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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2012 > Mar > Mar 3

Re: Sampling Earth's Biodiversity

From: J. Maynard Gelinas <j.maynard.gelinas.nul>
Date: Sat, 3 Mar 2012 08:57:56 +0800
Archived: Sat, 03 Mar 2012 08:21:31 -0500
Subject: Re: Sampling Earth's Biodiversity

>From: Michael Tarbell <mtarbell.nul>
>To: post.nul
>Date: Fri, 02 Mar 2012 09:17:00 -0700
>Subject: Re: Sampling Earth's Biodiversity


Thanks for your lengthy and cogent counter-arguments. I'll do my
best to defend the initial work, but must admit that your
comment forced a lengthy re-think, which is exactly what
discussion of this sort ought to do. Rock on!


>I think your effort to make a hypothetical ET visitation less
>anthropocentric is commendable, i.e., we shouldn't suppose it
>would be all about us. But your proposed scenario might itself
>be considered anthropocentric, in that it implicitly ascribes
>human motivations and characteristics to alien life forms.

>For example, you frame your question as: Is it some raw resource
>(e.g., rare elements) that makes Earth a 'jewel', or is it
>perhaps living organisms themselves (e.g., from which to create
>novel new compounds)?

>But this is a quintessentially human assessment of the options,
>one that effectively presumes that the 'value' of a place
>relates primarily to the potential payoff from some extractive
>or exploitative process (e.g., so as to fill the coffers of
>Spain with gold, or to sell coal to China).

>If there were some clear evolutionary advantage to such a
>philosophy, I would be more comfortable with projecting it onto
>hypothetical ET visitors. However, quite the opposite seems
>likely... the rate of species extinction on Earth is now 100 to
>1000 times the normal background rate, and it's no mystery who's
>behind it. And continued unchecked, it spells our own doom as
>well (consider, say, the extinction of plant pollinators).

>In other words, our own experience suggests that there could
>well be an evolutionary selection effect at work that makes
>visitation by aggressively exploitative/extractive ET cultures,
>or even the descendants of such cultures, relatively unlikely.
>But I confess that may represent hope as much as deduction.

If I understand your counter-argument, you're saying here that
exploitative use of resources (whether raw or computational) is
essentially a human behavior - one not evolutionarily conserved
- and thus to presume such activity is to presuppose
anthropocentrism itself. I restate your argument simply to
verify that we're conceptually on the same page.

In response, I'd argue that such behavior is not merely human,
but is a core evolutionary trait repeated across our ecosystem
from the smallest single celled predators (such as amoeba)
through to land and sea animals. Typically, an organism that
gains a new evolutionary advantage within a confined environment
utilizes that new resource opportunity for reproductive gain
until depletion or until prey counter-evolve defense measures.

This pattern is most clearly seen in the incorporation of alien
species into closed environments. The introduction of rabbits to
Australia is a good well known example:


But there are many others to draw upon.

So I dispute your assertion that this core principle of
evolutionary theory is somehow an anthropocentric argument,
unless you're arguing that because people thought it up then it
must somehow be anthropocentric by definition. Thus, all human
search for knowledge is suspect - even physics. Unfortunately,
if we go there resolving the problem is either 'full stop' or
turtles all the way down (give up the search or conduct an
infinite regression within the confines of epistemology) and
thus no argument could ever enlighten the subject.

However, suppose you were to argue that the evolutionary
principles seen on Earth are not universal and somehow confined
to Earth. I doubt that prospect, however, do accept that we have
but one ecosystem as an example. Which is why the search for
simple Extraterrestrial life on Mars and elsewhere in the solar
system is so important. For if bacterial life is discovered on
Mars, and it follows similar evolutionary patterns, then a that
would represent a slam-dunk proof of evolutionary theory.
Conversely, if such life is discovered and it follows a
completely different approach, with differing outcomes, then a
major rethink would be in order (and you could well be right).

>As to the specific resource you've focused on and its potential
>use to ETs, the idea is certainly intriguing (also as expanded
>in your more lengthy recent post). But whether for purposes of
>biomechanical modeling or generating exotic chemical compounds,
>why on Earth (so to speak) would they need to come all the way
>here to do that?

>Presumably they themselves derived from biological evolutionary
>processes, so they should already have genetic material to work
>with. There is nothing to indicate that such processes on Earth
>are chemically unique in terms of exotic reactions or extremely
>rare elements. The requisite materials are widespread, and they
>are known to combine spontaneously to form many of the critical
>components (e.g., amino acids in interstellar molecular clouds).

This is excellent. It attempts to drive a stake through the
heart of the thesis by challenging its presuppositions. You've
really made me think here. I'll do my best to parry.

Restating your argument, what I think you're saying is that
since Extraterrestrials are also biological (or at least were at
some time), why come here since they already have the bio-
chemical tools at their disposal to build their own predefined
ecosystem better tailored to solving their computational
problems. In the hopes of fruitfully moving the debate forward,
here are two counters to your challenge:

- Earth's biosphere is massive. The larger the ecosystem the
greater the variation over time. The more variation, the faster
will the system generate differing solutions to the same
problem. The more potential solutions, the more options
available in choosing solutions tailored to their solving their
problem, thus will it be more likely to find a 'best fit'. Thus,
even though Extraterrestrials could engineer a 'toy' ecosystem
for modeling solutions to their problems, in comparison to a
naturally evolved planetary ecosystem, such a vastly smaller
design would impose limits on achieving final positive results.
Finding 'best case' solutions would also take significantly

- Earth's biosphere is a closed, naturally evolved, system.
Extraterrestrials - assuming they exist - could not use their
own planet for such a simulation because they exist as part of
its ecosystem. To experiment on themselves in this manner would
introduce perturbations from their own activities that would
likely generate garbage results on output. It's akin to humanity
engaging in genetic modification of its own species. Whatever
the result, such activities would be - by definition - not
natural selection. It's self-referential nature would thus
violate the experimental controls.

>The genetic/biochemical factories and toolsets you discuss are
>already in rudimentary development by our own species (e.g.,
>witness goats producing spider webs in their milk, and similar
>grotesques). I should think that in general such capability is
>developed and mastered well before interstellar travel is.
>Absent the looming ecological crisis discussed above, or perhaps
>even in spite of it, humans could well soon be custom-designing
>and fabricating genetic material out of whole cloth. Which is
>not at all reassuring, since that would represent a vastly more
>dangerous toy than, say, nuclear weapons.

I think this argument is less valid. The problem is not with the
manufacture of new atomic scale patterns, but in devising novel
and functional complex designs. The examples you cite only make
my point. And, as an additional example, let me offer the
development of carbon nanotubes and metamaterials. If one looks
at these, one realizes that they exist as two dimensional planes
of simple repeating patterns stitched together like cloth. They
may be made on the atomic scale, but they are not complex
interacting systems like a biological organism.

Thus, just because one might have successfully built a
Drexlerian 'molecular assembler' does not imply requisite
variety in producing viable macro-scale systems as a result. As
an analogy, it's the difference between building working
computer hardware compared to having the software to enable
useful solutions with it. The hard task is not building the
tool, its finding something useful to do with it. And that's why
genetic programming and directed evolution represent a likely
means toward deriving useful complex designs. Once you accept
this perspective, the only question is whether building 'toy'
ecosystems, or using naturally evolved systems, are better means
to seek out novel solutions to very difficult problems.

Thank you so much for your reply!


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