Sunday, March 04, 2007

Quote from Micheal Crichton's Book, Jurassic Park

You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity! Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There's been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away -- all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time.

It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. Might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It's powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. You think this is the first time that's happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine.

When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. Hundred years ago we didn't have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can't imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven't got the humility to try. We've been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we're gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

5 comments:

  1. That was not very nice of you to give a link to poor old Wulfgar. Now everyone will know how little he knows. For example, I would have never guessed that Wulfgar thought Michael Crichton was just a “science fiction author” had you not linked to Wufgar’s sniping little essay.

    [From Crichton’s site.]
    Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, received his MD from Harvard Medical School, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, researching public policy with Jacob Bronowski. He has taught courses in anthropology at Cambridge University and writing at MIT.

    ///

    That is not exactly Al Gore’s league. I guess poor old Wulfgar spectacularly missed something.

    PS: I do not fully agree with you about the resumption of the evolutionary process after a catastrophic event. I have written a graduate paper on the subject and will send you some excerpts from it.

    --Red Quark

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  2. The universal automaton, an infant in von Neumann's time, now approaches maturity. What forms and functions it will assume in the near or distant future is a subject open only to speculation and well beyond the scope of this writing. However, the course of its past evolution--a topic that has consumed the bulk of this paper--should be plainly evident at this stage, and it therefore seems appropriate that a few words be spent in extrapolating what has already been learned.

    Evolution built man upward from micrological structures into an organic macrological device. Fundamentally, he represents the highest coding level or information density organic evolution has produced so far. Yet the cycle is only half complete. Accepting for the sake of argument that man is an expression of or vehicle for the probabilistic force of evolution, then evolution is working through man to build the automaton downward from macrological structures into an inorganic micrological device. Fundamentally, the automaton represents the highest coding level or information density inorganic evolution has produced so far.

    Why would evolution--or John von Neumann, for that matter--want to create a self-reproducing automaton susceptible of mutation? In order to understand the question it is necessary to agree upon a definition of what constitutes the on-going, ever-increasing product of evolution on the one hand, and what constitutes mutation on the other hand.

    Clearly information is the key concept and thus the starting point. Evolution, when all its processes are momentarily disregarded and all its semi-finished forms are discounted, essentially produces implicit and explicit instruction sets that contain information, the one type of set representing the form of an organism, the other representing its function. Mutation randomly acts upon the explicit instructions that control the implicit instructions, that is, by rewriting or erasing bits or whole lines of explicit instructions, mutation causes the form and function of organisms to change. In organic systems mutation is effected by high-energy elementary particles that alter the arrangement of the real objects that comprise the micrological structures containing information, the so-called genetic code. Of note is that these high-energy particles are probabilistic and ubiquitous in nature, and, depending on their relative energy, number, and locus of impact, their effect on the target organism's total informational content may be immediately lethal, to echo von Neumann, or may have some future adaptive usefulness. Natural selection is not so much an indication of evolution's approval or disapproval of a particular species, but rather an indication of the success or failure of a particular instruction set. Evolution is a continual process of testing new instruction sets against a continually changing physical environment. Extinction postponement is the sought-after result.

    The only criterion for evolutionary success is the ability to postpone extinction indefinitely. Technology generality and the self-reproducing automaton specifically are the means to this end. Technology has not only given man the ability to rapidly adapt to minor environmental fluctuations but has also given him the means to modify his own evolutionary path as necessary. That is, by the use of high-speed "supercomputers" to identify and map the real objects of his informational structure, otherwise collectively called the human genome, man has gained control over evolution itself.

    It is a self-evident fact that the majority of human-scale biological organisms preceding man are extinct, and that the remaining species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate is another. It may be assumed therefore that extinction is a certainty for all species given an arbitrary amount of time. The only manner in which biological organisms have heretofore avoided extinction, at least in an informational sense, is by the merger and transmission of their explicit instruction sets. It is not important if their corporeal bodies have vanished from the face of the earth; for such bodies were merely the temporary repositories of information waiting to be subsumed in a larger scheme of information assembly--the information necessary to create man. Assuming for the moment that life's only purpose, if it must have one at all, is to evolve an information structure of such high survivability that life may dwell wherever it pleases on this planet or any other, what real-object shape life's instruction set takes is of no consequence; what counts is that the instructions survive to merge with other successful codes to form the best possible survival system. But so long as this information is contained within relatively delicate biological organisms, extinction is always a real possibility; and if not total extinction of the code, a devolution to some lower instruction set if a catastrophe wiped out only the upper coding level. Any global, pan-species destruction would cause a major informational setback, a subject to be discussed shortly.

    (To be continued.)

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  3. Actually, red quark, he didn't link to me, and that was perfectly appropriate. I mentioned his post, not vice-versa; and as was politely appropriate, I linked to it. That's how we do things on the 'tubes.

