Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Freeman Dyson on Our Biotech Future

Physicist and big thinker Freeman Dyson has an article in the July 19th New York Review of Books about "Our Biotech Future." Dyson envisions a glorious future in which genetic engineering is cheap and easy enough for the home hobbyist.
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.

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.
OK, ignoring the fact that he seems to be equating "housewives" with "children" (won't men and women who work outside the home be part of the revolution?), it is an interesting idea that hobbyists will be the future creators of biodiversity and will help usher in a new age of "green technology."

I guess I'm more of a pessimist than Dyson. While there is great promise in future genetic engineering, I think there is also danger. There will always be a risk when new plants and animals (and microbes) are introduced into Earth's ecosystem.
Once a new generation of children has grown up, as familiar with biotech games as our grandchildren are now with computer games, biotechnology will no longer seem weird and alien. In the era of Open Source biology, the magic of genes will be available to anyone with the skill and imagination to use it.
Now think of curious but still-a-bit-clueless teens playing with their excellent genetic engineering skillz. (It may be the sound of illegal fireworks exploding in my bone-dry neighborhood that's adding to my pessimism.) As goatchurch at Mundane-SF put it:
It does seem believable that millions of high school kids are likely to contain more stupidity and greater capability to get up to some serious mischief than any band of terrorists. It's like Vonnegut's Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle. Someone young without any sense of mortality will make something awful. And the reason they had the capability was that we were trying to educate them.
Now I don't believe that restricting the information is the solution - and it wouldn't work anyway. But I do think we should be considering the potential hazards before we start giving kids the EZ-Bake Genetic Engineering Lab.

Dyson has also proposed that biotechnology will help man in space. His engineered "Dyson trees" would grow on comets, living on solar energy and cometary material. In turn the massive trees would produce oxygen and provide living space as a self-contained environment for humans. That idea has been used in a number of science fiction novels including Rachel Pollack's Tree House in the anthology Habitats (1984), Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers (1987), Dan Simmon's Endymion (1996), and Stephen Baxter's Manifold: Space (Manifold) (2001).

Tags:, , (via Eye on DNA)


  1. FYI: The biologists strike back
    Nature, published online: 4 July 2007.

    Time machines, spaceships, atomic blasters — the icons of science fiction tend to come from the physical sciences. But science fiction has a biological side too, finding drama and pathos in everything from alien evolution to the paradoxes of consciousness. Nature brought together four science-fiction writers with a background in the biological sciences to talk about life-science fiction.

  2. Thanks for the link Israel!

  3. Anonymous1:08 PM

    This seems like something that would interest you (Carl Zimmer already wrote something about it in NYT):

    Also, if you want to play bog tag, you're it!

  4. I don't accept that all these prospective engineered creatures could contribute to biodiversity. I suppose I'm contrasting the artifical to the natural here, but as far as I'm aware biodiversity has always been seen in terms of the natural world not in terms of domesticated animals, in terms of ecolgical niches and not in terms of farms and homes. As well, the driving force behind biodiversity is evolution, that is the pressure of a particular environment acting on natural variety within species, and so on. The driving force in this world of Dyson is "what do we want today?" It's the ultimate consumer culture. (Though I may be misrepresenting Dyson as I haven't read the book).

  5. It doesn't seem likely to me that a genetic engineering kit would be all that interesting for the average hobbyist, since I would expect that over half the time you'd get no change at all if you went about mutating single genes serially, or you'd get something non-viable. It makes more sense to just cross-breed varieties where you have a better chance of predicting the outcome since you can see the parental phenotypes. Coincidentally, isn't that what people already do? The book seems to suggest another reinvention of another wheel. I also don't think it's accurate that monoculture crops are necessarily favoured by big corporations because of issues with their sustainability and susceptibility to disease.

  6. Ford: thanks for the link and maybe for the tag. :-)

    Michal: I think you are right that engineered creatures are not the answer to biodiversity. Part of the benefit of preserving biodiversity is that evolutionary processes created plants and animals that fulfill important roles in local ecosystems. I doubt we have a good enough understanding of the complexity to engineer replacements. Presumably most hobbyists would create creatures that would not be very viable in nature anyway.

    Jennifer: I suspect what Dyson has in mind is some kind of cassette system - a bit of DNA that can be inserted to grow wings or a particular mutation that can be made to increase size. I doubt it can be made that simple of course, and it's hard to imagine how kids would react to having created nonviable monstrosities.

  7. As somebody intimated above, Freeman Dyson may be a scientific savant -- but he's a sociological idiot. This 'gee wiz' kitchen table-top frankenstein stuff is the height of irresponsibility. And not because the masses shouldn't have direct power over science at this level -- but simply because at the barbaric level of capitalist society it would immediately be put to incredibly selfish -- and dangerous -- use. Not that it could ever get that far in a police state which has its own bio-terror plans.

    Wake up, Freeman Dyson. What you been smoking?

  8. I don't think of him as a "sociological idiot", I think he's really an idealist. I've seen it in a lot of people who are enamored with technology assume the best of people, rather than the worst. I agree that it's naive - all it takes are a few idiots to make it a bad thing.


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