“All life is imperfectly transmitted code,” Enriquez began, “and it is promiscuous.” Thus discoveries like the one last month of an entire bacterial genome inside the DNA of a fruitfly is exploding the old tree-of-life models of evolution. The emerging map replaces gene lineages with gene webs.
“There is a whole genomic continent to discover, and we’ve just mapped part of the coastline so far.” Noting that his friend Craig Venter has just transplanted the DNA from one microbe into a different one, and booted it up there, Enriquez said that humans are going to be increasingly designing and controlling the code of life. “We’ll do with bacteria what we do with our pets.”
Likewise new maps of brain function are raising questions such as, “Can we model the brain, can we download it, can we transplant it, can we reboot it?” Prostheses such as robotic arms used to be driven by muscle signals, but now they are being controlled directly from the brain.
Enriquez noted that some nations are charging ahead with such technology and the education that drives it while others cripple themselves by holding back. Portugal had colonies throughout the world, he said, but they never respected the natives enough to help educate them, and so left intellectual blight behind them and at home. London and Paris are full of Indian and Chinese restaurants, but there are none in Portugal. He showed a photo of a billboard that read: “Portugal— We were a world power for about 15 minutes.”
The new maps of life, he said, will profoundly affect countries, business, religion and ethics. Being alive in the midst a scientific renaissance like this is Christmas every day.
During Q&A Enriquez lamented that the pharmacology industry has retreated to doing just marketing now instead of discovery, haven been driven into a defensive crouch by public misapplication of the “Precautionary Principle” that all new technologies are guilty until proven innocent, and innocence is impossible to prove. Thus the potential death of tens is used to head off treatments that could save tens of thousands. I asked him, “What would you call the opposite of the Precautionary Principle?” Kevin Kelly offered from the audience, “How about the Pro-actionary Principle?”-- by Stewart Brand