.org.au/nova/newscientist/098ns_003.htm
    Of course, the book is replete with references indicating that the selffish gene theory simply doesn't work [again I refer you to Chapter 4).  In addition, perhaps you'd like to read something by Edward O. Wilson or Elliot Sober?

    That isn't to say that there aren't other biologists that violently disagree.  However, disagreement isn't evidence.

    I can see that your main argument seems to be a perceived inconsistency regarding my views of artificial intelligence rather than biology.

    I don't believe I'm being inconsistent.  I've simply maintained that there can be no artificial intelligence in a machine if anything other than the machine's interests are being expressed.  In other words, if a machine is expected to behave with human intelligence then it is a simulation.  It can't be otherwise.  Do you think transplanting a human brain into a horse would make it human?  or vice versa? 

    So my criticism of artificial intelligence has been along the lines of attempts to pursue replicating humans into machines.  In addition, I've specifically argued regarding the ethical problems of such machines should they be possible.

    However, you've invariably backed down by stating that this has nothing to do with systems that simply display intelligent behavior.  Good enough, but intelligent behavior is NOT "intelligence".

    In the case of machines, the "intent" is derived from the designer. 



    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't deny "intentional systems theory" you misrepresent it.
    How do I misrepresent it?

    In my post "What is Life" I try to be quite clear what the basis for using the terminology is.  I'm not particularly thrilled by it, because it tends to sound like ID.  However, in the absence of any other description it simply seems that Dennett's Intentional Systems Theory is a good candidate for explaining the legitimacy of such a description.

    I agree that the terminology can sound problematic, but your point about the laws of physics and chemistry is misguided.  There is nothing in those laws that would allow you to deduce behaviors or the existence of different organisms.  In fact, if the laws of chemistry and physics held for those phenomenon, you'd have the serious problem of having to explain how behaviors can differ despite being subject to the same laws.  In this case, I'm talking about the behavior of organisms that may live right next to each other and yet display a behavioral difference [i.e. "motivation", "intent"] that you can't explain otherwise.  Physics and chemistry are, by definition, repeatable phenomenon.  Biology, strictly speaking, is not.  Even those elements that are purposed to providing as faithful a replication as possible are subject to errors and noise. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Pointing out that we have a lot to learn and claiming such learning is impossible are obviously not the same thing.
    True enough.  However, it is equally true that possessing knowledge isn't the same as being able to control the events.  Just like the weather.  No matter how much we know regarding its workings, that doesn't mean that we will ever be able to predict it more than a few days in advance. 

    I never claimed that we couldn't learn the biology.  I simply stated that solving the problem was intractable.  These also are not the same thing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Lex Anderson
    A thought-provoking article, Gerhard. The open question -- as I see it -- is "How much (or little) of our biosphere do we need to take with us to survive in an unknown environment?" Given that our technical understanding of the problem is limited, I fully concur with your conclusion. Yet, since necessity, politics and other human factors govern technological advancement, this conclusion is far from absolute. 

    Asteroid 99942 Apophis may indeed impact the Earth in 2036. How would our understanding and capabilities improve if for the next 24 years science and industry are focused on solving this single problem? Yet despite all such endeavors I suspect your conclusion may still be valid; not for any particular technical reason but from a rather more biological perspective: 

    There is little doubt in my mind that at some point in time we will possess the capability to transport a self-sustaining biosphere into the harshness of space. I also have little doubt that over the milliard years such a journey may take, what emerges may well be as different to the present day us than the helpful E. coli in our digestive tract. The conclusion that "we" could not survive this journey may therefore be more anthropological  than technical.










    Gerhard Adam
    Thanks for the comments.  One point that people seem to be missing is that this isn't just about humans and human microbes.  Instead we have to consider all of our potential food sources that also have to accompany us.

    I'm trying to be specific in separating an exploratory mission from something that could be considered "colonization".  Despite some of the comments, we cannot sustain a colony on hydroponic gardens.  So, the microbial problem extends not just to human needs/stresses, but also to those of any animals that would need to go along. 

