Late Night Ponderings

Kelly is about to fly off to do research a week, so we were out having a nice dinner downtown. We had an interesting conversation in which we reached a cute conclusion. Here’s the logic:

1) Wherever you have self-replicating machines that mutate, you will have life.

2) Since life should arise in small bits, rather than fully formed, life will probably be made of lots of small self-replicating machines, which also experience mutation.

3) Some of those mutations will result in uncontrolled replication

THUS, if we were to meet aliens, the one disease they’d definitely have in common with us would be cancer.

Weird, right?

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20 Responses to Late Night Ponderings

  1. Janvanderspoel says:

    Or a lot of rabits.

  2. jörgen says:

    Mind = Blown

  3. bedsoon says:

    I have two responses to that which I’m not sure about.

    One is that I don’t think you can’t treat life like a machine because of the ethical / moral implications and the consequences in the environment today of treating life like a machine seem to be negative (GM crop contamination and failure / possibility of GM animals in the wild) but I think that may have to do more with engineering side of life. If the word machine was being used as more of an analogy (which it could be) that would make more sense to me.

    Also, I remember reading somewhere that proposed cancer is a more recent occurrence in society, but I can’t really remember what the conclusion to that was.

    Other than that, the argument makes a lot of sense to me :o.

    (Please tell me nicely if I’m wrong on anything I said :o)

    • mark says:

      Yes this response is 2 years and a few months old.
      bedsoon wrote “I don’t think you can’t treat life like a machine”
      What do you think psychiatrist’s do when then use electricity on peoples brains?
      Do you really think electricity (way out of normal brain voltage range) to force an artificial orgasm, a seizure helps the human brain function better?

      The imaginary machines would have to have feelings in order to be motivated. Feel hunger in order to “eat” and lust to reproduce for example.

  4. brian says:

    Interesting… I’ve been thinking of something sorta similar, if there would actually be a possibility of aliens getting our diseases (like in War of the Worlds) or vice versa

  5. plasmidmap says:

    Genius! That’s got to be worth at least Nature Letters ;-).

  6. adinfinitumspiro says:

    I don’t know, I can imagine a self-regulatory system (kind of like anti-bodies) to prevent uncontrolled cell replication, though that might have other negative side effects … But if cancer became rampant enough to seriously negatively effect reproduction such a system could come into play.

    • Darkkest says:

      If the anti-bodies are there to prevent uncontrolled cell replication, what prevents the anti-bodies from doing the same? What prevents them from attacking the body in some sort of auto-immune disease mutated in the same manner?

    • david says:

      Actually, telomere shortening IS a system to prevent uncontrolled replication. It also makes you die, but everything comes with a price ;)

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  8. Pixelation says:

    It’s funny, I spend most of my working day thinking about these issues. I’m a philosopher of biology.
    I think there is a more general claim to be made here. Specifically, it’s what Tom Ray said regarding artificial life. (I can get you the citation if you like.) In any evolving system with certain parameters, a parasitic strategy will always evolve among some percentage of the population, but never all of them and never none.
    Taking that for granted, one can view cancer as parasitism of an organism part upon the organism itself. Interestingly, though, that would require different levels upon which selection would act. Cancer would only occur if the lower level prospered.

    • HypatiasGhost says:

      My first response was to scoff, but then I realized that you’re absolutely correct, as long as you’re okay with levels of selection. Which I am, so cool.

  9. Rick says:

    I think this makes the assumption that alien life is also carbon-based or is made up of nucleic acids. Perhaps silicone based life forms would use some other chemical. It could be much slower to mutate and become much more resistant to environmental effects. Evolution could favor life-forms that are resistant to radiation and carcinogens and there may be other chemicals which create more accurate copies of itself.
    This could lead to aliens where cancer is practically non-existent.

    • Zadok Regex says:

      However, there would /still/ be a sort of cancer, however rare. But there could be aliens that work on some strange bio-chemical system very unlike our own who’s replication times are controlled by something entirely constant. That would result in aliens with no cancer.

  10. Kevin says:

    This also makes the assumption that by the time we meet aliens, neither we nor they will have found a way to escape biology. The actual portion of self-replicating automata/cells that can go parasitic is relatively small and if the replication process is slowed enough to allow each bit to be checked for proper operation, the likelihood of there being any cancerous activity drops to almost none.

    In other words, make a machine body that doesn’t require billions of cell divisions on a regular basis, you don’t have cancer.

  11. Eli says:

    Asimov wrote a great short story called “Hostess” in which it was revealed that, among aliens, continuous growth throughout life was the norm, so that instead of having malignant and uncontrolled growth (cancer) as a disease, their equivalent affliction is that they stop growing and die.

  12. Suzi says:

    Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy chronicles the interactions between humans and a gene-modifying alien species. The aliens travel the universe looking for species to blend with, and their primary fascination with humans is cancer, which they use to become shapeshifters.

    man that sounds lame written out like that but it’s actually a really gloriously written story about social systems and biology.

  13. Lord Kamina says:

    Not really weird and all and it’s strongly probable they would have their own version of Mad Cow’s Disease too…

  14. Frole says:

    Can we really take what we see on earth and extrapolate it to the entire universe? I don’t think that’s good procedure at all. I think Rick is correct in saying that we can’t assume what genetics and mutation in aliens will look like.

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