Our Biotech Future
Freeman Dyson is excited about the direction of biotechnology. While far from a Luddite, I find his vision rather chilling.
Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.
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.
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.
The domestication of biotechnology in everyday life may also be helpful in solving practical economic and environmental problems. 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. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth. Open Source biology could be a powerful tool, giving us access to cheap and abundant solar energy.
Dyson acknowledges that turning the natural universe into a plaything for children might be somewhat problematic but is willing to “leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.”
Reihan Salam isn’t particular concerned, either, noting that much that social-scientific progress almost always comes against cries of protest.
Bioconservatism has failed. The only questions now are (a) whether we can avoid destroying ourselves, (b) and whether we can shape this biotech future to create a more decent, humane world.
I vaguely recall the “test tube baby” controversy of the late 1970s and the warnings about humans “playing God.” Instead, in vitro fertilization has proven a boon for couples unable to conceive their own children and the downside has been minimal. My guess is that the hand-wringing over stem cell research will follow a similar path.
Still, while I fully admit that I have only cursory understanding of genetic engineering, I find the idea of “housewives and children” creating their own species problematic, to say the least. Indeed, the introduction of existing species into new environments often has massive unintended consequences. I can’t imagine that the consequences of letting people quite literal play around with species creation would have entirely positive consequences.