Friday, May 24, 2013

Unintelligent design, photosynthesis and adapting to space.

There are those who say that the existence of human beings and bananas is evidence of intended design. Apparently there is some topological symbiosis between the human hand and a banana which, in the opinion of these people, is irrefutable evidence of an ‘Intelligent Designer’.

These are very silly people. They omit to mention the poor side of the design, the teeth that rot and fall out, the hair and nails that keep growing; the appendix that just sits there doing nothing for most of your life, then suddenly causes you excruciating pain. Nor do they mention our susceptibility to things like disease, gravity, saber-tooth tigers, and jealousy, failing memory, violence, or gambling. They fail to consider that we can only thrive in a uniquely configured environment that forms a very, very, very small part of one stellar system in a galaxy in an galactic group that barely merits attention as one of the smallest in the entire universe.

Intelligence, our most vaunted characteristic has brought us stupidity, warfare, bigotry, superstition, global warming, better ways to kill people, torture people, tell people how much better off other people are, and generally make us dissatisfied with our place in the scheme of things.

And, on a personal note, who or whatever let hemochromatosis escape into the human gene pool wasn’t an Intelligent Designer; they were just a Fucking Idiot. 

The truth is, whoever designed human beings did a lousy job, making us a sort of Trabant of the animal kingdom (which, incidentally, is a slur on a capable car, but I use popular misconception to build my metaphor, not the truth).

Nor do they mention that bananas have a genetic diversity little greater than my finger nail, and are a favorite form of transportation for poor tarantulas seeking a better life in North America or Europe.

These fans of the so called ‘Intelligent Designer’ (by which of course they mean ‘God’, but they prefer to say Intelligent Designer because they are trying to sound technical and teleological at the same time) fail to mention all the improvements that would be made by a better designer. I’m not going to dwell on the most obvious; being able to fly, growing gills, super-strength, invisibility, cyborgs, etc. They’ve been done. I’m looking for something different, more subtle.

My first suggested improvement is photosynthesis . If grass can do it, why can’t we? Well, actually there is a good reason, related to the ration between surface area and volume. So no, we can’t live off photosynthesis. But maybe photosynthesis could fill the gap when food is scarce, or allow us to travel long distance across the barren dessert when we have eventually trashed our planet.

Photosynthesis would reduce the amount of renewable and nonrenewable energy we use, resulting in a benefit to the environment. It would convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. It would reduce our dependence on agriculture. It would change agriculture, alleviating starvation and the disease that results. It would give fish, the only animal hunted by modern man on an industrial scale, a chance to recover.

If there was some advantage to even a small amount of photosynthesis, once it was present, what further changes could evolution make? Would we get taller and more slender, like a blade of grass. Flippers or wings would photosynthesize more efficiently than arms and legs, so perhaps a swimming or flying man, homo pisces or homo avians, might result. And, as we became more plant-like, would we gain the ability to dig our toes into the earth and extract the minerals in the soil?

Some animals do benefit from photosynthesis, though they use symbiots to do the photosynthesizing and then reap some of the benefit. These animals are cold blooded, with a lower level of metabolism so that photosynthesis would make a greater impact than in warm-blooded animals. Still, there has to be an evolutionary advantage for both members of the symbiotic relationship or they wouldn’t do it. Complex animals can benefit from photosynthesis.

Which brings us to another potentially useful design feature, symbiotic relationships with animals that can do anything from digest plastic (imagine a diet of flavored plastic pills) to absorb ultraviolet radiation (useful once the ozone layer has been destroyed.

The truly great designer should also consider that designing single-celled symbiots might be easier than designing new features in already complex organisms. Small medical symbiots that complement our white blood cells, processor symbiots that help us think (rocket science a specialty), memory symbiots to improve recall, respiration symbiots that make us all two hour marathon runners, etc. Think of the weakness and build a single cell organism that can benefit from fixing it.

And symbiots, biology suggests, can become parts of the host creature over time. Organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts could have originated as symbiotic organisms. 

These adaptations would be useful on Earth, but in the near future, man will move into that vast part of the Universe for which he is not adapted, either open space or the surface of less friendly planets than Earth. Evolution won’t do much for us there. Evolution works where the environment changes gradually and there is time for successive generations to adapt to their new ecosystem. But that’s OK, we have an intelligent designer on the job. He can handle this. It’s simply genetic engineering. We need to take the abilities of extremophiles and graft them onto Homo Sapiens.

So what might our ancestors living on Mars, or in a station at some distant Lagrangian point, look like?
On Mars and other arid planets, maybe we will grow filters in our nostrils to protect us from sandstorms. We would need vastly improved respiration, perhaps the two pass system of birds, and metabolism that could keep us warm on the -50 degrees Kelvin of daytime Mars.

Our eyes are adapted to visible light because that’s what our atmosphere allows in, but someone living in space could be designed with the ability to see far into the ultraviolet or infrared ranges. Other organs we could design would be sensitive to magnetism or gravity.

Hibernation, an ability I wish for every year when winter hits Western Canada, would be a useful alternative to cryostasis. Do it like the tardigrads. (A good engineer will use what is available rather than go to the trouble of inventing something from scratch.) A generation ship full of hibernating humans would be the ideal way of traveling between planets.

One thing our Intelligent Designer would not do is turn us into robots. I’ll justify that statement in a future article.