Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Asymptotic Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the organization of evolved species into a tree-like structure, and is done for the purpose of better understanding the variety of life that has appeared on a planet. At first it was done, by Carl LinnÓ•us in a book published in 1735, according to the visible structures on the organism. This principle was elaborated on, and eventually genetics caught up with it. There was some misclassification caused by convergent evolution, where two distinct evolutionary lines develop similar features to match some ecological or environmental niche. Understanding the genetic clues visible in the cells, for example the number of chromosomes, helps to sort this out.

In this blog, we have coined the word, archeogenetics, which is the study of the genetic coding of extinct, and long extinct, organisms. It is based on the reverse engineering of organisms and their evolution, sort of a backwards exploration starting with what organisms existed whose genome could be analyzed. The data that would be available to alien scientists working in the field is restricted to those organisms which had not gone extinct by the time the scientists obtained them and performed their genetic analysis. Extinction occurs for many reasons, and most of these reasons had existed since the first organisms reproduced themselves. These include predators, pressure from other organisms competing for the same food supplies, extinction of a critical food supply, loss of a critical environment for those organisms evolved to inhabit a single locale, natural pollution of a water supply from something happening nearby, interference in the reproductive cycle such as the loss of another organism used as a site for some stage of metamorphosis, and certainly others. However, it is likely that asymptotic taxonomy would be approached at a rate that depended on the population of the aliens on the planet, which might well coincide with the need to collect a large number of genomes of diverse organisms of their home planet. This increase in demand for diverse genomes would be due to the large number of scientists available to work on the subject. However, this is also the time when the pressure of a large alien citizen population might interfere with the preservation of all these genomes. This is a question of whether, on any particular planet, asymptotic taxonomy was reached before low-loss recycling was instituted, which might remove the citizens from the non-urban portion of the planet. As noted in the previous blog on population, this might be 0.1% or less of total planetary surface area.

On Earth, we haven’t yet figured out the origins of life, and therefore cannot competently speculate on its appearance on other planets in our solar system. That means we have no clue whatsoever as to what the aliens might find on other planets within their own solar system. If they do find life there, the questions raised previously about the type of genetic coding used would be answered for them, and very likely, a separate taxonomic tree would be developed for different codings. Right now, we do not understand if the galaxy might have only one tree of life, as if there was only one coding that works, or a forest of trees of life, as if there are many possibilities.

Completing the exploration of their solar system’s genomes would allow the final transformation of the structural classification of the initial alien taxonomists, assuming they had started this way, into something corresponding to a evolutionary tree of life. It would be extremely far from complete, by a factor of hundreds or thousands or more, as it would not include any organisms which did not leave behind a living ancestor. Very likely, there are far more cul-de-sacs in evolution, over the long period of time since coding-based genetics first evolved out of more primitive self-replicating organisms, than there are living species at any time, independently of whether the alien citizen population had inadvertently promoted some extinction.

Alien taxonomy could also incorporate the first steps at synthesizing new organisms, provided that they were extrapolations of existing ones. Rather than designing a complete new organism, as if one were designing a new piece of equipment from specifications, it is likely that the first new organisms on any alien planet would be small changes from an existing one. Taxonomy does not go down to the detail of each individual gene, but only to those large genetic changes that produce separate species. So, taxonomy could be extended from naturally occurring organisms to new synthetic ones only when the aliens master deliberate speciation. When they would take one species and make such changes to the genes and even chromosomes that the origin species and the novel one cannot reproduce together, then taxonomy might be expanded to include them, with the novel one branching off from the origin one.

The development of asymptotic taxonomy will require an understanding of what genes affect which features, and this is the basis for synthetic genetics when it marches to the next step of wholly synthetic organisms. As noted in a previous post, asymptotic genetics will necessarily have an intermediate stage of knowledge, relating to the cellular expression of genes, down at the microbiological level. This will result in the opportunity to make intellos, intelligent organisms wholly designed to specifications and produced industrially, as well as hybrid robotic/biologic combinations. At this point in the approach to asymptotic technology, taxonomy will become obsolete, as all the information it contains will be extracted out and incorporated into genetics.

By then, genetics will have posed some questions to an alien civilization that we can hardly conceive of today except in some restricted circles. Will the alien civilization utilize its knowledge of deliberate speciation, the creation of new species, for any purposes related either to their home planet, to other planets in their solar system, to star travel by organisms instead of only by probes, and to planets they reach in other solar systems? The answer to this question goes back to the type of alien civilization we are considering. A category 0 alien civilization is one centered on propagating their own species to other planets. If they designed a new ecology for any one of these four locations, it could easily include new species, totally synthetic. Category 1a alien civilizations is centered on propagating their own culture, and artificial, synthetic ecologies do not interfere with that. They do with category 1b.

The real question is: Would they change their own species? Would they create a new species of intelligent creatures, which would be competitive with them? For category 0, it would not seem so. Their meme is tightly connected with their own species. Category 1a alien civilization has the same goal, without the species hang-up built in. They might tailor their own species to fit some of the more exotic locations. Category 1b alien civilization, with the ‘warden’ gene, may not have the same tenacity toward their own species as the other categories of space traveling civilizations. They might choose to re-design themselves, even on their home planet.

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