INTRODUCTION: APE AND ESSENCE
By George Dyson
Sixty-one years ago Aldous Huxley published his lesser-known masterpiece, Ape and Essence, set in the Los Angeles of 2108. After a nuclear war (in the year 2008) devastates humanity's ability to reproduce high-fidelity copies of itself, a reversion to sub-human existence had been the result. A small group of scientists from New Zealand, spared from the catastrophe, arrives, a century later, to take notes. The story is presented, in keeping with the Hollywood location, in the form of a film script.
On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of the some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.
In this future — whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already— life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made.
The first day's lectures took place at Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket laboratories — where the latest Merlin and Kestrel engines (built with the loving care devoted to finely-tuned musical instruments) are unchanged, in principle, from those that Theodore von Karman was building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1948. The technology of biology, however, has completely changed.
Approaching Beverly Hills along Sunset Boulevard from Santa Monica, the first indications that you are nearing the destination are people encamped at the side of the road announcing "Star Maps" for sale. Beverly Hills is a surprisingly diverse community of interwoven lives, families, and livelihoods, and a Star Map offers only a rough approximation of where a few select people have their homes.
Synthetic Genomics is still at the Star Map stage. But it is becoming Google Earth much faster than most people think.
GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.