Darwinian interludes and biotech futures

The following article was commissioned by the Guardian, and published on the Comment is Free website on 19 July 2007.

My attention was recently drawn to an interesting if somewhat rambling essay by the physicist and futurist thinker Freeman Dyson.

In his article, Dyson focuses on biotechnology and the benefits it could bring to humanity as long as we move beyond the current stranglehold imposed by agribusiness corporations and their armies of patent attorneys. Domesticated biotechnology, Dyson argues, will, “once it gets into the hands of housewives and children”, lead to an explosion of diversity in new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops favoured by the corporate giants.

Broadly speaking I go along with this, but it is within the corporations Dyson attacks that much of the development of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies takes place. Many would argue that rapid progress in biotechnology is a consequence of large-scale private investment and commercialisation. We benefit from that investment, but can we allow the dominance of often narrow corporate interests to continue unchecked?

Dyson goes much further than to simply discuss biotech developments and the politics with which they are associated. His imagination has few bounds, and in this essay he attempts to cover virtually the entire history of human civilisation. But Dyson’s visionary thinking on the possibilities opened up by biotechnology in the hands of the masses is combined with a lack of perspective when it comes to the development of human society.

Citing the work of eminent microbial taxonomist Carl Woese, Dyson contrasts Darwinian evolution – which is understood here as the competition for survival among non-interbreeding species – with the earliest stages on life on Earth in which genetic information was readily transferred between species.

Dyson looks forward now to biotech-enabled horizontal gene transfer in a post-industrial age. While I agree that such a development would be positive, Dyson’s justification for it comes across as a bizarre combination of evolutionary biology and sociology. His talk of a “Darwinian interlude” and the primacy of cultural over biological evolution strikes me as highly anthropocentric, and in places borders on teleology.

Dyson refers to “green” being overtaken by “gray” technology in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial world. Green in this context refers to biology, and gray to physics and chemistry, with green technology being largely village-based, and gray urban.

Empowering communities through the use of technologies appropriate to their needs and scale has to be a good thing, but Dyson’s almost golden-ageist view overlooks among other things the relative energy efficiency of many industrial processes.

Dyson’s fantastic analysis serves to obscure some important points he is trying to make, and he is distorting natural history to fit an ideological view of how he thinks things ought to be.

When considering the development of humankind, it is worth remembering that species displaying cultural traits (i.e., late Neanderthals and modern humans) have only been around for tens of thousands of years. This is but a single sentence in the book of life on Earth, and evolutionary change is not synonymous with progress as we typically understand it.