In my career I’ve worked in an unusually large number of academic disciplines: physics, computer science, social science, psychology, engineering, and philosophy. But on a map of academic disciplines, where fields that cite each other often are put closer together, all my fields are clumped together on one side. The fields furthest away from my clump, on the opposite side, are biology, biochemistry, and medicine.
It seems to me that my fields tend to emphasize relatively general theory and abstraction, while the opposite fields tend to have far fewer useful abstractions, and instead have a lot more detail to master. People tend to get sorted into fields based on part on their ability and taste for abstractions, and the people I’ve met who do biochemistry and medicine tend to have amazing abilities to recall relevant details, but they also tend to be pretty bad at abstractions. For example they often struggle with simple cost-benefit analysis and statistical inference.
All of which is to say that biologists tend to be bad at abstraction. This tends to make them bad at thinking about the long-term future, where abstraction is crucial. For example, I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in the next few million years.
And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials. These two books have been reviewed in prestigious venues, by prestigious biology reviewers who don’t mention these to-me obvious criticisms. Suggesting that our biological elites are all pretty bad at abstraction.
This is a problem because it seems to me we need biologists good at abstraction to help us think about the future. Let me explain.
Computers will be a big deal in the future, even more so than today. Computers will be embedded in and control most all of our systems. So to think well about the future, we need to think think well about very large and advanced computer systems. And since computers allow our many systems to be better integrated, overall all our systems will be larger, more complex, more connected, and more smartly controlled. So to think about the future we need to think well about very large, smart, and complex integrated systems.
Economics will also remain very important in the future. These many systems will be mostly designed, built, and maintained by for-profit firms who sell access to them. These firms will compete to attract customers, investors, workers, managers, suppliers, and complementary products. They will be also taxed and regulated by complex governments. And the future economy will be much larger, making room for more and larger such firms, managing those larger more complex products. So to think well about the future we need to think well about a much larger more complex world of taxed and regulated firms competing to make and sell stuff.
We today have a huge legacy inheritance of designs and systems embedded in biology, systems that perform many essential functions, including supporting our bodies and minds. In the coming centuries, we will either transfer our minds to other more artificial substrates, or replace them entirely with new designs. At which point they won’t need biological bodies; artificial bodies will do fine. We will then either find ways to extract key biological machines and processes from existing biological systems, to use them flexibly as component processes where we wish, or we will replace those machines and processes with flexible artificial versions.
At that point, natural selection of the sort the Earth has seen for the last few billion years will basically come to an end. The universe that we reach by then will be still filled with a vast diversity of active and calculating objects competing to survive. But these objects will be designed not by inherited randomly mutating DNA, and will not be self-sufficient in terms of manufacturing and energy acquisition. They will instead be highly cooperative and interdependent objects, make by competing firms who draw design elements from a wide range of sources, most of them compensated for their contributions.
But even though biology as we know it will then be over, biological theory, properly generalized, should remain quite relevant. Because there will still be vast and rapid competition and selection, and so we will still need ways to think about how that will play out. Thus we need theorists to draw from our best understandings of systems, computers, economics, and biology, to create better ways to think about how all this combines to create a brave new world of unnatural selection.
And while I’ve seen at least glimmerings of such advances from people who think about computers, and from people who think about economics, I’ve yet to see much of anything from people who think about biology. So that seems to me our biggest missing hole here. And thus my plea in this post: please biological theorists, help us think about this. And please people who are thinking about which kind of theory to study, consider learning some biology theory, to help us fill this gap.
There's a lot of historical contingency in current biology. There's even some in physics - where it often goes by the term "spontaneous symmetry breaking". So: maybe our distant descendants will still be saying: righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.
Did I express confidence? If so, I apologize. I am not confident. But I am skeptical that the long-term results will look very different.