Living forever – the end of evolution part-3

Read an article yesterday on researchers who had been studying various mammals and trying to determine the number of DNA mutations they accumulate at about the time they die. The researchers found that after about 800 mutations for mole rats, they die, see Nature article Somatic mutation rates scale with lifespan across mammals and Telegraph article reporting on the research, Mystery of why humans die around 80 may finally be solved.

Similarly, at around 3500 mutations humans die, at around 3000 mutations dogs die and at around 1500 mutations mice die. But the real interesting thing is that the DNA mutation rates and mammal lifespan are highly (negatively) correlated. That is higher mutation rates lead to mammals with shorter life spans.

C. Linear regression of somatic substitution burden (corrected for analysable genome size) on individual age for dog, human, mouse and naked mole-rat samples. Samples from the same individual are shown in the same colour. Regression was performed using mean mutation burdens per individual. Shaded areas indicate 95% confidence intervals of the regression line. A shows microscopic images of sample mammalian cels and the DNA strands examined and B shows the distribution of different types of DNA mutations (substitutions or indels [insertion/deletions of DNA]).

The Telegraph article seems to imply that at 800 mutations all mammals die. But the Nature Article clearly indicates that death is at different mutation counts for each different type of mammal.

Such research show one way on how to live forever. We have talked about similar topics in the distant past see …-the end of evolution part 1 & part 2

But in any case it turns out that one of the leading factors that explains the average age of a mammal at death is its DNA mutation rate. Again, mammals with lower DNA mutation rates live longer on average and mammals with higher DNA mutation rates live shorter lives on average.

Moral of the story

if you want to live longer reduce your DNA mutation rates.

c, Zero-intercept LME regression of somatic mutation rate on inverse lifespan (1/lifespan), presented on the scale of untransformed lifespan (axis). For simplicity, the axis shows mean mutation rates per species, although rates per crypt were used in the regression. The darker shaded area indicates 95% CI of the regression line, and the lighter shaded area marks a twofold deviation from the line. Point estimate and 95% CI of the regression slope (k), FVE and range of end-of-lifespan burden are indicated.

All astronauts are subject to significant forms of cosmic radiation which can’t help but accelerate DNA mutations. So one would have to say that the risk of being an astronaut is that you will die younger.

Moon and Martian colonists will also have the same problem. People traveling, living and working there will have an increased risk of dying young. And of course anyone that works around radiation has the same risk.

Note, the mutation counts/mutation rates, that seem to govern life span are averages. Some individuals have lower mutation rates than their species and some (no doubt) have higher rates. These should have shorter and longer lives on average, respectively.

Given this variability in DNA mutation rates, I would propose that space agencies use as one selection criteria, the astronauts/colonists DNA mutation rate. So that humans which have lower than average DNA mutation rates have a higher priority of being selected to become astronauts/extra-earth colonists. One could using this research and assaying astronauts as they come back to earth for their DNA mutation counts, could theoretically determine the impact to their average life span.

In addition, most life extension research is focused on rejuvenating cellular or organism functionality, mainly through the use of young blood, other select nutrients, stem cells that target specific organs, etc. For example, see MIT Scientists Say They’ve Invented a Treatment That Reverses Hearing Loss which involves taking human cells, transform them into stem cells (at a certain maturity) and injecting them into the ear drum.

Living forever

In prior posts on this topic (see parts 1 &2 linked above) we suggested that with DNA computation and DNA storage (see or listen rather, to our GBoS podcast with CTO of Catalog) now becoming viable, one could potentially come up with a DNA program that could

  • Store an individuals DNA using some very reliable and long lived coding fashion (inside a cell or external to the cell) and
  • Craft a DNA program that could periodically be activated (cellular crontab) to access the stored DNA for the individual(in the cell would be easiest) and use this copy to replace/correct any DNA mutation throughout an individuals cells.

And we would need a very reliable and correct copy of that person’s DNA (using SHA256 hashing, CRCs, ECC, Parity and every other way to insure the DNA as captured is stored correctly forever). And the earlier we obtained the DNA copy for an individual human, the better.

Also, we would need a copy of the program (and probably the DNA) to be present in every cell in a human for this to work effectively. .

