View Full Version : Design a new lifeform!
11-03-2007, 03:18 PM
Evolution is a random process. Humans do not have as keen a sense of smell or hearing as dogs because we don't need it -- our eyesight compensates. Vertebrates, cephalopods and insects all have only two eyes because that's all you strictly need for a wide field of vision or depth perception. Evolution in a natural enviroment rules out certain possibilities. As Dr. Ostrow in Forbidden Planet said on examining the footprint left by the invisible Id Creature, "On any planet, Captain, this thing's a monster!" Meaning, it did not appear to reflect any plausible combination of evolutionary adaptations.
Can't conscious beings do better?
In Bruce Sterling's first novel, Involution Ocean (1977), the backstory involves a long-extinct race of beings who had the technology to design new bodies for themselves, and occasionally switched one form for another. The various forms described had nothing in common and a person encountering the race for the first time would assume he was seeing an assembly of sentients from different planets. (The only one I remember is a centaur form with a ring of eyes around its head.) Suppose you could do that. Invent something it would be cool to be -- and that could live on Earth's surface, with Earth's gravity and air pressure and air content and temperature range. What shape? How many limbs? What senses? Multiple eyes for a complete spherical field of vision? Would you be adapted to live in air or in water, or both? Would your brain be in a head out in front/top as in vertebrates, or would you locate it at the center of your body for better protection? What manipulative organs? A hand with an extra thumb on the other side might be very dexterous. Do you want four hands, or is that overdoing it? Want a prehensile tail? A prehensile nose? A prehensile . . . never mind.
But it has to be plausible: E.g., if you want to see radio waves, you need eyes as big as radio dishes; if you want to see x-rays . . . I don't know how flesh and bone could manage it at all. If you want to fly -- and remain sentient -- you need to account for the need to carry the three-pound weight of a human-sized brain in a body small enough for flight (cube-square law, you know -- a roc could never fly on this planet; the largest known flying birds are condors and they don't fly very well). If you want to be a telepath -- a thing unknown in nature -- you'd better provide a pretty convincing mechanism for telepathic communication, and specify whether and how it enables you to read the minds of all beings, or only those with the same equipment.
11-03-2007, 04:13 PM
I'll just wait for Spore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spore_%28video_game%29) to come out.
11-03-2007, 04:52 PM
I'll just wait for Spore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spore_%28video_game%29) to come out.
No, no, what I'm proposing short-circuits any evolutionary process, even a guided one. You design your new body from scratch, build it and move in. (Actually, you might have to design a gene-code for the desired characteristics and grow it in a vat, but I'm not concerned with those details, only the finished product.)
Stranger On A Train
11-03-2007, 05:50 PM
Are you asking if we can do this, or what we should do if we had this capability? We clearly cannot custom design lifeforms from scratch (though any reasonable estimate on how long it will be until we can do this is probably pessimistic) but we have an ever increasing capability to effect modification of extant lifeforms to enhance, merge or even create new capabilities.
Natural selection has the advantage of time; despite the sort-of randomness in the development of new characteristics (which is not quite as random as most people think, but we'll leave that topic alone for now), given thousands of iterations of nearly every possible permutation allows for a wealth of opportunities for the "best" solution to any given need to pop up. Given a constant external impulse and sufficient time, evolution results in an optimal strategy by shear stochastic breadth.
The downside of natural selection is that it is totally unguided, and impulses are neither constant nor independent of each other, resulting in compromises between one capability and another, or physical limitations of materials and processes which, if you were to design from a clean sheet you could engineer your way around, but given a baseline from which to modify require too much of a jump in form for natural selective processes. We could probably engineer a member of genus Sus to fly (or at least glide a little ways) by building a strong but lightweight airfoil into its skeletal structure, but given its current construction and the lack of necessity for airborne locomotion, it's unlikely to a point of certainty that the natural processes of evolution will result in flying pigs.
Given the skill to build up an organism from scratch, we could no doubt come up with much better solutions to certain problems than nature has given us, though I shudder to think what the Engineering Change Order log would weigh, how you'd deal with Discrepant Product and Rework, and how many volumes the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis would cover. And if you're going to do an aerospace-type requirements flowdown process from the Technical Requirements Document through the A-, B-, and C-Specs, into the concept of operations and functional flow, stakeholder buyoff, pedigree review, Critical Design Review, et cetera it'll be decades before you actually get around to building hardware, and then shortly thereafter the whole program will be canceled in favor of using legacy equipment for the task. I don't even want to think about the contracts process, and if anybody dares to bring up Six Sigma or TQM or any of that bullshit I'm going to stuff my Green Belt "diploma" down their throat and watch them choke.
