Rewriting Genes Before DNA

I am currently writing a book titled What Information Wants. It looks at how information flows have changed over history. It starts by looking at the past: how the big bang led to planet earth, how genetic DNA led to the tree of life, and how memetic language led to the tree of ideas and technology.

But then the book looks at information flows in the present and the future. To do this, I need to look at how the biosphere, memesphere, and the emerging digital-sphere (digisphere) co-evolve. This post is an attempt to explain how the memesphere and digisphere are shaping the biosphere. In other words, what the hell is happening biotechnology and where is it going? We’ll answer that question today.

Specifically, we’ll look at:

I. Past: Rewriting Genes Before DNA
II. Present: How Biotechnology Rewrites Genes
III. Future: How We’ll Rewrite All of Biology

Part I is below. Parts II and III will come later!

I. Past: Rewriting Genes Before DNA

Let's start with this great Tim Urban image that shows the branching possibilities of life:

Your life has many branching possibilities from where you are now. You could become a parent, a teacher, or live in Singapore.

These branching possibilities also exist for the universe as a whole, not just your life. At different times in the universe's history, these possibilities have been shaped by different forces.

From the big bang 14 billion years ago until four billion years ago, futures were only determined by physical laws. Stars collided, supernovas exploded, and planets were born.

But then four billion years ago, futures began to be shaped by genes. DNA found niches in our environment to make the tree of life: plants, animals, fungi, and all of the microorganisms too small for us to see. The earth was no longer just a geosphere. It was a biosphere too. When asking “what will come next?”, we can’t just look at gravity or tectonic plates; we must look at what genes want as well.

200,000 years ago, homo sapiens emerged and we began to share ideas—memes. These memes shaped the world as fundamentally as genes before them. We shared ideas and those ideas were manifest IRL as farms, cities, and factories.

The world now had three layers: the geosphere, the biosphere, and the technosphere. To understand what would happen in 5 years, you had to ask the atoms of the geosphere, the genes of the biosphere, and the memes of the technosphere.

But in fact, human culture and technology (memes) have not been the only shapers of possible futures. Genes and memes co-evolve. Should the priest have sex for his genes or stay abstinent for his Christian memes? So from the perspective of time unraveling, it looks more like this:

Before diving into how genes and memes co-evolve today with modern biotechnology of reading and writing DNA, we’ll look at how memes affected genes before we even knew about DNA. Homo sapiens have always shaped the biosphere. Here’s how.

We can think of homo sapiens as having two impacts on biology. First, we affect the biosphere around us, like domesticating plants. Second, we affect our own bodies.

For example, homo sapiens started as a species because of our big brains.

Look at that exponential curve! What was the reinforcing feedback loop driving this? It’s the Brain <> Tools <> Imitation loop. A bigger brain gives us access to better tools and more ability to imitate tool use. Those tools and imitation give us more energy to fuel a bigger brain, which in turn gives us better tools and imitation.

The more we do (tools/imitation), the more we can do (bigger brains).

Our big brains (and mirror neurons) helped us imitate, which is the main thing that sets us apart from chimps. We can do social learning, but they can’t.

Around 70,000 years ago, this ability to imitate then led to the most important “invention” of all, language. Language truly kicked off the human species as we know it today. Language is the basis for almost all sharing of ideas, what we call mimetics or cultural evolution.

This set of 50 sounds (and later, written language) has led to an infinite number of ideas from Christianity to gravity. Language creates the tree of ideas.​​

Memes changed our own physiology. This is often called dual inheritance theory. Some examples:

1. Our larynx moved down in order to help us more clearly speak a, i, and u, which are the vowels of all modern language.

2. In addition to speaking, our hearing also became optimized for speech. Parts of our ear drum moved around so we could hear higher frequencies like the consonants t, f, k, and s.

3. Cultural evolution also led to farming. Farming led to many more humans, but also much shorter humans because of worse nutrition.

4. Farming also led to other physical changes, like lighter skin and blue eyes. We could live further north, which meant our skin could be lighter, but the gene for light skin was connected to the one for blue eyes and boom—blue-eyed humans.

5. One final way in which cultural evolution changed ourselves in our very reproduction. Celibate priests ignore their genetic lineage in service of spreading their memetic reproduction—the ideas of Christianity.

Meanwhile, memes and cultural evolution were changing the biosphere as well. As sapiens spread around the world, we, uhhhh extincted many others.

First, we drove homo erectus (in green below) and neanderthals (in light grey) to extinction around 100,000 BCE and 40,000 BCE.

But we didn’t just stop at Eurasia. We wanted to spread across the sea as well. It took whale mammals millions of years to swim by moving their breathing hole from the front to the top of their face. But it took us only a few thousand years as we developed boats to reach Indonesia and the rest of Oceania.

Once there, we did our extincting. We killed megafauna in addition to other homo. Whenever we entered a continent, the large mammals would be killed soon after.

The memesphere’s impact on the biosphere isn’t just destruction though. We also create. In the Agricultural Revolution we domesticated plants and animals, drastically changing the genetic makeup of land animals on earth. With modern factory farming, this has become extreme:

We’ve entered the holocene extinction.

Meanwhile, we also changed the distribution of non-organic atoms by producing clothes, buildings, cars, and trains through fossil fuel-fueled (hah) factories.

The Industrial Revolution changed the atoms on the surface of the earth from this:

To this:

Since our emergence, homo sapiens have had a massive impact on the biosphere and geosphere. Yet it is nothing compared to the impact we will have with biotechnology. Let’s look at that now.

II. Present: How Biotechnology Rewrites Genes (coming soon)
III. Future: How We’ll Rewrite All of Biology