    I would have never guessed that Wulfgar thought Michael Crichton was just a “science fiction author”

    And that's what he is. If your college paper spam is any indication, then I've been reading Crichton since before you were born, or at least since not too long after. One of my favorite books is an MC book. I'm well aware of his qualifications. And guess what? Nowhere among those is 'climatologist'. Considering that others were pointing out how Al Gore couldn't possibly be an authority because he didn't study climatology, I felt it rather appropriate to point out the obvious irony involved. Crichton is a learned man. But his vocation is still "science fiction author".

    That is not exactly Al Gore’s league.

    Really? Crichton is an inventor of the unreal. Al Gore was a Senator, and Vice-President of the United States. Now ... who isn't in who's league again?

    You keep twaddling back to formal education as a significator of quality. You wouldn't be one of those Ivory-tower liberal elitists we hear so much about anymore, would you?

    P.S. When you write someone in dis-agreement, it's rational to specify who you're dis-agreeing with. Andy put up the post, but not what you are taking to task. That would be your well educated buddy Michael Crichton. You did see that pitfall before you fell into it, right? Whoops. Apparently not.

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  4. Evasive. Typical Kailey. Crichton is trained in science. Gore is not. End of debate, silly man.

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  5. [Continued from above.]

    Extinction is triggered by a detrimental change in a particular species' environment, whether it be the appearance of another better adapted species of any size scale in the target species' environment or a general and lethal change in the environment itself, where the standard operating band or prevailing conditions necessary for a certain species to prosper suddenly changes beyond the functional parameters of the species' implicit instruction set. This environmental or ambient aspect of extinction is obviously unrelated to the information contained within the biological organism, meaning there is no preset extinction time for each class or species of organism, but rather only the chance that its code will someday not function in a changed environment.

    It should be reiterated that in the largest possible context of analysis, the concern here is with the extinction of the fully developed life code, not with the extinction of a specific species' life code, which is the preoccupation of popular culture nowadays, mostly for idealistic rather than realistic reasons. Indeed, it will soon be understood that all species may become extinct without significant loss--save for one, the one with the fully developed code. Evolution did not create all living things as equals, at least not informationally speaking. Aesthetics is not the subject here, whether earth would be happier or more beautiful if it had more biological species or "diversity," the shopworn word of the times. Man (or life or evolution) is concerned only with the preservation of the most adaptable explicit instruction set, namely man himself.

    It must constantly be remembered that the instruction set known as "man" represents both the highest achievement of a particular species and the highest achievement of life on earth. Thus, the evolution of organic systems may be viewed fundamentally as an evolution of increasing information densities capable of holding more and more complex instruction sets, and any extinction that would erase the highest level of coding or complexity would set back the process not by one species but by possibly millions of species representing eons of evolution. In all candor, it is likely that the postulated remaining lifetime of the planet would not be long enough to reproduce such a complex code by the slow and probabilistic process of mutation-driven organic evolution. If only from a pragmatic point of view, the possibility of man's extinction must be squarely faced long before the actual event occurs, which is, as the fossil record and present experience indicate, inevitable.

    Recall that von Neumann reckoned a minimum level of information density was necessary before a self-reproducing automaton on the complexity scale of a human being could be realized, about 10 to the 16th total micrological units. It must be recognized, whether von Neumann's rough calculation was accurate or not, that somewhere in the vicinity of this information density is the threshold of a self-sustaining inorganic evolution on a scale approximately equal to that of Homo sapiens, if reproduction and susceptibility to mutation, among other things, are considered the critical starting point for all evolving species, organic or inorganic.

    If, therefore, it is possible for evolution (via man) to create an inorganic self-reproducing automaton capable of storing, using, merging, and transmitting the highest level of the life code (the human genome), then such a creation would be the next logical embodiment or expression of the information. If extinction ultimately emanates from the environment and is beyond the control of organisms who are the target of it, depending on how radical the environmental change, then the safest repository for the fully evolved instruction set--the life code--would have to be an inorganic system, since an inorganic system can function and prosper in a much more hostile environment than man or any other organically based life form. Bluntly stated, machines are better adapted to surviving wide fluctuations in the earth's environment. Moreover, the entire course of organic evolution may be interpreted as just such a process, in that the highest level of instructions naturally moves into those species that are not only capable of storing and transmitting the instructions but also capable of adapting to greater and greater environmental extremes. When the highest level of organic coding is established in an inorganic system, such as a self-reproducing automaton, then the threat of environmentally based extinction will subside considerably, if it does not disappear altogether. Extinction may be cheated only by the universal automaton.

    There is an ironic aspect to all this, however. Although the handing-off of the instruction set by the human system to the machine system will be the means by which life escapes informational extinction, man will still have to face physical extinction sooner or later. Yet, as with those biological organisms that preceded him, his information will be safely incorporated within a larger and more adaptable system. His information as expressed in its biological form will be redundant, and his instruction set may then be erased without loss. The irony lies in the competitive situation that will arise between the highest but descending exponent of the organic system and the lowest but ascending exponent of the inorganic system.

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