Book Book

The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 22 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:699
  1. Andrew Robinson, general practitioner
  1. Newton Abbot, Devon

    Pierre Baldi

    MIT Press, £16.95, pp 245

    ISBN 0 262 02502 7

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    The dust jacket of this book shows a pair of adult identical twins curled up together in a ball, representing the single ovum from which they both developed. According to Pierre Baldi, professor of information and computer science and of biological chemistry at the University of California (Irvine), this image delivers a minor shock to our traditional conception of the individual self. But, Baldi argues, if the natural phenomenon of two individuals sharing the same genome challenges our notion of selfhood, then the possibilities opened up by genetic manipulation, human cloning, and computer technology will leave it shattered.

    The information corresponding to an individual human's genome can already be easily stored on a computer hard drive, and within the next 25 years Baldi expects the capacity of an ordinary personal computer to be sufficient to store the information content of a lifetime's human experience. If we are the product of two components, our genome and our personal history, and if these components are both reducible to “bits” of information, then the capacity to store and manipulate all the information corresponding to these components would amount to an ability to experiment with unlimited variations of our actual self. Combine this with technology that would allow us to clone individuals using genomes compiled on a computer, and we can see why Baldi envisages that the small amount of “information space” that has so far been haphazardly explored by natural evolution could be eclipsed by a systematic artificial exploration of life's possibilities.

    Baldi assures us that he is not advocating that we actually put his “fiction science” thought experiments into practice, in which case they read as an accessible introduction to the current state of biotechnology rather than anything more sinister. The weakness of Baldi's approach, however, is his reluctance to engage with philosophical issues in any depth, not least of which is the question of what we actually mean by “information.”

    The idea of information as measurable in “bits” is derived from a statistical definition of the concept that was developed in the 1940s in response to the engineering problem of transmitting signals down “noisy” telephone lines. But this definition of information is concerned with the properties of the signal, and does not tell us anything about how the signal acquires a meaning. How molecules capable of carrying a genetic “code” evolved from inorganic chemical systems, or how the activity of neural systems comes to “represent” something about the world, are pressing problems at the interface of theoretical biology and philosophy. The answers to these questions will be central to understanding, for example, the origin of life and the nature of consciousness. Baldi thinks that all the important conceptual problems in biology have been solved: the remaining work will be just a matter of “brute force,” to be accomplished by computers and DNA sequencing machines. Nature, I suspect, will continue to prove more subtle and more surprising than he supposes.

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