Biotechnology may become an outdated approach
Some already call the 21st century “the century of living systems.”
We live in a world where biology, biotechnology, and biomedicine are experiencing a boom of unprecedented proportions, entire industries arise almost every month, and investor money flows accelerate.
The volume of bio-data, the quantity, and quality of discoveries, as well as the power of their practical applications, make modern biology, according to many researchers and analysts, the most dynamic and promising of the sciences.
Some already call the 21st century “the century of living systems.” With anticipation, we expect the time when, after cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, we will defeat death itself.
It seems that the day is approaching when the biomachine under the name “Homo Sapiens” will be completely decrypted, understood, subject to reverse engineering with its subsequent unlimited augmentation.
I myself invest a considerable amount of time in the study of modern biotechnology, participate in various projects in this field and look forward to its great future. However, sometimes I wonder whether I replace future prospects with present trends.
Since ancient times, people made a strict distinction between the world of the living and the world of the technology, often they were even considered as antipodes, but now biology becomes technology, and organisms are considered as mechanisms.
However, it is this approach and this understanding which can lead us to the awareness of the fundamental limitations of biology in solving our practical issues.
This limitation stems from the very principle that shaped the life we know, evolution.
Over billions of years, it certainly showed miracles of creativity and achieved results that are still far superior to anything created by man in their complexity, efficiency, and accuracy. However, despite its achievements, evolution is much dumber than an engineer or scientist, and its results are so remarkable compared to the latter, simply because it had much more time.
Evolution does not plan ahead, does not invest, does not tighten the belts for the sake of future gingerbread cookies, cannot foresee the distant consequences. In a landscape of possibilities, it is oriented like a blind person in the mountains. By random sorting, it debugs already appeared mechanisms and processes, checking after each iteration the result and acting following the feedback received from natural selection.
Evolution cannot create a wing “from scratch”, it is forced to redo it from the paw.
Evolution cannot make out the old heart and make a new, more efficient one. It makes a new heart out of the old.
Imagine if we had to make jet engines from propellers, during a million iterations, and even so that each of the intermediate versions could fly no worse than the previous one. How long the development of the aviation industry would drag on? And would we be able to do something at all?
Evolution, moving in very short steps, looks only one step forward.
As a result, we get the machines of Rub Goldberg, bulky, but efficient, beautiful in their gracelessness, with a bunch of add-ons, extensions, patches, modifications, reverse modifications and switches — something that the engineer would not do.
Francis Crick, a physicist by training, lamenting that he had to switch from the “elegance and deep understanding” of physics to “complex chemical mechanisms, the natural selection of which has developed over billions of years”, clearly saw this feature of living systems.
It may seem that this is only an aesthetic characteristic of biological machines, which, of course, complicates the work with them, but does not introduce fundamental restrictions for us on top of those which are representative for artificial ones.
To a certain extent, it is so. However, as a result of evolutionary origin, one unpleasant feature emerges. In principle, its existence becomes clear to every researcher in biomedicine, so to speak, in a purely empirical way, without resorting to studying the origin of those objects and processes that he or she studies.
This feature is that almost any biochemical element of the body, whether it is a molecule or a metabolic process, can bring (and actually brings) both harm and benefit.
Side effects are present not only in drugs but also in everything (perhaps, with the rarest exceptions). Although even the fact that it is not possible to find drugs without side effects is eloquent in itself.
An evolutionarily formed organism arose as it arose, with a huge number of connections between everything, interactions that played different roles in different periods of evolution and molecules whose complex effect on the body was not verified by evolution.
Natural selection only looked to see if the mutation enhances adaptability as a whole, without worrying that it can be harmful in particular. It could not create versions of the protein that are more useful in every way, but which are much further away in the adaptive landscape.
Simply put, evolution should work so that after each step the body does not become less fit, which significantly limits its capabilities and leads to solutions that are very far from the best. Strictly speaking, evolution can overcome lowlands in the adaptive landscape, but again, it happens only unintentionally and blindly.
In addition, evolution should always have acted on its original “engine”, both at the fundamental level (genetic code) and in specific aspects (existing limbs, biochemical cycles).
Everything that it has done over billions of years is inextricably built into its engine, and will not work outside of it. Meanwhile, it would be a fantastic coincidence if this engine allowed us to realize everything that we are going to do with our bodies and mind (immortality, unlimited development of intelligence, resistance to extreme physical conditions, control over emotions and desires, and so on).
One way or another, sooner or later a function will arise that is either impossible to implement on the old engine or is irrational from a practical point of view.
Truly, such functions have already arisen.
For example, it was much easier to create fast transport than to modify a person so that he or she quickly moved. It is good that we were able to solve this problem with the help of external engineering devices, but this will not always be the case.
It is likely that certain biomedical augmentations will be impossible on our natural engine, or more broadly, within the framework of our existing biochemistry, cytology, and anatomy. It is possible that they can be in direct contradiction with certain vital processes in our organisms.
There is no reason why this should not happen.
Then we will hit the ceiling of what can be done with the help of biology.
And then to improve ourselves, we will need “artificial” engineering, primarily nanotechnology.
When biology cannot be improved, we will have to build a replacement.
Perhaps this is a more realistic path to transhumanism.
All of the above is just part of why biology will have to give way to nanotechnology.
Our very need to use biology stems from our ignorance. We cannot construct molecular machines on our own, and therefore we are forced to spy on and modify natural molecular machines.
It is very likely that our full understanding of biology in itself will make it unnecessary, as it will assume that we have now learned to create any molecular machines of similar complexity on our own.
As our understanding of the molecular level of organization of matter grows, the need to copy the solutions of natural selection and the entire magnificent building of life formed by it will disappear.
This article was originally published by Ihor Kendiukhov on medium.