Engines of Creation: Route Back

The uppermost layers of rock contain bones of recent animals, deeper layers contain bones of animals now extinct. Still earlier layers show no trace of any modern species. Below mammal bones lie dinosaur bones; in older layers lie amphibian bones, then shells and fish bones, and then no bones or shells at all.

The oldest fossil-bearing rocks bear the microscopic traces of single cells.
Radioactive dating shows these oldest traces to be several billion years old. Cells more complex than bacteria date to little more than one billion years ago. The history of worms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals spans hundreds of millions of years.

Human-like bones date back several million years. The remains of civilizations date back several thousand.

In three billion years, life evolved from single cells able to soak up chemicals to collections of cells embodying minds able to soak up ideas. Within the last century, technology has evolved from the steam locomotive and electric light to the spaceship and the electronic computer- and computers are already being taught to read and write. With mind and technology, the rate of evolution has jumped a millionfold or more.

The book of stone records the forms of long-dead organisms, yet living cells also carry records, genetic texts only now being read. As with the ideas of geology, the essential ideas of evolution were known before Darwin*(41) had set pen to paper.

In lamp-lit temples and monasteries, generations of scribes copied and recopied manuscripts. Sometimes they miscopied words and sentences- whether by accident, by perversity, or by order of the local ruler- and as the manuscripts replicated, aided by these human copying machines, errors accumulated. The worst errors might be caught and removed, and famous passages might survive unchanged, but differences grew.

Ancient books seldom exist in their original versions. The oldest copies are often centuries younger than the lost originals.  Nonetheless, from differing copies with differing errors, scholars can reconstruct versions closer to the original.

They compare texts. They can trace lines of descent from common ancestors because unique patterns of errors betray copying from a common source. (Schoolteachers know this: identical right answers aren’t a tipoff- unless on an essay test- but woe to students sitting side by side who turn in tests with identical mistakes!) Where all surviving copies agree, scholars can assume that the original copy (or at least the last shared ancestor of the survivors) held the same words. Where survivors differ, scholars study copies that descended separately from a distant ancestor, because areas of agreement then indicate a common origin in the ancestral version. 

Genes resemble manuscripts written in a four-letter alphabet. Much as a message can take many forms in ordinary language (restating an idea using entirely different words is no great strain), so different genetic wording can direct the construction of identical protein molecules. Moreover, protein molecules with different design details can serve identical functions. A collection of genes in a cell is like a whole book, and genes- like old manuscripts- have been copied and recopied by inaccurate scribes.

Like scholars studying ancient texts, biologists generally work with
modern copies of their material (with, alas, no biological Dead Sea
Scrolls from the early days of life). They compare organisms with
similar appearances (lions and tigers, horses and zebras, rats and mice) and find that they give similar answers to the essay questions in their genes and proteins. The more two organisms differ (lions and lizards, humans and sunflowers), the more these answers differ, even among molecular machines serving identical functions.

More telling still, similar animals make the same mistakes- all primates, for example, lack enzymes for making vitamin C, an omission shared by only two other known mammals, the guinea pig and the fruit bat.  This suggests that we primates have copied our genetic answers from a shared source, long ago.

The same principle that shows the lines of descent of ancient texts (and that helps correct their copying errors) thus also reveals the lines of descent of modern life. Indeed, it indicates that all known life shares a common ancestor.
Engines of Creation – K.Eric Drexler Page 24