Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Non-reproductive Reproduction

Please accompany me on a little wandering through the wonderland of concepts. Finding new concepts is like playing Hegel. You look at some construct, and invert one of the pieces and see what you get. Reproduction is one construct, an abstract idea generalizing the various ways in which different families and orders produce the next generation. But there is one constant across the whole construct, and that is that except for mutation, the next generation is the same thing as the past generation. The organisms all reproduce themselves, not other organisms. So let’s consider the alternative.

The idea of biological factories was explored in a previous post. The idea there was that after the genetic grand transition, it would be possible to grow some factory that would make something. But that something was not necessarily another organism. It was a product, like a block of foodstuffs or a clear window or a tire. It was hypothesized that after some alien civilization did its thing on genetics, and really understood all there was to understand, it could make such factories by simply putting some DNA together and letting it rip. This sounds like it could be cheaper than building a factory out of mechanical components and stocking it with robotics to produce that product.

Suppose you think of such a factory, but add an ear and a brain to it, something that would be easy for genetics people to do. So now you can go to the factory, tell it you want an egg, and it draws from a genetic library the genes for an egg, and grows it for you. Next, somebody goes to the factory and says they want an antelope. So the factory goes to the genetic library, completely using fluids and hormones and other communication chemicals, and withdraws the genes for an antelope and copies it and incubates it and gives birth to an antelope. Somebody else wants a palm tree, so it looks in the library and makes a palm tree seed, and pops it in an envelope and gives it to the requestor.

This type of factory can be thought of doing reproduction, but not of itself. It is doing non-reproductive reproduction, to coin an almost-nonsense phrase. In this concept is a genetic library. This could be embodied in several forms. Perhaps there is a large block of genes already built that it could extract from. Perhaps it would have the capability of forming genes on the basis of some encoded information. Perhaps it would have a library of stem cells. Perhaps something else. But the idea is that the factory does not simply have the genes for itself, but for other organisms. Can this be done – is it a plausible concept?

Figuring out plausibility is often aided by thinking first of special, simple cases. So let’s consider a very simple case, where the biological factory can either make itself or something else. Only two options. So, in its collection of DNA there might be some little epigenetic switch, of the kind we all have thousands of, which switches on one half of the genes while switching off the other half. This is broader control than epigenetics is known to be able to do, so there would have to be some hierarchical system of switches that responded to the master switch. Maybe there would only be two or three levels, or perhaps a few more. But this seems like a pretty reasonable thing to invent.

It could be left in an automated state, where the epigenetic switch is on A, meaning it produces an organism of type A, but with the epigenetic switch on B. This second generation organism is a A type but it produces a B type organism. The B organism is going to produce an A type. And back and forth and back and forth. A truly simple example but it means that very simple biological factories or this strange type should be possible. And now the only question is how complicated could they be made. Maybe there is some limit on the number of options that would be available, like a hundred. This is fine. There is a limited menu, but it still is doing non-reproductive reproduction.

How does this relate to space travel and all the stuff this blog is supposed to be about? Here’s how. Suppose you are going to seed another planet with your lifeform. Traveling there takes a long time, and nobody wants to go along. Furthermore, nobody wants to pay more than the minimum necessary to do it, just because that’s the way they were raised. So, could you create a biological ship, which was also a biological factory, and just send it there? Suppose you could. In the ship there is a lander, with the biological factory inside it. It has a brain, and can get minerals from the ground it lands on and power from the sun’s photons. So it reproduces itself, and when its brain sees the need for something else, some plant or microbe or fungi or whatever, it just makes it and distributes it.

The energy and mineral requirements for reproducing itself would be great, so it would not be done very rapidly, but the energy and mineral requirements for building some fungi that could reproduce themselves might be much, much less, and so they could be started up and allowed to spread all over into whatever ecological niche they could live in. Same for microbes, or some very simple photosynthetic cells. The factory brain would be smart enough to know how to build an ecology out of nothing or out of whatever was already there.

This has very significant implications for why ET hasn’t shown up on Earth. Instead of sending themselves, they just set a seed somewhere, and grow a biological ship shell, and stick in the parts that can’t be made biologically, like the propulsor and the power source. Once it gets to a planet, nobody gets out and says hello to the natives. It just drops down and starts inserting its choice of organisms into the land or ocean or lakes or all of the above. The rest of the ship could simply burn itself up like a meteor. No residue, no relics, no monuments, no records, no nothing at all to indicate that an alien planet was very successfully seeding the whole galaxy with organisms that might eventually evolve into new alien citizens.

Perhaps they have a way to make evolution work faster, or perhaps they have incredible patience, or perhaps they know this is the only reasonable way to seed the galaxy. No matter what the details of the motivation, it certainly doesn’t look anything like Star Trek.

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