So, probably not a good idea. Also, moving a consciousness from one body to another is pretty iffy, considering that we don't really have a good handle on what consciousness is and how it works. Disconnecting a brain and spine from one body and trying to hook it up to another is problematic at best; even if you keep it alive, will you be able to make it see, hear, taste, smell, feel, et cetera, or will it just be trapped in perpetual, psychosis-inducing isolation? I think I'll wait until a few model years have come out before I test drive that new car, if you catch my drift.
Bakkup Jenna Rater
11-03-2007, 06:30 PM
I'd like to have skin that instantly turns tan again after you peel off the sunburn.
I'd like a special "soft spot" on my breast bone, so if my heart stops I can just push there and get a defibrillator jolt.
Ears that are flat, so they can be washed and dried without Q-tips.
Don't bother me with toenails, the most vestigial external trait.
11-03-2007, 07:00 PM
Are you asking if we can do this, or what we should do if we had this capability?
The latter. It's purely a speculative exercise. For these purposes we can even black-box the question of whether transferring consciousness from one body to another requires a brain transplant, or some kind of download, or what. (Sterling left that unspecified in his novel.)
For my part, I'd like keener senses of smell and hearing (with buffers to make loud noises and powerful smells bearable), more and sharper eyes, and a centaurlike physiognomy with the ability to run as fast as a horse. Oh, and a couple of tentacles.
11-04-2007, 09:04 AM
Something like a carnivorous wooly Fithp (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Footfall), with a prehensile bladed tail, retractible claws and wicked teeth. I'd definitely want a greater range of vision, too - UV to IR. And a hyped-up regeneration system on par with lizards or starfish.
Some sort of built-in projectile weapon would be cool, too - maybe the tail could fire quill-spikes via compressed air...
11-04-2007, 09:26 AM
I'd like oobleck-like skin, so that when something hits me quickly, like a bullet or blade or cement sidewalk, my skin doesn't get holes poked in it and let all that blood out. But if surgery is needed, a slow scalpel will still cut through with a minimum of damage.
Really, something should be done about knees, dontcha think? I'm not sure what, but any kid playing with tinker toys knows that one stick attached to two sticks with rubber bands is not the most stable structure.
And another two arms, so that we can walk on all fours and be stable and have less back problems, but still have hands free to do stuff with. Of course, this means moving the foramen magnum back to the back of the skull instead of the bottom, so we can still look around without craning our necks.
And a prehensile tail, just 'cause.
And a prehensile never mind might be fun, too! :D
Ronald C. Semone
11-04-2007, 11:29 AM
Many, many years ago I read a story about a newspaper reporter who learned that the mad scientist who lived on the edge of town was building ( like Dr. Frankenstein) the perfect woman. Filled with curiosity and lust, the reporter visited the scientist's laboratory to see this divine creature. It turned out to be, from the scientist's point of view, a perfectly engineered woman: short, squat, cone shaped, with three legs arranged in a triangular pattern under her body, eyes in a ring around the middle of the body, etc. Perfection, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
11-04-2007, 11:45 AM
Trilateral symmetry is an interesting idea. In Damon Knight's classic SF tale "Rule Golden," the alien, Aza-Kra, has three legs, three arms (with four fingers and two thumbs on each hand) and six eyes. He has a top and bottom but no back. He can walk in any direction, see in any direction. Very stable, to be sure -- after all, a three-legged stool never wobbles even if its legs are of unequal length. "One hell of an efficient design," one of the scientists studying him comments.
But I have my doubts as to whether any tripedal arrangement of legs would be as efficient for lomotion as a bipedal or quadrupedal arrangement. When you walk, you're walking in only one direction at a time; it seems to make more sense to have legs that are designed for that.
11-04-2007, 11:48 AM
For my part, I'd like keener senses of smell and hearing (with buffers to make loud noises and powerful smells bearable) . . .
Come to think of it, any design should include sense-buffers. Why do we have lids for our eyes but nothing equivalent for our other senses? Certainly there is evolutionary survival value in having senses that can't be switched off or damped down, but we're talking quality-of-life here. A properly designed sentient should be impossible to torture.
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