    In addition, a colony can't simply "come home" when it suits, so we would have to have a biosphere to accommodate new births, deaths, illness, etc. etc.

    These are non-trivial problems and despite our notions regarding the "Age of Exploration", there wasn't much exploration occurring since all the areas being visited were already inhabited by several million people.  So, while it may provide an interesting historical perspective it tells us nothing about what it takes to enter a truly new environment.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    I think that in the long run, we'll do this in steps, and while I think we will be able to prove you wrong, I think you bring up some very good points that will have to be addressed before we send a colony off to put up stakes on another extra-solar planet.

    In the midterm, we'll have stuff from earth available to provide backups as we step off Earth and set up colonies in the solar system.

    I also think many of your concerns will be answered in the coming decades, as Derek mentioned we've only had computers for a short time, we've had sequencers for even less time, and there's currently work on shrinking them much as computer have shrunk since the original ones of those were made. We've just begun to learn about the 500 different bacteria on our skins, and as we collect a catalog of life, we'll understand more of it, and maybe we will be able to predict and manage what we need to bring with us.

    Pretty much everything humans have thought up, if it's not physically impossible has been done.

    I don't see interstellar travel being any different, I just hope life extension technologies keeps me alive long enough to see it.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Good response.
    Pretty much everything humans have thought up, if it's not physically impossible has been done.
    That's the sticking point, isn't it?  After all, my claim that the problem is intractable is to claim that it is physically impossible to possess sufficient information.  I liken this to weather prediction.  We may get better at it, but invariably we'll be unable to account for everything that creates an effect over the long term.  Consequently anything that requires longer projections will be so prone to error as to be untenable [that's my view on the biological aspect of this].

    I fully believe that our understanding will increase dramatically, but, in the end, the issue will be control.  So, unless mankind somehow manages to grab hold of the biosphere and find a way to control it down to the microscopic level, I don't see this problem as having a solution.  Of course, that is just my view.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    If, the environment isn't so harsh that we can't live there, and as long as we have a supply line (or a really good track record), I think we stand a chance.

    But we're not going to have to solve all of this for at least, oh a few years :)
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    A few years?  Hmmm ... better tell my neighbor.  I think he's already packing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Nuthin' wrong with being prepared.

    I use to think that if offered a ride on a UFO I'd quickly accept, but as I got older I decided I should at least ask where we're going, and if and what kind of tissue samples they might want first.
    Course, if they really want to eat my brain, me saying no probably wouldn't stop them.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I always marvel at the notion that we'd have the slightest notion of what they were trying to communicate.  I suppose the assumption is that they'll speak English [since presumably all "intelligent" species must do so].  :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Of course(universal translators make it easy).
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry ... forgot about the Babel fish.
    Mundus vult decipi
    This has truly been a satisfying read. Thanks to all of you.

    So then. All I have to do now is design a new Ark. It will have to contain two of everything. Oh, wait. Maybe some of the things will die before reproduction takes place. Well, then, we'll just take four of everything. Fingers crossed that at least two things will survive to reproduce. Oh, wait, again. If we only have two sets of genes, then won't we set up a population that has too little diversity to survive? Ten of everything should be enough. We hope.

    The transport ship is gonna get pretty big. Or else, there's gonna be a lot of traffic going with stuff and hauling back for another load.

    Am I just being silly or does it seem like it's going to be a much bigger deal than what we usually think?

    Gerhard Adam
    Look at the bright side .... bacteria don't take up a lot of space and they reproduce cheaply :)

    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    And by the time we can make such a trip, I suspect we'll be able to just take a library of dna sequences, Ventor's already able to create whatever sequence(bacteria in this case) he wants, and stuff it into another cell and get it to grow.

    At some point we'll probably have artificial wombs for growing bigger animals, so no manure to shovel out of stalls on long trips.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    That won't work.  No genetic diversity is a catastrophe waiting to happen. 

