DLD: Life as information

A star panel at DLD: Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter on the future of the gene.

Dawkins says that the gene “is pure information.” Venter proved this by taking a gene out of one organism and put it in another and causes the second to change into the first — your cat becomes your dog, as moderator John Brockman explains. So Dawkins says this demonstrates clearly that a gene is information that can be put not just in an organism but on a disk. So Venter explains that we are at the start of “the design phase” of biology. “I’m looking at genes at the design components of the future.” His example is “biological machines” that could take carbon out of the environment and create fuel. “We can make anything in the lab that comes out of the ground in terms of carbon.”

Venter says he’s concerned that because the price of oil is in the hands of a few people, they can artificially lower the price to take away incentives for scientific development of alternatives. This is why he favors carbon taxes.

He says that evolution is already open-source; it happens all around and in us. The microorganisms living in each of our lungs are different as they adapt to our immune system. He says that we need to take more of a hand in that evolution.

On evolution, Venter also says that genes do travel back and forth among species via viruses. So the ladder view of sequential, serial evolution is thrown out. It’s more of a stew. Dawkins also complained about the “schoolboy howler” view of evolution as species replacing each other; it’s also not that serial and extinction is a separate process.

Dawkins says that he is, of course, not disturbed by fears of scientists playing god (there being none). But he says we should fear — this is my phrase — scientists playing devil if they do destructive things. He warns that the accusation of them playing God is a case of crying wolf, deafening us to the works of devils vs. gods.

Venter says this “certainly changes the definition of an internet virus” since the code for a virus can be spread around the internet and built.

A fascinating next question is consciousness and its form. Is it data that also can be captured? A questioner asks where the soul resides. Dawkins says he does not believe there is a soul and says the brain activity we have defined as the soul dies when the body dies. But I’m courious whether, given a hard drive, the information that is brain activity and conscousiness can similarly be extracted and transferred and altered.

I’m fascinated with the idea that information becomes the building block of anything including life. Data are alive. Life is media.