However, if we could capture a good copy of a person’s DNA early in their life we could, perhaps, sometime later, incorporate DNA code/program into the individual to use this copy and sweep through a person’s body (at that point in time) and correct any mutations that have accumulated to date. Ultimately, one could schedule this activity to occur like an annual checkup.

So yeah, life extension research can continue along the lines they are going and you can have a bunch of point solutions for cellular/organism malfunction OR it can focus on correctly copying and storing DNA forever and creating a DNA program that can correct DNA defects in every individual cell, using the stored DNA.

End of evolution

Yes mammals and that means any human could live forever this way. But it would signify the start of the end of evolution for the human species. That is whenever we captured their DNA copy, from that point on evolution (by mutating DNA) of that individual and any offspring of that individual could no longer take place. And if enough humans do this, throughout their lifespan, it means the end of evolution for humanity as a species

This assumes that evolution (which is natural variation driven by genetic mutation & survival of the fittest) requires DNA variation (essentially mutation) to drive the species forward.


So my guess, is either we can live forever and stagnate as a species OR live normal lifespans and evolve as a species into something better over time. I believe nature has made it’s choice.

The surprising thing is that we are at a point in humanities existence where we can conceive of doing away with this natural process – evolution, forever.

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Data analysis of history

Read an article the other day in The Guardian (History as a giant data set: how analyzing the past could save the future), which talks about this new discipline called cliodynamics (see wikipedia cliodynamics article). There was a Nature article (in 2012), Human Cycles: History as Science, which described cliodynamics in a bit more detail.

Cliodynamics uses mathematical systems theory on historical data to predict what will happen in the future for society. According to The Guardian and Nature articles, the originator of cliodynamics, Peter Turchin, predicted in 2010 that the world would change dramatically for the worse over the coming decade, with violence peaking in 2020.

What is cliodynamics

Cliodynamics depends on vast databases of historical data that has been amassed over the last decade or so. For instance, the Seshat Global History Databank (started in 2011, has 3 datasets: moralizing gods, axial age history [8th to 3rd cent. BCE], & social complexity), International Institute of Social History (est. 1935, in 2013 re-organized their collection to focus on data, has 33 dataverses ranging from data on apprenticeships, prices and wage history, strike history of various countries and time periods, etc. ), and Google NGRAM viewer (started in 2010, provides keyword statistics on Google BOOKs).

Cliodynamics uses the information from databases like the above to devise a mathematical model of the history of the world. From their mathematical model, cliodynamics researchers have discerned patterns or cycles in human endeavors that have persisted over centuries.

Cliodynamic cycles

Two of cycles of interest come to mind:

  • Secular cycle – this plays out over 2-3 centuries and starts out with a new egalitarian society that has low levels of inequality where the supply and demand for labor are roughly equal. Over time as population grows, the supply of labor outstrips demand and inequality increases. Elites then start to battle one another, war and political instability results in a new more equal society, re-starting the cycle .
  • Fathers and sons cycle – this plays out over 50 years and starts when the (fathers) generation responds violently to social injustice and the next (sons) generation resigns itself to injustice (or hopefully resolves it) until the next (fathers) generation sees injustice again and erupts violently re-starting the cycle over again. .

It’s this last cycle that Turchin predicted to peak again in 2020, the last one peaking in 1970 and the ones before that peaking in 1920 and 1870.

We’ve seen such theories before. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were plenty of historical theorist. Probably the most prominent was Marx but there were others as well.

The problem with cliodynamics, good data

Sparsity and accuracy of data has always been a problem with historical study. Much information is lost through natural or manmade disasters and much of what’s left is biased. Nonetheless, more and more data is being amassed of a historical nature every day, most of it quantitative and suitable to analysis.

Historical data, where available, can be assessed scientifically, and analyzed by using current tools such as data analytics, machine learning, & deep learning to ascertain trends and make predictions. And the more data available, the more accurate these analyses and predictions can become. Cliodynamics pre-dates much of these tools. but that’s no excuse for not to taking advantage of them.


As for 2020, AI, automation and globalization has led and will lead to more job disruption. Inequality is also on the rise, at least throughout much of the west. And then there’s Brexit, USA elections and general mid-east turmoil that seems to all be on the horizon.

Stay tuned, 2020 seems only months away.

