‘Our Biotech Future’ – Freeman Dyson

Here’s an article written by Freeman Dyson for The New York Review Of Books, in which he embarks on a fascinating discussion on a range of topics including how biology is now bigger business than physics, and how he believes that over the next 50 years, biotechnology will revolutionise our lives in much the same way as computers have done over the previous 50 years. Here’s his take on the current state of play…

I see a close analogy between John von Neumann‘s blinkered vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.

He makes mention of how genetically modified tropical fish have been given a makeover which has enabled vendors to sell in a new range of colours, and even an establishment that specialises in the production of different snakes and lizards. He contends that although creating new breeds of animals, plants etc has largely been confined to specialist breeders, biotechnology will, in a similar way to the personal computer, become available to the domestic consumer, with the possibility that all sorts of weird and wonderful animals and plants will begin to appear in our very homes, their actual places of invention, conception and birth.

Although Dyson paints a bright picture of benign creativity, I’m not sure we can assume that all such home-spun creations, whether created accidentally or intentionally, will be user-friendly or even tolerant of humans; given the seeming preference here for many urban dog-owners to breed and maintain the most fearsome pugs they can lay hands on, (most of which have the appearance of pets in which anabolic steroids constitute a large part of their diets), one can only imagine what new types of drooling and snarling creatures we will be seeing straining at leads, (and owners) barely strong enough to hold them back. Dyson asks the following questions…

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.

From here he ventures into the ideas of Carl Woese, with specific mention of his paper “A New Biology For A New Century“, to which he refers thus…

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his “New Biology” article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

And now it seems we are about to leave that Darwinian era behind, which he predicts will lead to a new era in which culture becomes the primary driver of evolution, as we see…

Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Dyson, in my opinion, writes a good and compelling essay, the main gist of which relays his optimism for a ‘greener’ future, with the gradual abandonment of ‘gray technology’ in favour of its ‘green’ equivalent – but whether the corporate stranglehold over technology which now exists will ever be relinquished is in my opinion, extremely doubtful. Unless the entire economic and social structure that underpins the first and developing worlds, is so radically changed that it becomes obsolete, this biocultural revolution may have some difficulty in creating a niche stable enough for its long term survival – however, if there are enough visionary thinkers with sufficient support and backing to effect the changes Dyson believes could take place, maybe this Earth will over the course of a few generations put down the first roots of a re-designed and organised chaos of a biosphere, that not only affords benefits to humans, but one that also derives benefits from humans living within it – somewhat difficult to imagine at the moment, but maybe it could be achievable.

Of course, by the time all this comes to pass, humans may well be out across the solar system or further afield amongst the stars, designing and building new worlds which either will exist on suitable planets, moons or even on ‘Interstellar Arks‘, carrying humans of no fixed abode to on journeys of a hundred life-times or more – who knows what sort of animals and plants will surround them, many or all of which will never have been seen on Earth, and who in turn might be largely ignorant of which species had lived here, a planet which would only have been experienced and seen by their distant ancestral crews. (TJ)

Image from here.

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