    While I can appreciate your optimism in this, it still sounds like the warp drive in Star Trek physics.  In fact, I expect we'll have a warp drive or transporter before we achieve some of the biological objectives being discussed.  [Note ... I'm not saying those things are possible, just that they'll be more likely to occur than the biological solutions]
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Well, we will be able to sequence arbitrarily large populations of a species to take, plus at some point, I suspect we'll be able to synthesize 'children', both in the normal sense(ie mix the dna of two animals creating a child of the two), as well as done just to create diversity (mixing genes from a group of animals). If we get a truly fast drive, it'll be like leaving a favorite stuffed animal at home, we'll just pop back home and get what we forgot.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    LOL ... sure thing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You know what? I'm really glad to see the flow and counter flow in this topic. This type of discussion could very well inspire someone to advance our knowledge, and understanding of the complex symbiosis that is the human body, enough to allow our fragile selves to live on another world.

    I'll paraphase someone: The extremely difficult is quite easily done. The impossible takes a little longer.

    I've often thought of the same things as Gerhard, i.e., colonization problems. Something else I think about when the discussion turns to enhanced life span or immortality; can the human mind handle it? Could you live 20,000 years and survive it psychologically?

    Just a thought.

    Gerhard Adam
    You might find this post interesting.

    http://www.science20.com/gerhard_adam/why_arent_we_smarter-85388
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard,

    Interesting blog material. Reading it makes me wonder if Albert Einstein wasn't just a clever guy with a very deep imagination. Or a genius...whichever you prefer.

    Anyone taken a Jung/Briggs Meyers personality test lately?

    Gerhard Adam
    ...a clever guy with a very deep imagination. Or a genius..
    Is there a difference?  :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Point taken. Vinculum 0 / Gerhard 1.

    Although, I've read there are categories of Intelligence...

    Gerhard Adam
    I tend to think that the term is too ill-defined and when we do use it, we tend to misinterpret it.  Invariably we talk about human intelligence regarding society's achievements, despite the fact that it is only incidentally involved in such accomplishments.  This, of course, completely derails the purpose of the transhumanist desire for extra-intelligence since they fail to realize that it isn't solely a function of brain storage.

    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    I think it has much to do with how fast signals propagate in the brain, as it does vary over a wide range in different people.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not convinced that that tells us much.  The problem is how information becomes integrated sufficiently so that it can be employed as knowledge.  Obviously experience comes into play, but even in the absence of experience there is a difference between simply having access to information and employing it in a knowledgeable manner.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Of course there are people who have high capabilities, who allow them to rot due to disuse, but the faster you can make inferences the more you can make.

    It isn't just speed, you have to make the connection as well.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I agree, which is why I don't place much stock in the notion of artificially increasing human intelligence through computer technology.  It isn't just the speed or "making the connection" as you mentioned, it's making the relevant connections.  Knowing how to apply that information to a particular situation that is the difference.  That kind of knowledge can't simply be implanted.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Well, I agree and disagree. I think in general you're right, but I do think there will be people who will be able to take advantage of an electronic integration of vast amounts of information into their brains.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't dispute what you're saying, but if you consider it, you'll see that you're only proposing the addition of high speed information.  This suggests that the "knowledge" is already present and this then effectively becomes simply a more integrated version of Google.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Yeah, okay.
    But that's as far as I'm willing to guess at least for now, it doesn't mean that's as far as it will go once we get there.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    One of the reasons I'm so skeptical about the entire thing is that it attempts to acquire "knowledge" and "skill" without considering the entire organism/person.  Can you seriously imagine learning a musical instrument without the essential muscular controls?  A skill like carpentry?  These are often as dependent on our physical senses as they are on the raw brain knowledge.

    More importantly, if advocates were correct and such skills could be transferred electronically, then we will be living in technological hell, and we can only hope that global suicide would be available to us.

    I'm always reminded of this Twilight Zone episode.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC05Pb7Qd68
    Mundus vult decipi