Cloning the mentat

By Razib Khan | March 17, 2012 10:28 pm

There’s news about the Woolly Mammoth cloning attempts again. This gets floated every few years, and nothing has come of it…yet. I assume with enough money and time invested it will come to fruition. And whoever invests their time and energy and gets a successful return will probably get really famous, really quickly. But I’ve recently been thinking of a more practical application of cloning: reproducing enormous numbers of individuals who are mostly replicates of John von Neumann.*

To get a sense of why, see this Steve Hsu post. You can read about how much of a genius von Neumann (he was a source for Dr. Strangelove), but his legend is even larger in the oral history of mathematical science. There are still individuals alive who knew von Neumann personally, and they continue to maintain the memory of his preternatural mind.

My argument for cloning von Neumann in large numbers has a practical rationale: the world needs genius to maintain complex human civilization. John von Neumann certainly qualifies as a genius. And we need more than one, as it is likely that there is a random element to the expression of his particular brilliance.

* von Neumann is buried in Princeton, so partially degraded DNA would have to be extracted from his grave. One can also utilize DNA from his daughter, who is still alive.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bioethics
  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    If we fill in the gaps with frog DNA, he can clone himself!

  • Niklas

    Fully agree, and as a suggestion maybe throw in some Richard Feynman’s as well?

    Another of the “big” ones that are sorely missed, when ever you look upon the world or a youtube clip of him explaning why wood burns or anything else between the big bang and starbucks.

    We do have some big shoes to fill :-/ and our need is indeed truly urgent i believe. But in wait for all the Neumanns and possible Feynmans we petty mortals have to shoulder up and continue to do the best we can…

  • ackbark

    Or combine them, the x of one, the y of the other. . .

  • Matt H.

    John von Neuman was a towering genius. But even if he were the brightest of the 1.6 billion on Earth at his birth, there are now 7 billion and there are good odds that there a quite a few geniuses of his calibre alive right now.

    Also, with human cloning were are moving into unknown territory. DNA degradation, epigenics, somatic mutation and dozens of other factors may cause issues in bringing forth his genius. Then there are the environmental factors needed to optimize the expression of his intelligence. Did he need a bully to channel him at the right time? A particularly inspiring teacher at a particular time? The right mix of childhood friends with the right interests?

    True, the shotgun approach of generating dozens of clones will probably result in a good percentage achieving something near the maximum potential for the genotype. But finding enough volunteers for surrogacy might be an issue. And any return on this massive resource investment will not occur for at least twenty years.

    A better use of resources might be in figuring out how to make people smarter who are alive today. Perhaps the chemical and structural qualities of a von Neuman brain can be duplicated by gene therapy? nanobots? brain-computer interface?

  • Sandgroper

    Why are there no ‘Like’ buttons at the bottom of John Hawks’ comments?

  • dave chamberlin

    the perfect teacher would be an older version of yourself

  • Sandgroper

    I am an older version of myself.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    there are now 7 billion and there are good odds that there a quite a few geniuses of his calibre alive right now.

    the main problem is how we do select them a priori? with von neumann we know that the potential is there genetically for sure.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyteen#Plot

  • Neil

    It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion.

  • Curious

    John von Neumann notoriously hammered himself into oblivion with alcohol in the evenings while maintaing a high level of cogent dialog in the process. Surely there are more effective short term drugs with no worse set of side effects than a severe hangover and without the massive death of neurons that large consumption of alcohol entails.

  • Matthew Rigdon

    If it were strictly genetics, his daughter should have taken his place. Unless Neumann’s wife was the problem genetically. Was his wife an idiot? Even if you cloned Neumann, would he still want to study math? Or would he become a concert pianist instead? Do you clone him and then lock him up so he can’t study anything but math? Would that make him more likely to reject a career in math?

    At any rate, mentats weren’t born with their amazing abilities. A prospective mentat was given a test to see if they met some minimial level of mathematical ability at a young age, then they were put through a very rigorous education program that turned them into human computers, combined with the use of drugs to heighten the mind’s power to do math.

    Despite being written nearly fifty years ago, Frank Herbert seemed to have a good grasp of how you develop human computers. It’s not strictly genetics, but a combination of natural ability and very focused learning. And drugs. We’re missing the drugs that improve memory and cognition.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    If it were strictly genetics, his daughter should have taken his place.

    do you have a retard’s understanding of quantitative genetics? if you keep saying stupid shit like that i’ll ban you.

    Or would he become a concert pianist instead? Do you clone him and then lock him up so he can’t study anything but math? Would that make him more likely to reject a career in math?

    that’s why i suggest cloning hundreds or thousands. in any case, don’t ask rhetorical questions which presume your interlocutors are idiots anymore (if you do, i’ll ban you).

  • dave chamberlin

    Over at West Hunter Cochran reviewed all the possible options of increasing intellegence on his thread “Get Smart” and I had to conclude the only one we are remotely close to is cloning previous geniuses. He predicted that the technology would be developed in the first world but that it’s actual application could be first done in one of the struggling poorer nations. Hmmm.

    Fade to a gated community circa 2050 in Timbuktwo. It seems like a normal suburb until you look closer. Damned if there isn’t a bunch of John von Neumann’s living in one house, each one five years different in age. They are a loud drunken bunch and they don’t get along with the Feynman’s next door who can’t keep the noise down either, what with their penchant for drumming sessions. Where’s Timbuktwo? Could be Madagascar, Cuba, New Guinea, there’s no telling, yet.

  • Niklas

    @dave chamberlin

    “They are a loud drunken bunch and they don’t get along with the Feynman’s next door who can’t keep the noise down either, what with their penchant for drumming sessions.”
    :D

    It always makes me smile when I think about the story of how Feynman’s career as a drummer began with moonlit midnight sessions at Los Alamos. (If my memory serves me correctly).

    “He predicted that the technology would be developed in the first world but that it’s actual application could be first done in one of the struggling poorer nations.”

    Intuitively that feels very probable, they might percive that they have more to gain then lose, and maybe also easier to brake through ideological and cultural barriers. Either way, I do think we will get there one day. Another question is also, which nations will indeed be poor 2050. One previous wealthy struggling nation, might be even more tempted (motivated) to take the first step.

  • ackbark

    “He predicted that the technology would be developed in the first world but that it’s actual application could be first done in one of the struggling poorer nations.”

    More likely China, it seems entirely in keeping with their attitude toward the mentally defective on the one hand and education generally.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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