Thursday, February 4, 2016

Expanding the Concept of Species

A lot of funny things can happen when an alien civilization figures out how to play with their own genetic code. The genetic grand transition would take several generations to come to complete fruition, but long before that happens, interesting things can happen. One relates to tinkering with the aliens’ own genetic code.

It has been discussed before
in this blog that once intelligence genes are discovered and understood, it would be not long before they were introduced into the species on a universal basis. However, intelligence genes would only be a tiny fraction of the possible genes discovered. Genes would be searched for in natural surroundings, in all the life forms that co-existed with the alien species, but we should not forget that the genetic grand transition would be expected to come after the robotics transition, and in particular after the generation of great computing capacity was routine. This means that not only naturally occurring genes would be understood, but all kinds of synthetic ones. Genes control sizes and shapes of things, so quantitative changes would be possible in all types of attributes. Non-critical attributes would also be under the control of genes, so it would be possible to have some gland produce additional chemicals that the ones it normally makes. As long as the chemicals do not have a lethal effect, the genes could be placed into an embryo and an alien developed with the ability to produce them.

Suppose this happened, in a thought experiment. If this was before the alien civilization had switched over to industrial gestation, the new alien with the new chemical being made in his/her/its gland would be able to breed with other aliens, and the production of the chemical in the gland would be there or not, depending on which chromosomes or the alien equivalent slipped into the next generation. This means that the alien species has just acquired a new form of diversity. This form was not selected by evolution, but evolution would have not functioned for some time before this stage of the genetic grand transition. If the definition of species is a breeding group, unlike all the other divisions of taxonomy, then the species just got expanded in diversity. This might not mean much for a single genetic change, but what about the time, somewhat later perhaps, when fifty or five hundred changes were invented or discovered. If individuals were making choices as to what genes would go into their descendants, there could be a rapid and huge expansion of their species. Is it still a species? Yes, as long as the five hundred changes do not interfere with the ability of aliens to reproduce.

Later on in the genetic grand transition, when gestation becomes industrial, the concept of species becomes indistinct. No breeding goes on. It could well be that since gestation is industrial, there is no need to preserve the ability of any alien to breed. This means that, whatever you call the collection of aliens that inhabit that advanced civilization, it isn’t a species as that term is irrelevant.

However, before the gestation revolution part of the genetic grand transition, there still is an alien species, but the concept of the species has to be expanded. It could include some incredibly diverse collection of individuals. The range of possibilities depends, at this point in our hypothetical alien civilization, what the previous generation would choose to be the next generation. Various attributes which contribute to the alien’s capabilities, both athletic and mental, survivability, longevity, creativity, dexterity, learning rate, sensor capability, and more and more could be on the table.

Consider some examples. Some pair, or trio or individual or however many the aliens need to breed, might think that enjoying food is a very desirable trait. They might seek out the genetic engineering computer and ask about improving the ability of their offspring to appreciate food. Maybe the ancient form of aliens could taste five things in solution, and five hundred things in vapor. But some animals might have ten things in solution and five thousand things in vapor. Do they want to instruct their embryo fabricator to put these into their next embryo? It isn’t really a good thing or a bad thing? No aliens suffer from not being able to detect these additional tastes and smells. The embryo fabricator explains they would have to find space in the neural processing centers for more taste and smell processing, meaning that something else might have to be reduced.

We might assume that the aliens have already figured out how to do the best neural processing centers, and every embryo is going to get them. That means there is no way to speed things up, and a tradeoff will have to be made. Does audial or visual processing get reduced? Does some other sensory capability suffer a loss? Are motor skills sacrificed for the goal of wider taste and smell capability?

Perhaps the embryo fabricator suggests making lesser changes, perhaps just a few more smells and tastes, but a heightened enjoyment capability. This means more or stronger connections between the smell and taste neural processing centers and the positive reinforcement centers and any neurochemical-producing glands that generate whatever the aliens associate with happiness. Those members of the older generation have to decide on how much interference with other learning and thinking abilities they want to do by increasing the influence that taste and smell have over the higher processing centers. Do they actually want offspring who are very highly motivated to go find interesting foods, but not much motivated to do other things? Liking food is a nice concept, but allocating things in the brain is a constant tradeoff. Maybe they have second thoughts and tell the embryo fabricator that they would like less interest in food, but please take the neural processing resource that is freed up by this and use it for audial processing, so their offspring might appreciate whatever passes for music in their civilization. Is raising a musician better than raising a wine-taster, or some equivalents of these translated into the basics of alien society? How would they make that decision?

Flip a coin, perhaps fifty times, to make some selections? Copy what some other aliens chose? Let the embryo fabricator use his/her/its own best judgment? Do a lottery among themselves?

This type of thinking appears to lead to chaos. Exactly how it might work out requires some more investigation. Would this affect star flight? Yes, as wine-tasters and musicians find their own happiness, and wouldn’t necessarily need to support or even allow the resources of the civilization to be spent on star flight. One set of choices might lead to an alien civilization greatly in favor of these huge expenses, and another the opposite.

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