Prey - By Michael Crichton

Within fifty to a hundred years, a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they will originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will "evolve" into something other than their original form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word. These organisms will evolve in a fundamentally different manner. ... The pace ... will be extremely rapid. ... The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms. ...

Doyne Farmer and Alletta Belin, 1992

There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future.

K. Eric Drexler, 1992


Artificial Evolution in the Twenty-first Century

The notion that the world around us is continuously evolving is a platitude; we rarely grasp its full implications. We do not ordinarily think, for example, of an epidemic disease changing its character as the epidemic spreads. Nor do we think of evolution in plants and animals as occurring in a matter of days or weeks, though it does. And we do not ordinarily imagine the green world around us as a scene of constant, sophisticated chemical warfare, with plants producing pesticides in response to attack, and insects developing resistance. But that is what happens, too.

If we were to grasp the true nature of nature-if we could comprehend the real meaning of evolution-then we would envision a world in which every living plant, insect, and animal species is changing at every instant, in response to every other living plant, insect, and animal. Whole populations of organisms are rising and falling, shifting and changing. This restless and perpetual change, as inexorable and unstoppable as the waves and tides, implies a world in which all human actions necessarily have uncertain effects. The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do.[1]That is why even our most enlightened past efforts have had undesirable outcomes-either because we did not understand enough, or because the ever-changing world responded to our actions in unexpected ways. From this standpoint, the history of environmental protection is as discouraging as the history of environmental pollution. Anyone who is willing to argue, for example, that the industrial policy of clear-cutting forests is more damaging than the ecological policy of fire suppression ignores the fact that both policies have been carried out with utter conviction, and both have altered the virgin forest irrevocably. Both provide ample evidence of the obstinate egotism that is a hallmark of human interaction with the environment. The fact that the biosphere responds unpredictably to our actions is not an argument for inaction. It is, however, a powerful argument for caution, and for adopting a tentative attitude toward all we believe, and all we do. Unfortunately, our species has demonstrated a striking lack of caution in the past. It is hard to imagine that we will behave differently in the future. We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as the result of bad thinking by less able minds-and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.

We are one of only three species on our planet that can claim to be self-aware,[2]yet self-delusion may be a more significant characteristic of our kind. Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power. One area where this will occur is in the meeting point of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer technology. What all three have in common is the ability to release self-replicating entities into the environment.

We have lived for some years with the first of these self-replicating entities, computer viruses. And we are beginning to have some practical experience with the problems of biotechnology. The recent report that modified maize genes now appear in native maize in Mexico-despite laws against it, and efforts to prevent it-is just the start of what we may expect to be a long and difficult journey to control our technology. At the same time, long-standing beliefs about the fundamental safety of biotechnology-views promoted by the great majority of biologists since the 1970s-now appear less secure. The unintended creation of a devastatingly lethal virus by Australian