When the great physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson puts pen to paper, as happens too rarely nowadays, the result is worth a look. Dyson is certainly not always right—indeed it’s probably fair to say he’s rarely right—but he sees things others don’t, and offers engaging explanations.
Dyson’s latest contribution, “Our Biotech Future,” in the current New York Review of Books, is no exception. It sees far and deep, but also misses the obvious. Taking up a number of the themes of his fascinating 1999 book The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, Dyson agrees with the common cliché that the 21st century will be the age of biotechnology, but he argues that most people who make that claim have failed to see what it will mean.
The development of biotechnology, Dyson argues, will resemble the revolution in information technology of the last 50 years: it might begin as the province of industrial giants, but very quickly it will be “domesticated” in the hands of countless individual enthusiasts, who will apply the new power to manipulate plant and animal life to create unimagined new artistic, commercial, and recreational possibilities. Freeman writes:
Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
Dyson then launches into a fascinating re-conception of the history of biology, arguing (with help from the work of biologist Carl Woese) that there was a pre-evolutionary age, when species boundaries were porous and vague, and that with the aid of biotechnology, we may be taking the natural world back to such a state, crossing and intermixing species to a point at which we human beings may be the only distinct species left. Such profound manipulation of the biological world, Dyson argues, could empower us to overcome serious problems—creating plants capable of converting sunlight into chemical energy at unimagined efficiencies, for instance, or turning fertile fields into the next great industrial space, relieving rural poverty in the process.
For techno-utopianism, Dyson’s essay is actually quite serious and thoughtful. But he somehow misses the glaring distinction that makes biotechnology unique. Dyson’s vision of our biotech future seems to be one in which all species except homo sapiens will be denatured into a nourishing bio-soup. This vision rests on a peculiar assumption: that no one will try to bring our own species into the mix. But that prospect is precisely the most novel and important one raised by the ever-expanding horizons of biotechnology—and any futurist ignores it at his peril.
From its beginnings, the enormous, beneficent power of modern science has been directed to manipulating the world to better suit the needs of humanity. The revolutionary prospect raised by biotechnology is the reversal of that conception of science: rather than shape the world to suit man’s needs, why not shape man himself to suit man’s wishes? The question is: what limiting principles, if any, should guide that effort?
Dyson accidentally approaches the great dilemma of biotechnology, but does not address it directly, when he writes that, unlike biological evolution, “cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance.”
He takes this to mean that cultural evolution is more efficient. But cultural evolution is far more precarious than biological evolution. Cultural advances are preserved and transmitted not by genes but by education: they require the self-conscious passing down of knowledge and ideas. The fear of undermining that task of transmission through the biotechnological alteration of humanity is what motivates the worries of the “bioconservatives,” and what threatens to rob the biotech revolution of any limiting principle at all. (I sought, with mixed success, to lay out this theme at some length in this 2004 essay.)
The positive potential of biotech is clear and enormous—as Dyson points out in his characteristically brilliant way. But its unique risks are also enormous. We need to understand both to be able to foster biotechnology without harming ourselves or our culture. Dyson falls far short in clarifying those risks.