Sunday, July 01, 2007

Freeman Dyson on biotech

Read this Freeman Dyson essay (NY Review of Books) on the future of biotechnology.

This is true, but it makes me a little sad, despite the hope it represents for our future:

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

The following is also true, and it makes me smile :-)

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.

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the world of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

What about the kits for humans?

The following might be a bit exaggerated:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. 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.

This I've heard before:

The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the twentieth century will continue to be important in the twenty-first century, but they will not be dominant. The big problems, the evolution of the universe as a whole, the origin of life, the nature of human consciousness, and the evolution of the earth's climate, cannot be understood by reducing them to elementary particles and molecules. New ways of thinking and new ways of organizing large databases will be needed.

The rest of the essay paints a utopian future of green technology. Dyson even thinks green technology will solve the problem of rural poverty, which he links to "grey" (industrial) technology that has concentrated wealth in the cities of the north. I hope Dyson is right, but he neglects the extent to which innovation is driven by small numbers of smart people, often working in networks. I doubt innovation will be as evenly distributed as he thinks.

1 comment:

Quantoken said...

Freeman Dyson was completely WRONG. The Darwinism survival of the fittest is quite alive and well in the socialized intelligent life form called homo sapien. This is mandated by basic physics: any system can be sustained only within its own limit. Should human race be allowed to breed without a limit, the world population could easily reach astronomical scale within a very short amount of time. It could never happen because there is a natural limit and when the limit is hit, certain portions of the population must be eliminated one way or another: desease, poverty, war, disaster, or simply infertility.

The green revolution in the 1970's merely increased the food supply and raised the limit a bit, and allow the world population go up a notch. It does not solver the problem of world hunger and poverty.

Hunger, poverty, deseases and all that ill will ALWAYS be with a portion of human society, forever. It can not be cured by any technology or political progress. The inherit reason is natural limit. Without the society ill astronomical expansion would occur, which is impossible.

There will continue to be wars and all that. There will be future events that wipe out the majority of population, like those occured many times in past human history. Hopefully some will survive and continue the human race.

Astronomical expansion simply can not occur, period. Some thing must prevent it from occuring.

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