“Directed Evolution” and the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

“Directed Evolution” and the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry October 6, 2018


Caltech from the air
The California Institute of Technology, or Caltech — shown here in an aerial photo — was just on the edge of what I, as a young boy, perceived and thought of as my “neighborhood,” just barely reachable by bicycle and often passed by car with my Mother.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


A few days ago, Frances Arnold (of the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech), Gregory Winter (of the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom), and George Smith (of the University of Missouri at Columbia) were announced as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2018.  For what it’s worth, Dr. Arnold is only the fifth woman to receive a Chemistry Nobel since the prize was established in 1901.


Here are a trio of pieces about their award that might help to explain why they won it and what they did to merit the honor:


“Speeding up evolution to create useful proteins wins the chemistry Nobel: A trio of researchers pioneered techniques that led to useful drugs and biofuels”


“3 scientists sped up evolution in a lab. Their work just won a Nobel Prize.   The 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry goes to the pioneers of “directed evolution.””


“Live blog: directed evolution takes chemistry Nobel prize”


I find the idea of “directed evolution” (one of the phrases that are very commonly used to describe the work that won the 2018 Chemistry Nobel) intriguing — not least because it demonstrates how an intelligent agent not only could but, right now, on Earth, can purposefully intervene in evolution, directing it toward a desired end and using completely natural means to do so.


Of course, ordinary humans have been intervening in evolution for a very long time in much cruder ways (e.g., by means of selective breeding) in order to create fatter cows, faster horses, hardier wheat, and prize-winning roses.  But this new type of “unnatural selection” is far more subtle than that.


If early twenty-first century humans can do this sort of thing, what might a deity be able to do?




I can’t help but think, in this context, of “Clarke’s three laws,” which originated with the great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008).  Here’s a common version of them, of which the third is the most directly relevant to my comments here:


  1.  When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2.  The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3.  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


My recent debate opponent, Dr. Michael Shermer, has come up with a variant of the third “law” that’s perhaps even more apropos:


Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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