Pathfinders: We won’t be back

We won’t be back

Browsing through the science pages of any newspaper or online journal is to take an entertaining flight of fancy through the world of journalistic prediction. That is not to say, wild stories dreamed up by journalists and fed to a credulous public, but wild stories dreamed up by scientists and fed to a credulous press.

Some of these are just harmless fun, like the evergreen notion of life on other planets, (Galaxy has billions of Earths, BBC Online, 15 February).
Harmless fun, and like as not hopeless fantasy, based as it is on the formulation known as the Drake Equation, a well-known exercise in piling unknown suppositions upon each other and arriving at a number. With just
over 300 exoplanets now discovered, and all of them gas giants that could kick sand in Jupiter’s face, there is no particular reason to predict thousands of intelligent civilisations in our galaxy, but that doesn’t stop scientists with one eye on the telescope and the other eye on the tabloids.
(Our advice, by the way, if there happen to be any alien civilisations reading this column, is to stay the fuck away from this planet until we’ve sorted ourselves out, or we’re likely to be a very bad neighbour.)

Ray Kursweil is another respectable scientist with a penchant for grandstanding, and his prediction that humanity is approaching a technological singularity figures prominently on his site and is regularly dredged up by newshounds on a sensation-hunt. A singularity is a point beyond which it is not possible to make any prediction whatsoever, and according to him, this event horizon will be reached when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence, perhaps 30 years from now.

Since human intelligence has got us where we are today, some might see this as a pretty good thing. However one can’t really blame hacks like Ed Howker of the Independent (4 February) for instinctively conjuring up images of Skynet, Cyberdyne Systems, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the box-office hit Terminator.

After all, the work is being developed today and as the director of Michigan’s AI laboratory frankly admits “Our noses are too firmly pressed into our work for us to ask, to really ask, should we be doing what we’re doing?”

One only has to watch state-of-the-art robots whizzing round the lab floor trying not to bang into things to realise that the Terminator isn’t going to kick our front door in just yet. The concept of inorganic evolution – your toaster will inherit the earth – is a pretty old and abused notion. It’s not that we could never build something which could destroy us. After all, look at the weapons industry, or even the car industry. It’s just that, when it comes to Terminating ourselves, we don’t need artificial intelligence to do it for us. We’ve got capitalism. That’s all the prediction you’ll ever need.

Fancy a round of proton smashing?

You have to feel sorry for the nerds at CERN. Not only were their confident predictions about discovering the fabled Higgs Boson drowned last year in a media frenzy about high-energy particle physics being the death of us all.

When they turned the damn thing on, it broke. And now, months and millions later, they still haven’t got it off the starting blocks, and their rivals at the Chicago Fermilab Accelerator are laughing up their labcoat sleeves,
predicting that they’re going to find the Higgs first (Race for ‘God particle’ heats up, BBC Online, 17 February).

It’s all getting rather competitive, but then, it’s a nice kind of competition, the kind we’d want to encourage in socialism, rival scientific teams racing to the truth. After all, there’s no money in the Higgs. It won’t change anything. It won’t even prove anything, apart from showing that the standard model of physics still holds up. If the nerds at Fermilab pull it off, CERN will be red-faced, but science will benefit either way. There is such a thing as healthy competition. The mistake of capitalism is to apply it where it does damage.

Socialism would cooperate over what mattered, like world production and distribution, and keep the competition for the fun things, like football and particle physics.

How wasps got their sting.

Curious that David Attenborough, who is to natural history TV what David Dimbleby is not to politics, should agree to produce the recent BBC programme Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, when he must have known that it actually misrepresents the way that evolution is now known to work.

Work in genomics has revolutionised the understanding of evolution, and has called into question what is meant by the word ‘species’. Up to fifty  percent of genes, it is estimated, are not passed along any linear tree of
descent at all. They pass horizontally between related and sometimes unrelated hosts, usually in the form of a virus. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is now thought to account not only for some of the most bizarre biological hybrids, but also for such commonplaces as a wasp’s toxic sting.

 This constant ‘viral rain’ may also account for anything up to ninety percent of the human genome and some of our most basic biological functions,such as placental development, immune-response and gene expression (New Scientist, 28 August 2008). Thus many if not most evolutionary biologists now think the idea of a family ‘tree’ is obsolete. If there are any structures that look like a tree, they are local outgrowths of a general
evolutionary ‘web’.  Even New Scientist, with a nervous glance at the slavering orcs of the Discovery Institute over in creationist Mordor, felt obliged to print, front page, the bold legend ‘Darwin Was Wrong’ (24 January)

Well, ok, but Attenborough’s programme was science-lite, wasn’t it? Darwin to go? Maybe they’re doing a follow-up called Charles Darwin and the Kingdom of the Thick Skull? Maybe St David doesn’t keep up with the times like he ought to. But if we, the general public, can cope with hierarchical trees, we can surely cope with HGT and webs. In fact, it serves as an interesting organic parallel to the competing models of hierarchical capitalism and what is likely to be the more integrated, web-like system of socialism. It may be that tree-like structures are obsolete, in more ways than one.

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