Biology is merely “the art of the satisfactory”, says Sydney Brenner, Nobel-prize winning biologist and geneticist. Evolution is not particularly purposeful, he says, with animals finding niches and adapting by chance, rather than design.
But 21st century science could mean that humans could soon manipulate evolution, making it purposeful and directed.
Such concepts demand examination. So Brenner conceived the idea of an Evolution Club to explore evolution in all its forms and complexity. In 2016, a meeting took place in Singapore at 10 minutes past 10 o’clock on 10 December. The scholars involved discussed the idea of presenting 10 seminars, over 10 months, covering 1010 years of evolution following a logarithmic time scale.
A global powerhouse of thinkers quickly came on board, inspired by Brenner’s decades-spanning work with organisms as diverse as bacteria-infecting viruses, tiny soil-dwelling worms and poisonous pufferfish.
Brenner’s varied scientific pursuits are unified by the genetic code, the common thread that connects all life on Earth. And although Brenner chooses research systems that are relatively simple, his goal has always been to illuminate how the world works through unraveling the deep complexities of evolution.
In the early 1960s Brenner was instrumental in determining that it was three-letter combinations of the DNA code that specified which building blocks would go into assembling proteins. He then mapped out the full developmental process and genetics of a multicellular animal, the little worm Caenorhabditis elegans, throughout the 1970s and 80s, and cemented its starring role as a model organism. He made invaluable contributions to genomics in the 1990s, developing DNA sequencing technologies, and decoding the full genome of fugu, the Japanese pufferfish.
He also thought big about innovative approaches to science, championing the development of new research hubs in Asia and, most recently, the lecture series in Singapore, which delved into critical evolutionary milestones, exploring how humanity arrived.
The 10-on-10 project ultimately expanded to include 24 speakers, many traveling to Singapore from across the world, all of whom have now captured their talks in print form in Sydney Brenner’s 10-on-10: The Chronicles of Evolution, a book co-edited by Benjamin Seet, executive director of the A*STAR Biomedical Research Council, and Shuzhen Sim, senior editor of Asian Scientist magazine.
The book spans fields and aeons. In chapter 2, for example, MIT researcher, Hyman Hartman, explains why we may all have started out as clay. While in chapter 19, theoretical physicist and economist, Stefan Thurner, talks about how gradual evolution “from time to time breaks out disruptively, resulting in booms, busts, bubbles, mass extinctions and subsequent diversification.” By looking mathematically at this punctuated equilibrium, he has been able to accurately model everything from the chemical reactions in E. coli, to gross domestic product.
In the book, Brenner also flags the uniqueness of this moment in history as humankind finally becomes competent at adopting some of the strategies of creatures with “fast” evolutionary clocks, such as the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique adapted from bacteria.
Sydney Brenner's 10-on-10 lecture
Dr Sydney Brenner is head of the Molecular Engineering Laboratory (MEL) and a senior fellow at A*STAR.
Q&A with the editor
Here, Benjamin Seet, co-editor of the 10-on-10 book, explains more about the impetus for their ambitious project.
When was it realized that this lecture series should be presented in written form?
Right from the start we realized that these ideas had to be made accessible to a wider audience. This book offers something unique in that it brings together views from leading experts who have devoted their careers to studying particular facets of evolution. The resulting compilation of short chronicles, and the insights it provides into how the world is changing and why, is a testament to Sydney’s expansive vision and scientific legacy.
What many people may not realize is that Sydney Brenner’s work follows its own sort of evolutionary pathway. He started inquiring about where humans came from as a student in South Africa, where he took part in paleontological digs across the country. He went on to study molecular biochemistry, unicellular bacteria, the invertebrate worm C. elegans, the evolutionary biology of various fish species, before going back to the study of humans. This eclectic work was strung together by his intimate understanding of the genetic code and how this served to record and transmit information within and between species.
The book goes well beyond genetics, though. Why take such an expansive view of evolution?
Genetics, on its own, cannot explain the existence of human civilization as we know it. And no domain of science can be so presumptuous to claim to have all the answers. So when we look at evolution with different lenses — cosmology, chemistry, biology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and more — we put together different pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle, and take a step back to try to understand it all.
In the introduction to the book Brenner writes that “the most interesting stage of evolution is when we give up doing it by biology”. What does he mean?
It has taken 3.8 billion years to get from the first biological life forms to the emergence of Homo sapiens. In contrast, in the 15 years since the human genome was first sequenced in 2003, we have learnt to read, edit and manipulate DNA with increasing ease and precision. With modern tools and computers, it is a matter of time before humans take over to “improve” biology by making it purposeful, and, in the process, change the very course of evolution.
Why explore evolution over logarithmic timescales?
It took 10 billion years to go from the Big Bang to the creation of Earth, and another 1 billion years for the first biological life forms to appear. On the other hand, many of the events that have led to the age of the Anthropocene have been compressed within the recent millennium. So it made sense to use a log-scale lens, which advances in orders of magnitude. It meant we could look at ideas reaching back to the Big Bang, but include more discussion on relatively recent events.
How does going all the way back in time help illuminate how we as humans got where we are today, and give clues to where we’re going?
We need to know our place in time. Yet, the oldest known writing is only 5,500 years old. DNA records have allowed us to look much further back, while the mathematical tools used by cosmologists have helped reconstruct how the universe might have looked like right at the beginning. With this perspective, we can then attempt to guess what the future might bring. As one of the authors, social scientist, Helga Nowotny, has said, we are the only species that has the privilege to view evolution from the inside, which compels us to speculate about where it might take us.
Does the viewpoint Nowotny outline in the final chapter of the book leave you optimistic about the future of our species?
Helga’s chapter on our impulses as a society points towards an open and undetermined future, where humankind possesses the tools to alter the course of evolution, without being fully in control of what we are doing. It is almost certain that we will make mistakes, and that we will end up taking a step back for every few steps forward. But looking back at history, I remain optimistic that we will learn and that the pendulum will eventually find equilibrium, at least for a while.
Helga Nowotny: The Humble View from Inside Evolution
Buy, order or download the book
You can order or download Sydney Brenner's 10-on-10: The Chronicles of Evolution here or go to the Kinokuniya book stores in Singapore.
Watch the 10-on-10 lectures here.
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