If you possessed technologies so advanced that you could seed life throughout the cosmos, wouldn’t you leave some marker that would identify your work? We can’t know what a hypothetical extraterrestrial intelligence might do, but we do know enough about human nature to acknowledge the desire for recognition. It shows up every time a new squabble breaks out over who really discovered an exoplanet — humans crave the praise of their fellows. Yes, if humans had life-seeding technologies, you can bet we would leave signs of our craftsmanship.
Consider what the Keio University team working under Masaru Tomito has done in Japan. As explained in a New York Times essay by Dennis Overbye, they’ve inserted copies of the immortal equation E=mc2, along with the date of its derivation (1905) into the genome of a bacterium. Thus we see DNA as a kind of archival medium. Overbye is reminded of Jaron Lanier and David Sulzer’s idea of encoding a year’s worth of the New York Times magazine into the ‘junk’ DNA of a cockroach, the one creature likely to survive even the worst potential disaster including nuclear holocaust. Says Overbye:
If cockroaches can be archives, why not us? The human genome, for example, consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are.
The remaining 97 percent, so-called junk DNA, looks like gibberish. It’s the dark matter of inner space. We don’t know what it is saying to or about us, but within that sea of megabytes there is plenty of room for the imagination to roam, for trademark labels and much more. The King James Bible, to pick one obvious example, only amounts to about five megabytes.
Leading to the speculation that our own genome may contain some kind of information, assuming that the early Earth was scattered with DNA delivered by an alien species for the purpose of propagating life. But DNA’s mutability reduces the chance that a single ‘message’ might survive. This is why the Japanese researchers added redundant copies of E=mc2 into the bacterial genome, allowing Einstein’s equation to have a chance. Presumably ancient bio-engineers would have done the same.
And I like the way Overbye puts the matter:
The challenge for an erstwhile interstellar Johnny Appleseed is to make the message part of the basic nature of its host.
If that ever turns out to be us, if we find that we are the medium, to paraphrase the late Marshall McLuhan, then, in some sense, we are also the message. Never mind who or what are the intended readers.
Ponder, too, what the implications would be if we really did turn out to be derived from primordial DNA developed just for the purpose by a species we might one day encounter (or, more likely, its descendants). Would we expect to find something like the DNA we’re familiar with on Earth no matter where we went in the cosmos? Allowing the possibility of intelligent species arising billions of years ago, would we expect any trace of the ancient planet-seeding race to remain?
And if there were a message tucked into the vast recesses of our DNA, a message that had somehow survived, what would it be? The key to a further breakthrough in intelligence or technology? Perhaps. But I’m reminded of the glorious stained glass that adorns the cathedrals of Europe. As they went about their work, the artisans who produced these many-hued wonders often inserted real faces into their scenes. King David in the image might bear the likeness of the local baker. Mary Magdalene would suggest the mayor’s wife. Often the artist inserted his own visage somewhere in the picture, a way or surviving, if only in a shaft of patterned sunlight, the world all artists knew to be transient.
Who knows, maybe there’s a face in the stained glass of our DNA. Be sure to read the Overbye essay. He’s a terrific writer — he could hold my attention if we were writing about wallpaper paste. His Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (Harper Collins, 1991) is one of the great tours de force of modern science writing, at once approachable, elegant and impeccably researched. Needless to say, I have the Times‘ science feed set up in my RSS reader so as not to miss any of Overbye’s work.