Photo Credits:

From Key Historic Figures of WW1 article, Mansell/Ghetty Images, (c) ThoughtCo

Anti War March (1968 Chicago) By David Wilson , CC BY 2.0, Link

Eleven times Americans have marched on Washington, (1920, Washington DC) (c) Smithsonian Magazine

Improving floating point

Read a post this week in Reddit pointing to an article that was from The Next Platform (New approach could sink floating point computation). It was all about changing IEEE floating point format to something better called posits, which was designed by noted computer architect, John Gustafson, et al, (see their paper Beating floating point at its own game: Posit arithmetic, for more info).

But first please take our new poll:

The problems with standard floating point have been known since they were first defined, in 1985 by the IEEE. As you may recall, an IEEE 754 floating point number has three parts a sign, an exponent and a mantissa (fraction or significand part). Both the exponent and mantissa can be negative.

IEEE defined floating point numbers

The IEEE 754 standard defines the following formats (see Floating point Floating -point arithmetic, for more info)

  • Half precision floating point, (added in 2008), has 1 sign bit (for the significand or mantissa), 5 exponent bits (indicating 2**-62 to 2**+64) and 10 significand bits for a total of 16 bits.
  • Single precision floating point, has 1 sign bit, 8 exponent bits (indicating 2**-126 to 2**+128) and 23 significand bits for a total of32 bits.
  • Double precision floating point, has 1 sign bit, 11 exponent bits (2**-1022 to 2**+1024) and 52 significand bits.
  • Quadrouple precision floating point, has 1 sign bit, 15 exponent bits (2**-16,382 to 2**+16,384) and 112 significand bits.

I believe Half precision was introduced to help speed up AI deep learning training and inferencing.

Some problems with the IEEE standard include, it supports -0 and +0 which have different representations and -∞ and +∞ as well as can be used to represent a number of unique, Not-a-Numbers or NaNs which are illegal floating point numbers. So when performing IEEE standard floating point arithmetic, one needs to check to see if a result is a NaN which would make it an illegal result, and must be wary when comparing numbers such as -0, +0 and -∞ , +∞. because, sigh, they are not equal.

Posits to the rescue

It’s all a bit technical (read the paper to find out) but posits don’t support -0 and +0, just 0 and there’s no -∞ or +∞ in posits either, just ∞. Posits also allow for a variable number of exponent bits (which are encoded into Regime scale factor bits [whose value is determined by a useed factor] and Exponent scale factor bits) which means that the number of significand bits can also vary.

So, with a 32 bit, single precision Posit, the number range represented can be quite a bit larger than single precision floating point. Indeed, with the approach put forward by Gustafson, a single 32 bit posit has more numeric range than a single precision IEEE 754 float and about as 1/2 as much range as double precision IEEE floating point number but only uses 32 bits.

Presently, there’s no commercial hardware implementations of posits, but there’s a lot of interest. Mostly because, the same number of bits can represent a lot more numeric range than equivalently sized IEEE 754 floats. And for HPC environments, AI deep learning applications, scientific computing, etc. having more numeric range (or precision), in less space, means they can jam more data in the same storage, transfer more data over the same networking bandwidth and save more numbers in limited amounts of DRAM.

Although, commercial implementations do not exist, there’s been some FPGA simulations of posit floating point arithmetic. Those simulations have shown it to be more energy efficient than IEEE 754 floating point arithmetic for the same number of bits. So, you need to add better energy efficiency to the advantages of posit arithmetic.

Is it any wonder that HPC/big science (weather prediction, Square Kilometer Array, energy simulations, etc.) and many AI hardware accelerator chip designers are examining posits as a potential way to boost precision, reduce storage/memory footprint and reduce energy consumption.


Yet, standards have a way of persisting. Just look at how long the QWERTY keyboard has lasted. It was originally designed in the 1870’s to slow down typing and reduce jamming, when typewriters were mechanical devices. But ever since 1934, when the DVORAK keyboard was patented, there’s been much better layouts for keyboards. And there’s no arguing that the DVORAK keyboard is better for typing on non-mechanical typewriters. Yet today, I know of no computer vendor that ships DVORAK labeled keyboards. Once a standard becomes set, it’s very hard to dislodge.


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