Tag Archives: genetics

We are informational beings in the eternal now

What are we? What sets us apart from the universe?

We believe that we exist in limited time and space. We believe that we are defined by hereditary and environmental influences, leaving room for only a nebulous core of individuality. There is some truth in this perspective. But there is more.

What is time? The present is the sum of everything that is past, and the future evolves from the present. We only see the past as fixed and future as malleable because our minds process information in one direction. But every existent can only act in accordance with its nature and causality. The future is as firmly defined as the past. Every grain of existence implies by its identity the sum of all it has been and everything it will ever be. Time is not a dimension that we move through. Time is the iteration of the possible states of the configuration space of the Universe. It is a single system slowly revolving through all the configurations both possible and necessary to it. All that exists is the eternal present. Time is one’s perspective of the Long Now.

What makes us – us? We are machines, built out of matter and energy, but more importantly, we are information processing structures, the total of which defines our unique configuration.  The molecules and cells composing our bodies are regularly replaced by our growth and repair mechanisms.  Only the information patterns encoded in genes and consciousness persists.  Many mistakenly place emphasis on either the genes or environment as determining structures. But there is no fundamental difference. Genes are triggered, expressed, or suppressed in response to environmental stimuli. Whether we are healthy or sickly because of good genes or good diet makes no difference to the end result. What matters is not our genotype, but our total phenotype — the sum of genetic and environmental influences. The particular combination is only important to biologists.

As human beings, we contain two complex information-processing systems: the genetic and the mental. Of the two, our mental structure is the far more important. We are each unique configurations of information-processing systems that spend our lives gathering up memes and observations and spitting out conclusions and actions. Our mental structures work in method much like our genetic systems, absorbing, modifying and sharing memetic structures through Darwinian processes. On a rare occasion, we cut, paste, and synthesize ideas to form a new unique yet stable and contagious meme-structure and add it to the shared pool of ideas, sending ripples through our shared meme-space and the physical environment through which we enact our ideas.

Mentally and physiologically, we are unique to a very basic level — it is just as unlikely for two people to have identical chromosomes as to have an identical understanding of an idea. Yet on both the fine details and the broad pattern of large structures, we share almost all of our mental and genetic identity with our species and genetically, with all life. There is no need to seek our identity in a mystical hidden soul. We are the unique yet utterly common sum of everything we inherit from the Universe. Our bodies are made from atoms created in the heart of dying stars and designed by a three billion year old genetic inheritance — each a unique information-processing system.

As individual biological systems, our slice of the Long Now is small. But as information systems, we inherit all that is and contribute to all that will be. As the latest expression of the evolving complexity-generating process of nature, we are seeds of the growing intelligence of the universe.

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No such thing as a free lunch

When arguing against the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act last year, I wrote

If discrimination based on comprehensive genetic screening is legal, we can expect health providers to tailor plans according to our individual risk factors. That might be to the disadvantage of a minority of high-risk individuals, but greater information about risk factors will lower uncertainty, and thus lower rates overall. Furthermore, insurers will offer incentives to people who take proactive steps to discover health risks and take steps to alleviate them. Expensive procedures such as frequent biopsies or preemptive removal of organs might be fully covered for individuals whose genetic profiles uncover a high cancer risk.

Unfortunately, Congress did not heed my arguments, and banned genetic discrimination anyway.  It is now illegal for health insurers to take genetic factors into consideration when setting premiums.  What effect do you think the law had on the incentive of insurance companies to pay for their customer’s genetic screening?

If the goal of the law was to encourage genetic screening, it clearly had the opposite effect.  In response, celebrities are now “fighting for women to have access to MRIs and genetic testing.”  Having forced insurance companies to ignore the results of genetic testing, people now want to force them to pay for it.

Do you think that people who find out that they have a higher probability of having an illness with genetic factors would be more likely to purchase more health insurance than individuals with a low probability of genetic illness?  As I wrote last year,

It does not take an economist to predict that rates would immediately rise, as healthy people, refusing to pay for their neighbor’s health risks, stopped using insurance altogether. As the young and healthy jump ship, insurance companies would have to increase rates, accelerating the trend. Without further government interference, the health insurance business would disappear completely, shortly after millionaires on their deathbeds became the only people able to afford policies.

Are you still wondering why healthcare is so expensive in the U.S.?

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